The longest 28km in the world in a headwind

This is usually a video-game centric blog but my other passion in life is road cycling. You know, the sport where people dress up in lycra from neck to mid-thigh, often shave their legs and ride exotic bicycles often worth more than a small car. Seriously. Some road bicycles will set you back $16,000. Anyway, while this blog is usually about video games I want to start writing about my other passions from time to time, mix it up a bit. Ok, here we go …

28km is a long way in a headwind.

In reality, 28km isn’t far. It’s a little less than riding my bike from my home in New Zealand to my workplace in Christchurch’s CBD [yes, it still has a CBD after the February, 2011 earthquake. Of sorts] then home again. It’s probably how far many people in the world travel to work every day. It’s probably far, far less than many people in the world travel to work every day. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not far.

But on a bicycle, in a screaming headwind between Havelock and Blenheim, 28km is the longest distance in the world. It makes you curse and scream and wish for the comfort of a car. But it was also the final 28km in a 101km bike event I’d entered over the weekend just gone, so there was no turning back. If I pulled out with such a short distance left, well, let’s just say I’d have been a fool.

Let’s rewind back a little, though. The reason why I was cursing in the headwind and the 28km left to ride.

I was taking part in an annual cycling event called Graperide, which has been held in sunny Marlborough for the past few years. It’s celebrating its 10th anniversary next year and starts and finishes in a vineyard. It’s a beautiful setting and a wonderful day. I’ve ridden it once before. In 2011. That one didn’t end pretty. I didn’t finish it.

I had “DNF” entered under my name after, about 60km in, I had a mechanical failure which prevented me finishing the event [the mechanical failure consisted of a piece of plastic wrapping itself around a pulley on my rear derailleur, wrenching it off the aluminum hanger and forcing me to wait for a support vehicle to pick me up] So, this year, 2013, I had unfinished business.

I was pretty well prepared for 2013, although I hadn’t done as much training as I’d have liked: my wife broke her arm badly a month before the Graperide so I had to be home caring for her. It meant I couldn’t ride my bike as much as I wanted. That was OK. Family first was the priority then.

I was keen to try out the Grapride in my new bike, a carbon-fibre Colnago Ace, which I’d bought a week before Christmas thanks to an insurance payout on my previous bike which had a crack in the carbon frame and it worked out cheaper for the insurance company to write the entire bike off than get the frame repaired. I wasn’t going to argue. I had some tyres with red trim put on the wheels and changed the stock cables from black to red. It looked mint.

New wheels: I replaced the stock Shimano wheels on my bike with a set of Fulcrum Racing 3s. The difference was noticeable.

New wheels: I replaced the stock Shimano wheels on my bike with a set of Fulcrum Racing 3s. The difference was noticeable.

And to show how serious I was about this year’s Graperide I even bought some new wheels a week before the event to replace the stock Shimano ones that came with my bike. I bought a set of Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels from Scotty Brown, a bike shop owner who I’ve been going to for probably close to 20 years.  I was sure that 2013 was the year that I’d finish the Graperide and do it competitively. Well, competitively for me, anyway.

Race day came and although touted as a recreational event, at times, it’s anything but. The breakneck pace once the bunch I was in hit the main road to Picton was mind-blowing: at one stage I looked down at my cycle computer – we were rolling along at 44km just a few kilometres from the start line. Surely we couldn’t sustain this pace the entire way? I was right: The pace slowed down as we approached Picton but it was a sign of things to come.

The Graperide rolls through what I consider to be some of the best scenery in New Zealand: Queen Charlotte Drive and the Marlborough Sounds. And as you ride up the undulating hills  and descend towards Blenheim and Havelock, you have the sparkling waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound to your right, a place where I’ve spent many, many years holidaying. It’s a magic place to relax at – but today, I wasn’t relaxing: I was gritting my teeth and sweating up the climbs, eating jelly beans as often as I could to keep my energy up and trying to visualise the road ahead. I was visualising the final 28km home.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow description of the ride to Havelock: it had some flats, it had some rolling hills, it had me fighting with a gluc0se-based energy sachet that just wouldn’t open. All fairly uneventful. That is until we descended into Havelock and made a right-hand turn towards Blenheim – and the final 28km.

By this stage, I had cramp in my right foot and my energy levels were so low I wasn’t sure I’d actually finish. I put my head down, turned each pedal and slowly made my way to my destination. Groups of riders caught me and for brief minutes I joined up with them but I was exhausted. In one bunch, someone yelled out “20km to go”. I dug deep but was dropped bvy the bunch. I was left to brave the headwind on my own again. I spent much of that last 28km on my own, stuck in no-man’s land with riders ahead of me and riders behind me.

At one point I looked ahead and saw gradual hills in the distance, some riders slightly visible. I heard a voice loudly say “FFS, are you kidding me?” I realised it was me. I’d vocalised what my mind was thinking. I was starting to lose momentum. All seemed lost …

Then I saw it: wine country. The vineyards of Blenheim were appearing and I knew the finish line was only a handful of km away. I passed a couple of riders and got my second wind. As I crossed a bridge a female rider rode up behind me. We started talking and working together, taking turns at the front. “I’ve just about followed you the whole way from Havelock,” she said. The finish wasn’t far.

The woman rider and I continued chatting as we weaved our way through the vineyard’s access road to the finish. As I crossed the start-finish line, I smiled.  I’d conquered the 28km, headwind and all. I was happy. Incredibly sore but happy.