Friday, December 12, 2008

The effrontery of Caroline Evers-Swindell

(Published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 10).

That cheeky Caroline Evers-Swindell! Just who does she think she is?

Somewhere near the 40-kilometre mark on the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge two weekends ago, the Olympic gold medal-winning rower had the nerve to pass me.

I wasn’t about to tolerate this affront. On the next downhill stretch, I overtook her at speed.

Alas, my moment of glory was brief. As soon as we hit the next climb, she passed me again.

That was the last I saw of her. She finished 2363rd in a field of 4764 riders, completing the 160km course in 5 hour and 44 minutes. I took exactly an hour longer and came 3747th.

Fleetingly getting the jump on an Olympic gold medallist – albeit going downhill, and probably with a slight tail wind – was about as good as it got for me. I had entered the event with the aim of bettering what I considered to be a poor performance last time, in 2003, when I got around the lake in 6 hr 30 min.

It wasn’t to be, but at least I achieved my other objectives. These were, in order of priority: (1) to complete the event; (2) to finish without mishap (a previous round-Taupo ride, in 1996, ended with me being carted to hospital with a broken collarbone following an accident caused by my own recklessness); and (3) to ride the entire Hatepe Hill.

Riders hit the Hatepe Hill 30 kilometres from the finish. In a fast-moving car you barely notice it, but on a bike, after several hours’ riding, it can be a killer climb. Part of it is psychological: it’s a long, straight hill that gets steeper as you approach the top. You can see it stretching out in front of you, without so much as a single bend to relieve the oppressiveness.

In 2003, to my lasting shame, I walked the last two or three hundred metres of the Hatepe Hill. This time, at least, I got to the top without dismounting.

So that was my Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge for 2008. It was the seventh or eighth time I’d taken part (I’ve lost count), and not my most distinguished effort.

While it would be nice to excuse my indifferent performance on the basis of my age, it won’t wash. Several of my contemporaries completed the event in just over five hours and Gary Ulmer, father of Sarah, did it in a blistering 4 hrs 28 min – at the age of 70.

But what an event. Dutch immigrant and Taupo resident Walter de Bont started the annual round-the-lake ride in 1977, persuading 25 other cycling enthusiasts to join him. This year 10,500 cyclists took part, taking over the town for the weekend and pumping millions into the local economy.

It attracts riders from several countries, along with an increasing number of “name” competitors, including several notables from sports other than cycling.

Evers-Swindell wasn’t the only famous rower taking part. Rob and Sonia Waddell scorched around the course in 4 hrs 22 min, Sonia finishing first in her age group. Among other finishers I noted the names of former All Black skipper Buck Shelford, Olympic yachtsman Hamish Pepper, former Sports Minister Trevor Mallard and television host Mary Lambie (who recorded an impressive time of 6 hr 10 min despite stopping for a broken chain).

Not all the 10,500 cyclists ride the full 160 km course. Over the years multiple spin-off events have evolved, including a relay (teams of two riding 80 km each, or four riding 40 km each) and, at the other end of the endurance scale, maxi-enduro (640 km) and enduro (320 km) rides. I suspect it’s a condition of entry for these latter two events that an EEG prior to the race must show no trace whatsoever of brain activity.

The organisation required for an event of such logistical complexity, calling for thousands of bikes and riders to be ferried to the relay changeover points and back to Taupo afterwards, beggars belief. But it all seems to happen flawlessly.

As the event has grown, so it has inevitably become slicker and more commercial. The corporate sponsors seemed more intrusive this year than on previous occasions, but I guess that’s the price you pay for a huge event that everyone wants to be involved in.

Fortunately, out on the course, where it counts, not much has changed. There’s still the same camaraderie among the riders, at least among the plodders where I compete.

The key to a long event like this is to spend as much time as possible riding in a bunch, or peloton. Riding in company helps keeps riders’ spirits up, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s calculated that cyclists save up to 30 percent of their energy riding in a group because the mass is more efficient than the individual. The riders at the front of the bunch overcome the wind resistance – you have to experience this to understand how important it is – and everyone takes a turn leading the bunch, at least in theory.

The disadvantage of riding in a tightly packed bunch, of course, is that if one rider has a momentary lapse of concentration, perhaps while reaching for a drink bottle or something to eat, several may be taken out in the resulting pile-up.

The dynamics of bunch riding are fascinating. Bunches form then break up as riders drop off the pace or crank up the speed, then re-form with an entirely different composition. The trick is to latch onto a bunch that’s going at just the right speed and hope it lasts, but it never does – at least not in the lower orders. I’m resigned to spending long periods on my own, which at least has the advantage that I can admire the scenery.

As you will have gathered, I’m pretty impressed with this event. My only serious concern is that every time I take part, it seems an army of malevolent elves has added extra hills to the long stretch on the western side of the lake, between Taupo and Kuratau Junction. This is a matter I intend to take up with the organisers.

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