Sunday, April 13, 2008

Grape Ride: This Could Get Long

So let's just sum it up at the start by saying "Woohoooo"! That has to be one of the best events ever ...

But to start at the beginning, Friday morning saw me lying in bed while Hamish got ready for work. After he left I got everything on the bed that I knew I would need for the weekend. Helmet, gloves, sunglasses, shoes, Camelbak, water bottles, power biscuit, Replace powder, shorts, top, arm warmers, two jackets, toiletries, medication, clothes, Garmin ... Two packed bags later I was pretty sure I had everything. From there it was a quick trip on a bus into town, another quick trip to the supermarket for some fruit, and across the road to the Bluebridge ferry terminal to meet Kathryn and Lauren.

The Bluebridge was doing a special deal for Grape Riders, so pretty much everyone on board had a bike attached to their car. It made for a great atmosphere on the way over, although I had to grumble about being charged $12.50 for a mediocre chicken burger (I'd asked for it without the accompanying wedges). That small grumble aside we had a lovely crossing, getting into Picton by late afternoon. We stopped off at a supermarket for dinner supplies (hot chicken, pasta salad and green salad), then it was off to Renwick to register.

On the way out to the vineyard I could suddenly feel the long day taking its toll. I got very tired and a little grumpy and forced myself to go quiet. I'm not much of a group person, and embarking on this great adventure with two people I don't know that well was in itself a source of stress. Lauren had been caught in traffic on his way to the ferry terminal, leaving us scrambling to get Kathryn's bike onto his car in time, and all the messing around in general was wearing me out. I was excited by the registration process though. There were people everywhere and a great buzz as the stage was set up and stands were prepared for the morning.

It was a bit of a challenge to find our way back to our accommodation in the dark, but we managed it in the end. We realised it was more like 15km to the startline, not the 5km we'd been advised, so we decided we would drive there in the morning rather than treat it as a warm-up ride. The cottage we were staying in was itself very nice. It was located on a vineyard, with its own large grounds. The pantry was stocked with food and there was a bottle of wine in the fridge which, criminally, had to remain undrunk. We didn't even get to visit the adjacent cafe or cellar door.

We got the bikes off the back of the car and prepared for the morning. I lay out my clothes, put my power cookie next to my food bag, loaded up a couple of drink bottles with Replace, and filled my Camelbak. There was a bag of gummy snakes in my registration bag, so I put a few of them in my food bag as well. After all of that we sat around playing Scrabble and Connect 4 and playing our way through the cottage's dire CD collection (Freddy Mercury and Expresso Guitar). By 7.30 I was feeling very nervous and missing Hamish and the cats terribly. It didn't help that my back and leg were aching as well. I really had to give myself a good talking to, and I reminded myself that this was my 35th birthday present to myself.

Eventually it was off to bed, and a scrappy night's sleep. My mind was imagining every kind of dire race outcome possible. There was no alarm clock in the bedroom, so I had no idea what the time was, and I'd been so successful with the hydration that I had to get up three times during the night for bathroom stops. None of us was feeling terribly fresh when we finally woke, forced down our breakfasts, and put the bikes back on the back of the car.

The morning dawned overcast and a tiny bit spitty, but there wasn't any wind and it was reasonably warm. I decided to wear my arm warmers, but left the jackets behind. We had to park out the back of the vineyard then walk our bikes through the grapes to the start, so by the time we got there our wheels were covered in dead grass and general muck that we had to scrape from our tires.

I judged my last toilet stop well and we jumped into our place in the starting line. Kathryn and I were down for four to four and a half hours, Lauren for three and a half to four. Most of the Gearshifters squad were in his group or three to three and a half.

The first 800 metres of the race is down a narrow, windy driveway out of the vineyard and we were started in batches of around 100. It was my first mass start in my first race and I was battling down a sense of dread, helped by chatting to the women around me. There were a number of women feeling the same way I was, and I wasn't the only newbie by a long shot.

In the end the start was very smooth. We wheeled up to the line, the horn blew, we clipped in and we were off. Out onto the main road and the first 30km was fast. I kept slotting into packs, finding them too slow, advancing to the next pack, slowing again. I was easily maintaining a faster pace than usual, feeling elated, and really enjoying chatting to the other riders around me.

