Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Headwind, Hills and a Town Too Far

"Take a break bro'", came a call from the side of the road.  I turned to see that the shout had come from a Maori, who was leaning casually against the side of his car, taking in the view of the bay and ocean below.  There were no such pleasures for me.  I was tired.  In fact, I was pretty much finished and I guessed it must have been apparent, as I struggled to keep the pedals turning as I reached the crest of yet another hill.  How much longer could I keep this going and how many more kilometres did my legs have in them?  I was about to find out, but all I wanted to do at that moment was to get off the bike and lie down to rest.  The only problem?  This was not an option.

What had started out as a pleasant day of cycling had quickly degenerated into an afternoon of pain, despair and desperation.  I had broken camp and hit the road out of Ruakaka around 9:30am, knowing that I had around 28km to roll along State Highway 1, up to Whangerei.  With the exception of the occasional articulated logging trucks that thundered past me, so close that they threatened to blow me off the road on the left, or to suck me under their wheels to the right, everything went easily.  My legs felt strong and I pounded out the kilometres in easy rhythm, taking the hills in my stride and whizzing down the other side with a huge grin, that threatened to rip my face in two.

Whangerei came and went with a brief stop at an i-Site (tourist information) to book myself into a campsite in the historic town of Russell, which was to be my destination for the day, and an obligatory coffee stop, which ended up wasting time since I cycled around the city in search of a suitable cafe.  It's not that I am particularly fussy about my coffee, it was that I needed a cafe where I could lock the bike up right outside on the pavement, so it was in view and easy keep an eye on.

By my calculations and the use of Google maps, I believed Russell to be a further 60km up the road and the way I was feeling, this was easily achievable, despite setting a total of 90km riding distance for myself.  That would be the furthest I had ever cycled in a single day and I felt it to be ambitious, especially as this was to be only my third day on the road.  But I had ridden 85km from Warkworth to Ruakaka fairly easily, so I felt comfortable that this ride to Russell was within my ability.  About 8km north out from Whangerei, after a couple of stops to check my map and ask directions, I turned right off State Highway 1 and headed east, onto Old Russell Road.

At first it was good to be away from the heavy and fast moving traffic and I enjoyed a ride through a valley, alongside a small river, that wound its way by the side of the road.  I started to notice that the wind, which had hardly been evident so far, began to gust into my face and would not let up.  As any cyclist will tell you, wind is both the biggest blessing and the most evil of curses on a ride, depending on whether it is at your back, or blowing into your front.  With the panniers sticking out the sides of my bike, and the bike frame being a little small for me, it was not easy to find any suitable aerodynamic position to minimise the affects of the wind.  At this point, I still felt comfortable, strong enough to deal with the wind and happy to be rolling along through some beautiful and wild countryside and nature.

Shortly though, as I approached the coast, the terrain changed and became hilly.  I commenced a series of hot uphill rides, as the relentless sun beat down upon me, followed by short, fast descents, with the incessant headwind ever present in my face.  I was headed to the coast at Helena Bay and from there, I would follow the coastal road around the beaches and bays of the upper north island.  I firmly believed that this coastal road would be fairly flat and would hold to sea level for most of the way.  On the map, Helena Bay seemed like a good spot to stop for lunch and perhaps a coffee/snack refuel and I eagerly looked forward to it.

At the top of Helena Bay hill sits a cafe, aptly named The Gallery and Cafe Helena Bay Hill.  I pulled into the gravel driveway and stopped.  The driveway was steep and with the deep gravel, I felt it was not suitable for a heavily laden touring bicycle and I did not want to get off the push the bike down and then back up again, so I decided to pass this cafe by and to stop at the next one, that was sure to be down the bottom of the hill, in the bay itself.  I set off again and enjoyed some glorious, high speed descending down Helena Bay hill, on a road that twisted and turned.  This was exhilarating riding and of course, for me, I was the lone break away rider, leading the stage, descending one of the Hors category French Alps, in a mountain stage of the Tour de France.  I don't know what the car behind me thought, as I swept around the bends at high speed, leaning the bike over this way and that, cutting across the road, looking ahead and around bends for on-coming cars, but I did not care.  This was wild, this was freedom and this is what living was all about.

At the bottom of the hill my smile faded quickly.  Helena Bay was no more than a collection of a few private houses and the bay and beach itself.  No cafe, no shop, no ice-cream van, nothing.  My water was dangerously low and I needed to refill my drinks bottles.  I decided to have lunch anyway, and I enjoyed my sandwiches, sitting on a picnic table, looking out across the ocean.  Behind me, I spied a family in their living room, so I knocked on the door and asked for water, which they were more than happy to provide.

