“Are you aiming to beat six hours?” asked the attractive woman on the schmick triathlon bicycle next to me as we rolled through the gorgeous countryside.
Well, no, I wasn’t. I didn’t know that was a time to beat. In fact, I was deliberately aiming to not beat any time whatsoever.
I’d arrived in Lake Taupo, in the middle of New Zealand’s north island, in a state of blissful relaxation regarding the 160km Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, the nation’s largest annual bicycle event. I’ve done way too many rides stupidly in the past – racing my mates, going out too hard, then suffering to the finish line. This time would be different. I was going to sit up and enjoy the ride.
Fun and relaxation was certainly the vibe in the resort town of Lake Taupo the day before the event. In the buzzing registration area, I delved into the stalls, emerging with fistfuls of energy food, a souvenir jersey and discount woollen cycling socks for next winter (when in Kiwiland, buy wool).
By the afternoon, the main roads had been barricaded off for a street criterium. Restaurants along the course had lined the pavement with tables and chairs, and we sipped beer in bright sunshine while “real” cyclists sped past, with a strong Liv/Giant Australian team monstering the field in the women’s competition. So much better than watching the rugby.
I arrived at the start line the next day at the crack of 8.30am. None of that bleary-eyed pre-dawn munching of muesli, or tricky clothing choices (freeze at first, or be overladen later?). As someone who loathes getting up early, I’d say the relaxed start time alone is worth going to Lake Taupo.
I resisted my usual desire to creep to the front of my start group as, with a ragged cheer, we joined some 8000 other cyclists on the 160km route around the lake. Of course, it helps that in a small town, there’s no need to beat the weekend rush hour. The first section of the course was closed to traffic, allowing plenty of space for me to be overtaken on the first steep hill … by a bloke on a unicycle. “Let’s see how you go on the downhills, Mr Clown!” I thought to myself; but, curiously, I never saw him again.
I’d had a perfunctory glance at the race profile the night before, and noted that the first half was non-stop hills, then mostly flat to the finish. With no heart rate monitor to urge my progress (I’d left the strap in Sydney), I tootled along happily, saying “gidday” to friendly faces and admiring distant snow-capped mountains. It was so picturesque that I stopped a few times to take some happy snaps.
Soon, the 90km mark had passed, the rolling hills were behind us, and a long hill led down towards the lake shore. And as I hurtled down, I watched my average speed climb. It had been ticking along at 24km/h, but quickly rose past 26km/h. Hmmm.
Maths has never been my strong suit, but a tedious calculation while chewing an energy bar told me that if I got my average speed close to 27km/h, I should do 160km in under six hours …
And so it was that I got into the handlebar drops and started punching the pace like the fool I always have been. Happily, some people treat the event as a two- or three-person relay, and I found half a dozen fresh-legged bolters who were happy to share turns on the front. Occasional glances to my left were rewarded with watery vistas, but mostly I was glancing at my average speed, which had climbed into the black. I was home and hosed!
Two words. Hatepe Hill. With 25km to go, it rises up like a wall, more than 150 vertical metres of misery. My fresher-legged compadres disappeared ahead as I winched away miserably, watching my average speed plummet like a paralysed falcon.
“Steep descent” said the sign at the top, as if that were a bad thing. A lovely speed-resurrecting slide back to the lakeside edge was tempered by the realisation that there was an hour’s suffering between me and sub-six success (try saying that in a Kiwi accent). Sucking on any rear wheel I could find, I counted down the last 10 kilometres, which were meticulously marked by roadside signs (a most welcome service). The main road starting point was now the finishing straight, and I mostly resisted the urge to zip up my jersey and strike a Cavendish-esque pose as I rolled over with six minutes to spare.
Beer in hand, among thousands of people thronging the grassy amphitheatre that would soon become a rowdy prize-giving venue, I reflected on the foolishness of the day’s events. What was I thinking, stopping to take pictures, chatting to other riders? Next time, it’s sub 5 hours 30 minutes for sure.
The writer was a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo. Next year's event takes place on November 30.