Did Steve survive the REV Cycle Festival?

Feeling good: Steven Meertens during the cycle challenge.
Feeling good: Steven Meertens during the cycle challenge.

Saturday morning at 9am I began my 100km cycling challenge in humid overcast conditions.

I didn't quite know what the day was going to bring as I was surrounded by hundreds of lean and keen cyclists and some hardy spectators.  As I rolled over the starting blocks of the Avantidrome REV 100km cycle classic I was immediately amazed at the pace that was set - these guys were flying out of the gates and I was unpleasantly surprised.  I expected a conservative cruise out through Cambridge into the hilliest parts of the course to warm up but it seems everyone forgot about gears two, three and four and jumped straight into fifth gear.

Bye bye race plan.  I wanted to conserve some energy over the first third of the race an hopefully get into a good group that would help me to break my four hour goal for the race.

Immediately I focused on holding onto a large group in front of me but my quads had other ideas.  It was Saturday morning and they were still in weekend mode, not sprint cycling mode.  Gradually over the next ten minutes I went from cold and relaxed to hot and flustered.  I had no idea how I was going to last over the entire race distance as up ahead of me were heaps of lycra clad mountain goats roaring up the hills on their expensive bikes.  

Last week riding the course in hindsight was absolutely the best thing I could have done.  I was aware of the course and what to expect.  Also, being fairly new back on a bike I also needed to try and figure out which riding style suited me best.  Last week it was recommended that I rode in a higher gear and spun my legs faster around to conserve energy but I basically felt like a hamster in a wheel - working furiously and getting absolutely nowhere so I just dropped down into big gears and smashed my way around the course and I felt about a hundred times better than I did last week.

French Pass is the biggest climb of the morning but I actually felt pretty good heading up there.  I even managed to pass quite a few people which was pretty satisfying.  I saw the Waikato Times photographer there so no doubt he would have captured some memorable moments of me looking far from smooth.  I got safely to the top of the pass and was greeted by a number of spectators and some can-can dancers - yes can-can dancers - the Gallic connection was not lost on me.

Descending down from French Pass was good fun - again I knew what to do from last week so I just dropped into a heavy gear and zoomed down the mountains.  The problem with road cycling is that you spend 90% of your time getting up mountains and 10% of the time getting down them - so often it feels like you are always climbing.

I proceeded to work further outside of my comfort zone than I would have liked over the next 20km or so as we roared towards Hobbiton.  I could definitely have used some of Gandalf's magic potions alas I had to make do with my electrolytes and gel squeezies.  As we had set off at such a cracking speed I was very aware of the need to keep fuelling up throughout the ride - again one of my key learnings from last week - however with the day been really muggy it was a tricky balancing act between hydrating and conserving your fluids for the entire race.

Around 20km into the race the field had stretched out and Scott Raynes of Avantiplus Cycology who was riding with me found ourselves in quite a handy group of around 25 riders.  I struggled initially to hold onto the back of the group but I changed my tactics a bit and became much more aggressive in the climbs and this allowed me the few seconds I needed in order to stay with the group.  

The group flew past Hobbiton (no Gandalf) and into the belly of the course through Matamata.  There weren't as many hills over the next 40km or so however the speed of the group noticeably picked up.  I found myself riding really well at this stage sitting in a heavy gear and powering along nicely tucked into the group.  

As the group I was in were filled with pretty experienced cyclists I was waiting for my body to start to suffer but surprisingly this never came through this stage.  We took turns at the front and at doing the hard yards so the others could rest a bit and draft along.  Again, I found by really attacking the climbs in a low gear I could keep up momentum with very little energy used.  

I should mention at this stage that the course management by the organisers and volunteers had been superb.  The course was very well marshalled and all the traffic we encountered right throughout the course were incredibly safe around us which was great.  On the flip side to this I've noticed all the cyclists I have encountered have had a great deal of self awareness about being responsible cyclists.  In the group we would ride no more than two abreast generally and whenever some communicated that a car was coming we tightened up to allow the car every opportunity to get back.  There were plenty of waves, thumbs up and gentle toots of support from motorists which was really cool.

Around the 60km mark I had something happen to me that I hadn't even for one second ever considered happening.  I was stung by a bee.  My cycling top was open and a bee must have been caught in there and decided to make its presence felt.  Well that has an unpleasant surprise just under my heart.  On the good side, I am not allergic to bees and also the pain of the sting was so bad that I didn't really notice that pain in my legs or back.  Every cloud has a silver lining I guess.

The pace that we were setting was still really quick and we dropped off a few people and also passed some stragglers along the way.  The humidity had been replaced by direct sun now but thankfully there was very little wind so conditions were much better than were forecast.

Turning into Scotsmans Valley was personally really satisfying.  I had felt that I had broken the back of the course in a fast group and I was on track to beat the four hour mark.  The hills leading up to the main Scotsmans Valley climb saw us lose a few more from our bunch but I was still feeling pretty good.  Considering that I had been going faster than I had anticipated for about 2.5 hours this was pretty pleasing.  

Scotsmans Valley is a tough climb and really the last big climb on the course and again I surprised myself with my ability to keep up with much smaller and experienced cyclists.  Once at the top our initial group of about 25 riders had now been whittled down to about 10 riders with both Scott and myself still keeping up with the quicker ones.  

As we kept motoring around the course into Tauwhare I got excited as that was where my supporters were all waiting for me.  My wife and family were there and my little two year old son was holding up a "Go Daddy Go" sign which he had decorated the previous day.  It was just the boost I needed to get me through the last 20km.

Turning for the home straight was lung busting, energy sapping pain.  Everyone was leaving everything that they had out on the course which was awesome.  Our group became well and truly fractured but we all knew there was only about 15 minutes of burn to go.

By this stage I was absolutely buggered.  We were still going at a good clip but I had just finished my water and I really could have used just a mouthful or two to fuel me home.  Heading into the home straight Scott and I managed to overtake some of the riders in our group which was really satisfying.  Scott said that this part of the race was called the Pain Cage (or something like that - I wasn't listening too much by now) and every part of my body was screaming.

As the finish gantry appeared in the distance like the gates of heaven I started to feel really proud of what I had achieved.  From novice to cyclist in five weeks.

We crossed the line and Scott looked over and said what an awesome effort that was and then he told me our time.

3 hours 27 minutes.

Boom!  I had well and truly blown my goal time out of the water!  As I hopped off the bike I had absolutely nothing, zip, nada, zilch in the tank.  Autopilot kicked in and I just wanted to find the nearest water station.  I was still in disbelief about my time as I seriously had no idea of how I hung on for such a long time.  But then I guess that is what cycling is all about - hanging out in extreme pain for as long as possible.

Post race it was really cool to see all the other riders and their families chilling out and enjoying a great day.  There were food stalls everywhere, music playing and just a really good buzz around the place.

At this point I really just want to say a few thanks to a few people.  To Lauren, KP and the team at U Leisure - thanks for the opportunity to get involved.  There were times that I really wondered why I had said yes but in the end it was all really worth it.  To Avanti - thank you for sorting me out with the bike, it was a joy to ride but the biggest thanks would have to go to Scott from Avantiplus Cycology - what a champ.  Scott has been there for me every single step of the way with advice, support, gear and humour and this whole thing was a helluva more enjoyable as a result.

It was cool being out on course at the amount of riders who said that they had been following my progress and said that they had enjoyed the articles.

There have been a few rumours about me continuing on my cycling viewpoints and having a crack at the 160km round Lake Taupo ride in November.

But that is a story for another day.