the life of the international athlete ;)

Have you heard the one about the lawyer, the architect, the social worker, the restaurateur and the minister?

Sounds like it would be a terrible joke to me!  But that’s the mob with which I travelled to New Zealand recently for my first tilt at being an international athlete.

We were making the trip to NZ to ride in the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge  – a weekend cycling festival that draws in over 8000 entries for a variety of events. The majority, like the five of us, were there for the “Solo” – a 154km circumnavigation of the stunning Lake Taupo.

In the field of somewhere between 4000 and 5000 “Solo” riders is everything from semi-professional to barely prepared, from bikes with price tags that would make your eyes water, to K-Mart quality mountain bikes.  It’s not a race, but a challenge (yeah….right!).

For some the challenge is to beat a personal best time, for others to beat their mates.

For some it’s an endurance event. A very small group go out to complete 2, 4 or a staggering 8 laps of the 154km course.  There are shorter (family friendly) rides too, along with relays and some spectacular mountain bike events.

For many, and for most of our group this is true, the challenge was to complete the Solo course and enjoy the experience.

We were at the ride as a celebration of my brother Paul’s 40th birthday.  Rather than a giant party, it’s becoming more and more common these days (at least in our circle of friends/family) to mark the momentous birthday with a special experience – and because there’s no fun doing something like the Taupo ride with a bunch of strangers (and to make sure he got home in one piece), a few of us joined the expedition.

As our trip to NZ was all about the ride it was a pretty short one – but we did manage to pack in a round of golf at Taupo Golf Club (where the rough was unbelievable, and the golf not much better!) the day before the ride.  And then a hilariously out of control encounter with the concrete luge racing track at Rotorua Skyline the day after. Less said about that the better in case word gets back to them of our shenanigans and we get blacklisted!

The ride, of course, was the main event.  It was hilly (somewhere around 2000m of climbing over the course) and made all the more difficult by what started as a stiff breeze and got steadily stronger as the day went on.

Most frustratingly, the wind backed around over the course of the day, meaning that for 90% of the ride we either had a headwind, or a nasty cross-wind. Neither is much fun to ride in! A little rain occasionally wasn’t too much to worry about and temperatures were pretty nice for cycling all day – hovering between 15 and 20 C.

Weather aside, it was a wonderful experience to ride with more than 4000 other cyclists, to find groups in which to draft, hide, lead and chat, to meet and talk with so many cyclists from every corner of NZ and a few other places further afield (about 300 Aussies for example).

We tried to set a realistic pace and all got through the ride pretty comfortably in the end. Paul suffered a couple of punctures which slowed him a little, and Tony some drive-train issues on the downhill sections – but otherwise we were trouble free.

The scenery was beautiful, our loop taking us through lush green pastures, rolling hills, lovely forest and the stunning lake-side drive along the southern edge of the lake.

View from the 92km rest stop looking over Lake Taupo

There was plenty of climbing to do, most of it in the first 90km, but nothing too serious. Grades were moderate and the pace comfortable enough. The notorious Hatepe Hill at the 130km mark turned out to be pretty manageable – with our only tailwind of the day helping us up the long grind.

Tucking into a group and blasting along the rare flats at around 40kmh was definitely a highlight, along with some very fast descending. My speedo registered a top of 70km/h during the ride. For a proper cyclist that’s unremarkable, but for me….let’s just say I knew I was alive!

Our group split up a little over the course of the day. Dug is much faster than the rest of us so set off early in one of the fast groups. The rest started together but splintered a little on the first 12km (pretty much all uphill!) section.  And then Paul’s second puncture split us again so we all came in solo. Dug hit the 154km in around 4hrs 48 mins, myself 6.26, Simon 6.29, Paul 6.34 and Tony 7.04.

I couldn’t have been happier with my own ride. I felt good all day and did plenty of leading as well as some following and hiding out of the wind. There were some fast groups that we couldn’t quite hang on to, but not for want of trying!

I hadn’t cranked out huge rides in training (my longest training ride went around 90km) but I spend plenty of time lapping Mt Cootha and a couple of trips over to Mt Gravatt…and that really helped. I had no trouble with the hills and felt very strong on the flats.  Maybe it helps that I do most of my training rides solo, with no group to tuck in behind…who knows.  A freshen up of the bike (Giant Defy 3) with some new light/fast tyres definitely sped things along as well.

It should be said that the last 20 km was awful.  Gusty, nasty side winds, narrow road, lots of traffic and then a turn into a blunt headwind for most of the last 3-4 km just plain hurt.  It would have been nice to ride in with the sun shining and a gentle breeze at our backs for that last half-hour…but not to be!

So the Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge 154km Solo ride is done and dusted.

Would we do it again?  Absolutely.

Will we actually do it again? Who knows.

If you’re a cyclist, put this ride on your list as a fantastic experience and a very well organised event.

And besides, there’s nothing quite like being an international athlete.

PS: Paul, in case you read this. There is no way, not now, not in 2015 that I am riding the Victorian Three Peaks ride.  4000m of climbing over 210km in a single day? I hope you enjoy it!