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Tour of New Zealand: Dancing on your pedals

'Weekend warrior' Andrew Alderson does a lot of thinking on the stamina-taxing Tour of NZ cycle race.

Riders sweat it out on the picturesque Tuakau to Raglan leg of the Cycle Tour of NZ. Photo / Supplied
Riders sweat it out on the picturesque Tuakau to Raglan leg of the Cycle Tour of NZ. Photo / Supplied

The drugs must be tempting. Sixty kilometres into the 85km Tour of New Zealand (TONZ) cycle race from Tuakau to Raglan I ponder whether a crash course in EPO or a dash of clenbuterol with my pre-ride steak, as allegedly happened to two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador in 2010, might have been a better idea than slugging back energy drinks and chowing on industrial-strength muesli bars.

Then there are the carefully unwrapped barley sugars sitting snugly in my cycling jersey.

They have melted with body heat. I suspect they may need to be surgically removed from the skin on my back at race end.

As you may sense, there is a touch of self-pity to my predicament. It's the price paid for being a Herald on Sunday volunteer.

Unlike Contador in the Pyrenees, I'm hardly dancing on the pedals through the Waikato countryside.

I'm resigned to another hour of hell, riding as far as I've ever gone by bicycle.

Suddenly, I get a grip. There'd be no fun doing these things as a cheat. I'd rather finish last (there are strong prospects of this) than inject my arms or my steak.

I re-engage my brain to think about the pedals. The shame of "did not finish" appearing next to my name is suitable motivation. Besides, it's not like I'm riding 3500km over 21 days as the best cyclists in the world do each July in France. I knuckle down and pass a woman on a mountain bike. Then a skinny bloke slips behind me as my 87kg ballast whistles me down a hill. I get my second wind.

Writing about sport for my livelihood is one thing but the last time I attempted anything as physically bold as the TONZ was in 2001. I entered the Auckland marathon under the catchcry: "If Oprah can do it ..."

It worked a treat after a few practice runs around the Karaka neighbourhood where Mrs Alderson was assigned the job of putting chocolate bars, bananas and water bottles at strategic letterboxes along the RD1 route.

I hadn't trained for the TONZ specifically, other than being what's known in the cycling fraternity as a "weekend warrior", but there was some detailed planning.

I rode 70km to Maraetai and back the previous weekend, followed by Mrs A and I taking a Britz campervan to Raglan with a view to discussing tactics over a candlelit dinner on the waterfront the night before the big event.

The beauty of the Britz is its self-sufficiency. After locking the bike on the rack it's easy to reach the top bunk for a kip before a 5am start. We drove to Tuakau in the morning along the course route to get a first-hand feel of the ride. I made notes like a golf caddy measuring distances on a new course. Long multiplication skills I hadn't called on since standard four helped work out the required speeds I'd need on various segments to go under four hours.

Things got progressively quieter as we approached Tuakau. The reality of the task was dawning. Eventually, at the start line, Mrs A safety-pinned my bib on and I slipped in Captain Oates' infamous Antarctic expedition farewell - "I'm just going outside and may be some time" - before pedalling into the ether. At least the ether was more picturesque than the surrounds returning from the South Pole.

The orange ember of the rising sun forced a tablecloth of mist to rise off the Waikato hills as streams of cyclists eased past roadside onion plots, vapour trails floating behind them. However, you had to be wary. A pesky videographer appeared around random corners, leaving minimal time to suck in your guts and pretend, albeit for an instant, you're the second coming of Lance Armstrong.

The first 6km were frenetic. As the starter's horn let us go group-by-group, I remember thinking, "Am I the only one with hirsute rather than shaved legs poking out my bike shorts?" It's ridiculous where your mind travels in a crisis ...

There is jostling for position before you're forced to watch bikes with team names like "Airforce" fly past you. At my gentle cadence I was in no position to earn a Top Gun moniker like Maverick or Iceman.

Still, you steadily churn out the kilometres and cling briefly to the back wheel of the odd group whizzing past. It makes you appreciate the skill and fitness of top riders, whether it's on the Tour of Southland or le Tour de France.

Somehow, the human mind finds the strength to tell the body to keep pedalling into that last hour. Eventually, you climb a final hill and hear exultations of relief around the corner. A group of dedicated volunteers counts you across the finish line.

You collapse in a heap with barely enough energy to remove your cleats from the pedal clips. Three hours, 45 minutes and seven seconds; a sub-four-hour ride - and, of the 65 competitors, I'm not last. At least six other riders file in behind me.

Who needs drugs when you can get such euphoria for free? And the barley sugars are still edible.

Cycle showcase

The Tour of New Zealand is an eight-day cycle race from Cape Reinga in the North Island and Bluff in the South Island, finishing in Wellington. The North Island tour covers 638km and the South Island's 687km. It is designed to showcase the New Zealand countryside. Organisers of this year's inaugural event hope it will become an annual race, attracting anyone from recreational riders to elite cyclists.

Teams of three, four or five cyclists will ride the course at any time. Each team is expected to complete the entire South or North Island route but there is no requirement for the same riders to complete every stage. Riders can even swap places during a stage. The third rider to finish each stage determines the team's time.

Sponsor support covers tour costs and minimises entry fees. Any money not used for immediate event expenses goes to St John, The Hikurangi Foundation and Westpac Rescue Chopper Appeal.

Further information: See

- Herald on Sunday

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