After the first hour or so though I inexplicably started to slow. The pack had spread out, I couldn't find a good bunch, and I was churning through the gears without knowing why. I started to wonder whether I was already burning out. I forced myself to drink and have some food. I slipped a gummy snake into my mouth and went into sugar heaven. Normally I wouldn't touch one of those things, but this just sat in my mouth and let out little rivulets of tart goodness that just tasted sooooo good. I instantly felt a lot better. I was also really pleased with the Camelbak, which was really easy to use, even if I did spray Replace down my leg the first time. Ugh!

Feeling the way I was I was worrying about the hill climb into Picton. I knew it was coming, and I was worried! I was frustrated by a climb that had me in my easiest gear, sure it was a bad sign that I wouldn't be able to get up the next. I was even more frustrated when we suddenly started descending. All I could think was "I'm going to have to climb again". It was about that point I saw the "Picton" sign. I'd actually climbed the hill I'd been dreading without even realising I was climbing it. Driving back that way this morning we all remarked on how long the ascent actually was, and how it explained a lot about how we were feeling at this point in our ride.

The descent into Picton is great. The road is straight and even. I lowered myself onto the drops, removed my fingers from any proximity to the brakes and went for it. I lined up a woman ahead of me and aimed to take her out. We were doing around 65 and I was loving it. As I reached her I slowed and we chatted for a bit before I took off again. Now that I knew I'd been climbing the whole time I'd been feeling bad I felt a lot better. Doesn't that sound stupid? How could I not have realised I was climbing?

Happy to be over the first big hill I was grinning all the way through Picton township, thanking the volunteers steering us in the direction of Queen Charlotte Drive. The next leg of the race was classed as 'undulating', with one largish climb. We were riding with bush on one side and the panorama of the Sounds to our right. Our soundtrack was the chorus of bellbirds. I had to keep reminding myself to look up at the view, which was of course stunning. I was still feeling great, the sun was coming out, and I had to keep reminding myself to drink. The arm warmers were shoved to my wrists and I was glad I'd left my jacket behind.

Queen Charlotte had one or two smallish hills then it was onto the main climb. It took me a while to realise this was it, as each corner went by and no end came into sight. Once it dawned this was the moment of truth I settled in and started picking people off one by one. Hills are my thing and this was my chance to make some ground. I slowly passed one rider after another, feeling sorry for the poor guy vomiting loudly and copiously on the side of the road about half-way up. A lot of people were using the Peak Fuel gel from their goodie bags and I was wondering whether he'd done the same thing and had an unfortunate gastrological reaction. Me, I was loving those gummy snakes, though the biscuit was starting to feel a little dry in my mouth. A gel would have been the last thing I felt like.

A long climb and two photographers later (calling out to both and grinning straight into the lens) we were at the top. A sign advised it was all downhill from there. That might not have quite been true, but the descents certainly were as steep as we had been warned, and the corners as tight. New seal meant a lot of gravel on the corners and the sight of a person under a blanket with medics in attendance slowed us all down. Unfortunately the person down turned out to be the youngest of the Gearshifters, a lovely young teenage girl. Jenna has a reputation for being fast but a little reckless. Until she came off she had been in line for a top-three finish. Now she was off to hospital for stitches. Thankfully the damage wasn't too serious, and she was back in time for prizegiving.

As I turned into the descent I went to change cogs and nothing happened. I'm not quite sure exactly what happened, but it appears I climbed that long hill on my large cog. I may even have climbed to Picton on my large cog. In fact, I may even have tried to climb Mt Crawford last Sunday on my large cog. Which may explain why the hills felt harder than they should have done. Like I said, I'm confused, but I don't really have any other explanation.

Despite us all slowing down slightly after passing Jenna the downhills were still fast and technical. For once I held my own and didn't get overtaken by all and sundry. For a while I was plagued by a girl who kept creeping up in my left side and crossing my rear wheel. The only reason I knew she was there was because of the clattering noise her bike made very time she stopped pedaling. I was getting so annoyed (and nervous) that I nearly turned around and gave her an earful. Finally she snuck up on my left side, pulled alongside me and started chatting away about how this was her first race and how she hadn't been cycling for long. I figured she hadn't ridden in a pack before and couldn't bring myself to give her a bit of a lesson in cycle etiquette, so I let her go. There were plenty of other incidents of passing without calling, passing on the left etc, and all the Gearshifters crew commented on it afterwards. Dee is always so insistent on us calling, so I guess I've been spoilt.

