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Tales from the (Kiwi) Peloton
Take a bow, Taupo
The Wattyl Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is without doubt the best kept cycling secret in the world - at least outside New Zealand. And as participant John Sunde discovers, the rest of the world is only now just finding out what thousands of Kiwis have known for years.
What started 26 years ago as a "good idea" from local Walter de Bont, has now grown into one of the largest cycling events in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 7,200 riders participating in this years event across a wide range of different categories.
The event takes in the pristine beauty of Lake Taupo and the spring timing usually produces a stunning day. This year was no exception, although past editions have experienced four seasons on one day. The course climbs gently out of Taupo to meet the undulations of the western access, winding around the scenic lower lake through Turangi - then up the infamous Hatepe Hill back to Taupo. The course averages 357m above sea level with the highest point rising to 650m.
Despite the challenging terrain, this is an event which caters for every type of cyclist, irrespective of age, fitness or condition and value of bicycle. The resilience and enthusiasm shown by many of the riders is quite overwhelming, especially when you witness countless riders, in nothing more than trainers, T-shirt and shorts, on bikes which look as though they would hardly make it to the corner shop.
This year, as he has in the past, NZ born Sydney restaurateur and keen cyclist, Robert Smallbone invited a group of fellow cyclists from the Latteria coffee shop bunch in Victoria St, Darlinghurst to ride the event with him and stay at his superb lakeside home at 5 Mile Bay.
With an incredible, postcard perfect view of the Lake and snow capped Mt Ruapehu from the Smallbone retreat, the location had all the rustic charm and ambience of a Polo Ralph Lauren photo shoot.
The best thing about staying with a restaurateur is you know you're not going to starve. When you're preparing for a daunting 160km ride on New Zealand's tough roads after a diet of 30km crits and Sydney's hot mix tar seal, this is a very comforting thought.
Adding to the culinary experience were fellow Sydney chef and bread baker, Tony Papas along with Auckland and Dunedin based coffee roasters, Michael and Gary Allpress. Throw in the milk-fed lamb specially shipped in from Napier's Richmond Butchery, and Friday night's pre race feast was shaping up to be the envy of a Mapei team dinner on the eve a stage in the Pyrennes.
Making up the Sydney team were recent World Masters Games medallist, Liam Kelly, lone female member Mandy McCluskey, Ironman Joe Fitzpatrick and resident Obstetrician, Dr Michael Cooper. Former NZ road champ and no stranger to Sydney coffee shops, Darien Rush was also down from Auckland for the ride.
The 2002 ride comprised six different categories, the first of which gets underway at 7pm on Friday evening when entrants in the Super Enduro category head out on their 3 lap - yes 3 laps, 500km trek around the course. Entrants in the slightly less demanding 2 lap Enduro category start at 1.30am for their 320km ride around the Lake. What was surprising was the large number of participants in each of these events, complete with support vehicle, lights and energy bars taped to every tube of their bikes. The popularity of these categories is the event's recent certification as a pre-entry to the prestigious Paris to Brest Audax Race.
The next event on the programme was the Cycling New Zealand-sanctioned Lake Taupo Cycle Classic which attracted a quality field of top road cyclists, including last year's winner Lee Vertongen. The Classic was first introduced in 2001 to appeal to elite cyclists who wanted to make a real race of the 160km course.
The category most cyclists come to participate in though is the Solo Challenge and at 8am, I lined up, albeit a little late trying to squeeze in on the front row, with 3,500 other riders staggered across five different starting times.
The staggered start times are designed to allow riders to start in groups to suit the time they think they will complete the course in. The first group away consisted mainly of club cyclists and endurance athletes who were aiming to finish around the 4hr 15m mark.
The initial mad scramble up the first hill out of town had all the drama and excitement of a Tour stage complete with media helicopter and motorcycle cameras - of course a team car and doctor would have been handy for later in the stage.
A 100+ strong bunch quickly came together and while the tempo wasn't exactly race pace, it was clear this was going to be a higher tempo than a weekend bunch training ride, as the bunch settled into maintaining a steady tempo along the superb, undulating country roads.