I set off again and the coast road was not how I had imagined it to be at all.  It was one short, steep hill after another.  If you cycle, you will know that the amount of energy spent going uphill cannot be recovered in a short down hill that follows.  You need time between hills to recover, for the muscles in the legs to work themselves out and for the oxygen to replenish them again.  I could get no respite.  There was no flat road.  It was simply up, down, then up again.  And all the while, when I began a downhill section, the incessant headwind blew into my face, slowing me down, sapping my energy reserves further.  I quickly began to suffer.  This was no longer pleasant riding.  I was head down, focused solely on keeping going.  What views there were this day went largely unnoticed.  If my Maori friend had not shouted from the side of the road, I would not have seen him.  It needed to be all about the cycling, I had to get to Russell because I now knew that between where I was and Russell, there was nothing else, there would be no place to replenish and rest.

All the while I was cycling, I would glance at my cycle computer and count down the kilometres.  Each kilometre cycled meant one less ahead of me and soon, despite the tough conditions, I began to close in on my estimate of the distance and I began to feel a sense of relief.  Russell should have been within 15km and it was now that I was to experience the first of a series of bad moments.  As I came past a junction with a minor road, I read the signpost that pointed in the direction of Russell.  Written there, in white letters, it stated Russell 46km.  This could not be.  That would make my ride 136km rather than the 90km I had planned.  This was devastating news and my morale dropped.  Shortly after this, I ran out of water for a second time.  With no chance of cafes or shops, this was perhaps the most dangerous thing to happen.  Not only did I still have some distance to cover, it was a hot day too and with that ever present wind, I knew I would dehydrate rapidly.  That was a worrying prospect.  Water is literally life.

As if these things were not bad enough, soon afterwards I hit what is known as the 'wall', the feeling that occurs when your body can do no more.  It happened to me as I began my ascent of yet another hill.  It was not only a physical wall that I hit, it was a mental one as well, seeing another hill before me, in the exhausted state I was in, was demoralising.  My spirits dropped and I was left with no other option than to pull over on the side of the road, climb off the bike and to push.  It was only day three on the road and I was pushing the bike already.  This was not how it was supposed to be, this was not the dream that I had cooked up in my imagination.  Now I felt not only the true weight of my bike, I also felt the real heaviness of my attempt to cycle around New Zealand.  I began to feel desperate, that I needed to get to Russell at all costs.  I could feel an emotion building inside, not quite panic, but something that I was not used to feeling.  I didn't want to admit to it, I couldn't admit to it, but I was close to being out of control and I am never out of control.  Here I was though, out of my depth and alone on the road.

As I pushed my bike up that first hill, struggling with the weight the wanted to roll backwards downhill, an elderly man came walking down towards me.  We both stopped to exchange some words and it transpired that he was 76 years of age and was New Zealand national champion at distance running for his age group, and had been out making sure he kept in shape.  I asked him about my chances for obtaining water and how the road ahead was likely to be?  "Your best bet around here is rain water, but I don't know where you'd find some", he said.  "There's winery a bit further up the road you might try.  You could come to my house, but its 6km back the way you've come and I don't think you'll be wanting to do that."  Too right I didn't.  And the road ahead?  "There's a few more hills to come I'm afraid.  At least two or three more as steep as this one and some others too."  I tried not to show it, but this was not what I wanted to hear.  We said our goodbyes and continued in our own directions.  I felt deflated and I knew I was in real trouble.  Even if I wanted to stop and make camp for the night, with no water, that was just not an option I could contemplate.  I had to push on.

Luck was a little on my side and soon enough, I chanced upon a private residence where I was again able to ask for water. Good job too since I eventually came by the winery and it was closed.  With water, I rationalised that even if I were to walk the last 20km to Russell, I could still make it.  Sure, it would take me a long time, but it was at least an option.  Each time I came to a hill, I had to climb off the bike and push.  I felt as though I had let myself down, that I had been foolish to even think that I could achieve this tour of New Zealand.  At the top of each hill, I swung back into the saddle and let myself roll down, not even having the strength nor energy to push on the pedals.  I would roll along any flat sections before getting off again to push up yet another hill.  In this way, I kept going.  Slowly but surely the kilometres ticked off.  When I hit 130km for the day, I felt reinvigorated in spirit.  That was some achievement.  When I considered the weight of the bike, my lack of any serious training for this adventure, the headwind and the hills, then it was quite remarkable that I had been able to cycle that kind of distance.

And then I was rolling into Russell.  With some great joy and relief, I found my campsite and I hurried pitched the tent before I would even consider stopping to rest.  My spirits lifted and my tiredness evaporated.  Later that evening, I reflected on my day.  Sure, it had been tough, but it had taught me a valuable lesson, that I needed to understand my route in more detail and that I needed to know that I could obtain or carry enough water for each section that I rode.  But one thing stood out more than any other to me.  I had cycled 136km with a heavily loaded touring bicycle in hard conditions.  I was a little shaken by my experience but there remained a thought that would not escape me.  Maybe, just maybe I can actually do this.

1 comment:

  1. :) Of course you can :) are you eating well? Tell us about your diet. I hope you are not doing this tour on sandwiches and coffee! Well done, very very proud of you and feeling extremely fat and lazy as I type it from my bed, under the duvet. :)