I had a plan. A summer road trip, travelling the length of the country and racing in the NZ mountain bike series. Living the high life of a pro athlete, staying in luxury with every need catered for. Massage. Gourmet meals. Personal attendants. Experiencing the best mountain biking New Zealand has to offer. All I had to do was ride.
In reality I’d be slumming it with a terrible two year old. But most importantly, I’d be travelling, and I’d be riding. It would be a road trip to savour and I couldn’t wait.
Aaah, the best laid plans of mice and men. At the height of my preparations, an unspeakably evil virus descended, rendering me bedridden for the best part of a month. With an unquenchable fire raging in my mouth from a hundred weeping sores and consigned to spinach smoothies, a question kept reverberating through my addled head – “Should I continue?”
My mind was made up by the prospect of an upcoming baby. I might feel at death’s door now, but soon I wouldn’t have a life at all. I might not get another chance at this. The show must go on.
November was incredibly depressing. With my legs practically useless, I could feel my strength wasting away by the day. But then summer arrived and it was like a switch had been flicked. It was the best December I can remember. Blenheim seemed to come alive amidst the festive season. I found magic amidst the mundane, hope was resurrected and I was given a clean bill of health.
However, the first race was just around the corner and soon we were on a grueling 12 hour drive to Wanaka, toddler in tow. A ten-pack of nursery rhyme CDs (an ill-given Christmas present) made it all the more arduous. But Wanaka’s a wonderful destination and the first race of the series was at quite a location – 1800m up the precipice of Mt Cardrona. It was January and we were racing mountain bikes amongst patches of snow! And what a tough race it was. There didn’t seem to be enough air, and post-race I was somewhat relieved when other competitors reported the same. My breathing difficulties were due to nothing more sinister than the thin air.
With regret we said farewell to beautiful Central Otago, but I was buoyed by a fruitful first outing. Next up was a jaunt across the ditch to race on another mountain, Wellington’s Mt Victoria. My main challenge here was finding accommodation on a Saturday night. Convenience won out over comfort and I ended up lodging in a basement but close to the race venue. On the day, a loose and dusty surface presented more breathing struggles, as well as a challenging surface for competitors. There were many crashes amongst the field although I came through relatively unscathed. The perilous riding didn’t finish there though; I had to follow up with a breakneck dash through Wellington traffic to catch the ferry.
Two down and three to go, but the road trip proper was only about to begin. But at this point things slowly began to unravel. With a few days before leaving for Auckland, we discovered a crack in my rear wheel. Thanks to the insurance company and bike shop, we got it sorted in record time… only to discover problems with the front one as well. There was no more time though – the remaining three races would be ridden on a plastic front wheel that could implode at any moment. Could be a spectacular end to it all.
My supportive wife would be absent for the trip north – just me, the toddler and a lot of driving. I hyped up the adventure factor, told him we were going on a great journey to the mystical land of the Jafa. A few treats were thrown in for good measure. It worked and the boy was excited and well behaved. We thus dispensed with the journey in a day, and now had a little extra time to unwind in Auckland before race number 3.
An ex-Aucklander myself, I was looking forward to competing against campaigners from bygone days. But the event, at Auckland’s new 440 MTB Park, was not well publicised and had a poor turnout. The race itself didn’t go according to plan either. I crashed hard whilst in second place, resulting in a fair bit of claret being spilt. More worrying though was further damage to the bike – the front fork cable had snapped, disabling my suspension. Fortunately the course was the least treacherous of the series, the front wheel stayed intact, and I managed a strong finish.
With Round 4 in Taupo just six days away, I pulled out the stops to get the fork repaired in time. Echelon Cyclery worked some magic, and I lined up in Taupo with bike fully functional. My support crew (aka – Wife) was back again, and I was ready to rumble. And I did just that, rumbling straight off the trail half way through the race and losing precious ground. It was ground I couldn’t make up, and although I was disappointed, we drove again north knowing that I had left it all out there.
The final and most challenging event was the National Champs at New Zealand’s home of mountain biking, Rotorua. But a weariness was beginning to set in. The adventure of living out of a supermini was wearing thin, even for the boy who had initially lapped up the idea of the great northern road trip. With a week before the season finale, we felt the golden sands of the Coromandel calling. Surely there’s no better place to experience a kiwi summer. We lazed on the beach, dined on fresh Fish n Chips (a welcome change from pasta) and I explored amazing new bike trails – a great example of what passionate mountain bikers are constructing the country over. With daily saltwater submersions, my wounds healed rapidly and five days later we set off to Rotovegas, refreshed and rejuvenated.
It was the day before competition on the biggest mountain bike race of the season, and I was gently riding an initial practice lap. In the distance a crowd had gathered. Pedaling up, I realised that I had arrived at the famed “Boulderdash”, where competitors either rode successfully off a large boulder or dashed their bodies on the rocks below. Riders were discussing the best way to achieve the former and avoid the latter. It was indeed intimidating, but I rode down it ok, proving in my mind at least that it looked harder than it was. I needed a second pass though, so I tried it again. No problem, and then carrying on, I misjudged my speed at a jump just below the drop off. A Superman imitation resulted, bike parting from body in mid-air. Body then showed that it was not made of steel, ending up unceremoniously entangled in a blackberry bush and bleeding from a score of new wounds. But the pain was nothing compared to seeing the damage to the bike. Unbelievably the suspension cable had snapped again. The entertainment I had provided to a dozen onlookers was of no consolation.
With less than 24 hours until the big race, we scoured the town for a bike shop that would assist. With so many bikes in town, no one could spare the time or had the specialised parts. It looked like I’d be riding Boulderdash on a fully rigid bike.
Race day, and with an hour to go I tried to make up for the practice that was cut short from the day before. Alas, the mishaps continued – a flatty after a few minutes saw me frantically running to the car (parked miles away) to make the repair. It was just as well the race was a little delayed. I charged out of the blocks, amazed that I had made the gun. Leading into the first descent, with too much adrenaline and too little concentration (and forgetting about the broken suspension), another separation of body and bike ensued. Dusting myself off, I went on to post a fair result which, given the circumstances, I would have taken apart from the fact that I got outsprinted on the final stretch.
We were glad it was all over and now had a long drive home which would allow plenty of time for reflection. The boy didn’t help, repeatedly pointing out my wounds and asking “Did Daddy crash his bike?”
Although the series hadn’t turned out quite as hoped, I could only look at the big picture. A few months prior we doubted I’d be doing this road trip at all. And after driving thousands of kilometres, and one too many wipe outs, there were no notable injuries. If ever there was a next time, I’d do a million things differently. But for now it was time to hang up the bike. Lock away the lycra. Crack open a coldie. It was great to be home.