One of the unique features of the Challenge is that every rider has their name and town, printed on their race number. There are riders from almost every town and city in New Zealand, and it was encouraging to see so many familiar NZ cycling names like Greg Fraine, Stephen Wallis, Roger Leaf and Bevan Cheatley out there enjoying the solo ride. Not so familiar, but certainly familiar to me was catching up with Wanganui cycling cousins Matthew and Laurence Sunde in the bunch. Add in cousin Lance from Oratia and the Sunde's had their own four-man 'cuzzi bro' team in the ride.
The first two hours of the ride passed effortlessly enough and with riding companion Darien Rush showing all the skill of a seasoned roadman, we began to negotiate the first of the more demanding climbs - certainly for me these climbs meant easing back to the 39x21.
Unfortunately, this was also my undoing, as cresting a longish climb before the halfway point I experienced one of those annoying mechanicals you hear about, but never want to experience - right hand gear lever didn't want to change out of the 21. A team car and mechanic would have been very useful at this point.
Getting up the hills was OK but maintaining a position in the bunch on the faster, flatter sections was now impossible, so I helplessly watched a huge bunch of 100 riders ride off into the distance just before the Kuratau relay change. There was some consolation when another 100 strong bunch of Group 2 riders came along, and after spotting CSC Tiscali pro rider Julian Dean coasting merrily along in the middle, I was able to get to Turangi with this group, where Julian was more interested a stopping for coffee.
The last two hours I found myself in a small group of 20, behind the two main groups with a mixture of other riders who had suffered mishaps like Auckland master Tod Penberthy who had punctured and cousin Mathew who had broken a rim.
This final 60km section of the course is by far the most glorious of the ride, with the fast, flat ride along the lakeside almost having a Tour of Lombardy feel to it - just in different seasons and the opposite side of the world.
The enthusiasm and encouragement from the Turangi township and all the people lining the course was simply overwhelming and had a true Olympic spirit about it. There were countless people picnicking by the road side yelling support and excited kids imagining they were lining the approach roads to a stage in the Alps. This was true Kiwi hospitality and friendliness at its best. The superb weather was also a huge bonus. I almost forgot that I had just spent more time in the 21 than I would in a whole year.
The leading riders in the solo finished in a time of 4h 14m, but this seemed somewhat academic, as it largely depended on what time you crossed the sensor mat at the beginning of the ride. Still a respectable time for a hilly 160km course.
Lee Vertongen backed up on his win in the Classic last year and soloed in for an impressive win in front of a class field which included Australian pro Jay Sweet and NZ strongman from the 80s, big Jack Swart. The incredibly fast time of 3h 53m was assisted by a slightly shorter course and road sprint finish outside town.
The rest of the solo and relay riders just kept rolling, struggling, walking, puffing and panting their way into the carnival atmosphere on the Taupo Domain until very late in the day. Finishers were welcomed by a huge crowd of well wishers, friends, masseuses, drink tents, food tents and the chance to relive their achievements with fellow riders. Each finisher was photographed as the crossed the line by Paul and his team from Unichem Photographics in Taupo.
The day wasn't over though and the organiser's idea of giving away a car, a boat, a jet ski and numerous other fantastic prizes worked a treat as almost every participant in the event crowded into the Domain in the hope of hearing their race number called. For the lucky winners, it certainly was a worthwhile weekend.
Everyone else still went home a winner though - it's just that kind of weekend.
Of our group, Liam rode the Classic and finished a creditable 17th in the bunch time of 3h 59m. Darien showed his recent training is paying off and came across the line 2nd in the solo ride in 4h 15m. I pedalled my 53x21 home in 4h 43m with Joe in the same group. Mandy had a great ride to place 10th in her age group in 4h 45m. Michael cruised in (what hills?!) in 4h 45m and Robert lost time with a messy puncture and made it in 5h 43m.
Well done Taupo, we'll all be back next year.
Images by John Sunde & Unichem Photos, Taupo
For full results from the 2002 Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, click here.