My Camelbak emptied just as I reached Linkwater, about 60km in and the site of the only drink stop. I still had a full bottle of Replace, but was enjoying using the Camelbak so much I decided to stop to refill it. I should have kept going. After filling up with Lime Peak Fuel my Camelbak decided to develop a leak. I tried to ignore the sticky liquid dropping down my back, but stopped when I realised it was dripping all over my phone. I couldn't stop the leak, so I drank as much as I could and emptied the rest. All up I figure I lost around ten minutes, a ten minutes I was to later regret.

From Linkwater it was only another couple of undulations to Havelock, then a sharp left-hand turn and short, steep climb to start heading back towards Renwick. A road sign said 29km to go. I had ridden 5km further than ever before. It was about this point that the ride went from being a lot of fun to only slightly fun and possibly not fun at all.

We turned onto what was supposed to be a fast, flat ride back to the start. Unfortunately the tailwind we'd been promised turned into a distinct headwind. It was also overcast again. Oh, and that shop-standard unisex saddle? Not so good! The last thirty kilometres were a test of fortitude. My legs hurt, my hip hurt, my knee hurt, my butt hurt. OMG did my butt hurt! My sit bones ached in the worst way. I had to keep standing up in the saddle for relief. And that wind kept blowing.

My speedometer, which had been sitting comfortably over 30 for most of the race (except obviously for the climbs) told the sad tale. I struggled to simply stick over 25. The snakes and biscuit and Replace just weren't doing it any more. There wasn't much more to give. I tried without success to find a pack to jump onto. A couple on a tandem kept flying past me then slowing, causing me to have to pull out around them to overtake again, only to have them flying past again a few minutes later.

Finally a lovely older guy appeared next to me and told me to grab his wheel and take a break. Thanks guy on a blue Avanti with cages and sneakers. I wanted to hug you! I stayed with Avanti guy for quite a while. We would sit in behind packs, then overtake them, then he would get a little ahead of me, then I would catch up again. Finally he got a little too far ahead of me, but by that point the 10km sign had appeared. I tried not to think about how much longer that 10km would take me at the pace I was riding. Every little incline made me want to weep. I could still get up them easy enough, but psychologically I just didn't want to have to!

At this point it's criminal not to mention the excellent crowd support. Thanks to all the people sitting on the side of the road clapping and cheering. It really meant a lot. You are all wonderful. You made me want to be a race volunteer.

We turned a corner and there it was - a vine. Vines meant vineyards, and vineyards meant we must be nearly there. Finally there was a 5km sign. Those of us still riding started pulling alongside each other, smiling and chatting. I thought by this point that I'd gone well over four and a half hours. I had stopped caring about my time. was just so pleased to be finishing, and so proud of myself for having made it around.

Then there was a 1km sign, then a marshall I wanted to kiss waving us into the vineyard. From there it was another windy 800m down the driveway, then over the finishline, unclipping, pulling up onto the grass, getting off my bike, actually being able to get my leg over, noticing immediately how cramped my quads were, having a wonderful woman bend down to take my transponder off, and was it really all over?

It took a few minutes to find everyone in the heaving mass. I still had no idea what my time was. I was feeling a little lonely, then I came across a Gearshifters shirt. Kathryn told me I was a few minutes behind her, and that her watch had said 4.05. I figured I'd probably come in around 4.15. I'd wanted to do under 4 and a half, with 4 being my best case scenario. Given the ten minutes or so I'd lost to the Camelbak I was thrilled.

Do you know that feeling of accomplishment? That feeling that you get when you've worked really, really hard at something, and you've succeeded. You realise that you haven't just finished what you'd set out to do, but that you've finished it really well? That feeling hit me hard and fast and suddenly I was as chatty and ecstatic as I had been tired and grumpy the night before. No, I couldn't shut up. I was reliving every single happy little moment. I couldn't really walk, but I was happy!

I grabbed my free Subway ham six-inch from the stand, along with a chocolate cookie. I couldn't stomach the sandwich but that cookie was probably the best damn cookie I've ever tasted. We sat around and chatted for a while longer, then Lauren and Kathryn and I dashed home for a shower. I still wasn't hungry, but I realised after my shower that I was shaking, so I forced myself to eat half of my sandwich, then binned the rest. I also figured it would probably be a good idea to take a little more Hydrocortisone.

At the prizegiving none of us won any iPod docking stations or roof racks or overseas holidays or any of the other fabulous prizes. We admired the 70 year old guy who made it around the course in a faster time than us, and the guy who rode around the course twice in a single-geared bike that was over 50 years old and weighed 25kg. Afterwards we checked out our official times. Mine - 4.12. Kathryn's - 4.02. If only I hadn't stopped .... If only there hadn't been a headwind on the return ....

Of course, the time is really not that important. Compared to most I'm slow, but I was fast on the day for me, and for someone who's really only been riding a couple of months, and for someone who might well have been born brain-damaged, and for someone with three auto-immune disorders, and for someone who's only really just been active the last couple of years. I'm actually not trying to explain away my comparative slowness here. I'm actually trying to say "yay me". What a great 35th birthday present - to be so proud of myself.

Lauren, Kathryn and I gave two of the Gearshifters, Veejay and "Buzzer" a lift to Blenheim and we all decided to try our luck getting a table at the Cornerstore. The restaurant was empty but booked out, but they allowed us to order from the restaurant menu while sitting at a table in the bar. Conveniently we were right next to the large screen, broadcasting a Crusaders game (which they then won).

Kathryn ordered five huge chocolate bonbons for the table, so we started with dessert. I downed most of a bottle of cider before realising I was really dehydrated and switching to water. Lauren, Kathryn and I ordered the "Graperide" pasta: penne with chicken and basil pesto. I ordered the accompanying Chardonnay. The bowls when they arrived were massive, but they disappeared in short order. My stomach kind of went into shock at that point ... it still hasn't completely recovered.

We spent the rest of our time at the restaurant convincing Veejay and Buzzer to sign up for Taupo. I think we succeeded. After that we headed back to our little cottage in Renwick and it wasn't long before I was in bed. I read for a while then turned the light out. I was dead tired, but my mind was racing and still on the bike course. It took a little while, but I finally dropped into a heavy sleep. I woke at 5.45, then we were all racing to get packed and to get our bikes back on the car. We were at the ferry terminal by 7a.m. It was a freezing morning and we were glad it had been so much warmer the day before.

Kathryn and I sat with some of the other Gearshifters women, Karen, Karyn and Julia (and another woman whose name I've temporarily forgotten) in the lounge bar all of the way home. We pulled into Wellington on one of those sunny, still 'good' days. It's safe to say I was happy. Very happy.

So, I love cycling and I had a fantastic time. It's as simple as that. My glutes still ache a bit, my quads are a bit tight, and my hip's probably in worse condition than it seems right now. However I feel ok. I'm still in a little bubble of joy. Today was such a perfect day for a recovery ride, but I held back. My sitbones didn't want to be anywhere near that saddle. Maybe later this week.

Bring on Taupo! And I've booked the cottage again for Grape Ride next year. There are two single beds going if anyone's interested. Oh, and I've also come to the sad conclusion that Lola needs to go on a diet. I picked up Kathryn's full-carbon Giant and nearly died of shock. I hadn't realised how heavy Lola was. I'm now thinking Lola will get to pull me around Taupo, then it might be time to pass her on to another home. Sniff ... perhaps my mother will be ready to go road bike by then!


Kate said...

Wow!! Go you! Am so impressed :-)
I REEAALLLLY have to get on the bike now that I've signed up!

Pip said...

Well, Gearshifters doesn't start up again for a couple of months, so I'll be looking for someone to ride with!

Nic Wise said...

Excellent, good on ya! I still remember riding Taupo from a couple of years ago, it was a hell of a lot of fun - might have to do the grape one when we get back - or better yet, get a bike here and try some rides. Not around London tho :( way too scary.

It is, however, all flat here. Which sucks, as like you, I like the hills.

Sass said...

Your report is awesome - you make me feel like I want to get out and ride now! Actually, if the jogsquad finishes up soon and the gearshifters starts...