Why? Well, it's an interesting - and tough - way to get to the pub

By Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie and Lake Hawea ... the scenery's great, but it's hard work. Photo / Supplied
Russell Baillie and Lake Hawea ... the scenery's great, but it's hard work. Photo / Supplied

Herald entertainment editor Russell Baillie rode the 125km Contact Epic at Lake Hawea last weekend. Here's his survivor's tale ...

6:58am: As the start time approaches, the opera which has been blasting from the starting line above the Lake Hawea dam turns to Eminem's Lose Yourself. Its hydraulic beat helps get the blood pumping, even if the title is worrying. This, after all, is a race which circumnavigates the steep dramatic sides of this lake and its headwaters for 125km. It bills itself as "NZ's ultimate mountain biking challenge". Which is why some 400 of us have entered.

The field is mostly middle-aged blokes. We come decked out in lycra and merino to ward off the dawn chill on a clear day. Some have added an Anzac poppy to our helmets for this longest day. About another 200 more entrants are further up the road starting the 95km "Classic" event at the same time.

7am: And off we go. The real contenders are already over the first hill and far away by the time I trundle over the start line. "Beep, beepity, beep, beep ..." goes the race timer as we pass over sounding as if it's recording the start of a mass heart attack. It's out on to the highway for the warm-up stage, 23km of sealed road with one hefty climb and a 60km/h downhill.

8.30am: The cracking pace of the tarmac gives way to the rolling shingle road up to Hunter Valley Station. The sun is finally up but it's still refreshingly chilly. Soon, it's the first big ascent of the day on a race which climbs and drops 2400m vertically across its 125km.

"Why are we doing this?" says the guy on the next bike as we crank our way up at walking pace up another hill. Sorry mate, I'm a bit oxygen starved for philosophical discourse right now but I try to bend my grimace into a smile. Conversational energy conserved, I pull out in front and snail onwards, which gets us 200m above Lake Hawea, the highest point in the day. "Mr Why" inevitably passes me on the next downhill.

9am: I decide my back tyre could do with some more air for the increasingly stony terrain. I make a hash of it breaking a bit of thread off the valve with the pump. Cue much hissing and swearing. Dozens of riders pass, asking if I need help. I decline out of embarrassment. I manage to get some air into the tubeless tyre with a CO2 pump I brought as backup. The tyre is now rock hard. Hopefully the broken valve will hold after I MacGyver it with pliers and a gaffer-taped valve cap. Hoping, forlornly, to make up the 20 minutes I've lost I shove the pump into my back-pack outside pocket and take off.

Without me noticing, the pump soon departs the pack.

11am: Heading up towards the Hunter River, there's a Y in the road. The right one goes to riverflats. The left goes straight up a rocky slope. There isn't a sign. Instead, I apply the logic of the race: Don't take the soft option. Up the hill it is.

11.36am: About the time I'm hoisting my bike for one of the waist-deep crossings of the braids of the Hunter River (the alpine temperature water doing wonders for my nether regions), Wanaka local Dougal Allan is winning the race in a record time of 4:36:34. He then goes for a 20km run. He is clearly an alien sent to Earth to make the rest of us wonder why we bother.

Midday: The turnaround point at 64km reached, 2km later it's the first aid station. A kindly local gent offers to hold my bike as I wolf down a banana or two and tank up on liquids. A dozen or so riders are sprawled in the long grass resting, contemplating the long haul back.

A helicopter swoops by with a stretcher carrier on one of its skids. "I ordered that hours ago," I quip to my bike valet. "The service can be a bit unreliable up here," he deadpans.

2pm: The crawl down the north east side of the lake is the hardest riding of the day. Sharp rocky ups followed by lumpy downs, plenty of stony hillside fords all the way up to the second highest point of the course. Occasionally you have to get out and walk, which does give you a chance to take in the scenery. But back on the bike, scenery soon turns back into topography and geology.

There's a downhill blast into Dingle Burn Station. I've started passing stragglers from the 95km race. My legs aren't too bad but my arms are feeling like they've jackhammered a new tunnel to Manapouri.

3pm: I blame the scones. Riding out of Dingle Burn, a wave of emotion comes out of nowhere. Tears well up behind my sunglasses. Maybe it's because my brain thinks I should have finished by now, this 90km mark surpassing the longest distance I've done in past races.

But there's still 20km of rolling shingle and lakeside clifftops to go. Maybe it's the comfort-food effects of the cuppa and scones provided as a school fundraiser. I ride on, that scone cream churning to butter within as the corrugations of the station's road bites from beneath.

The road winds back to the lake's edge at Rocky Point. The 30m sheer drop to the right keeps you glued to the left through the bluffs. Apparently there's a nice view of Mt Aspiring from here. Scenery to die for ...

3.15pm: The road is straightening, smoothing slightly, there's bit of a tailwind and I finally have answer to "why?": The sound of a big bike tyre ploughing through South Island shingle is my favourite noise.

That's soon drowned out by the wheezing and swearing that propels me slowly up the brutal short uphill out of the Timaru River, the last climb of the day.

3.55pm: Not far from Hawea township, I pass two guys standing over their bikes on the side of the road. One is slumped down over his handlebars. His companion is gently coaxing him back on the road. He's a good mate.

4.10pm (and 20 seconds): Here's another answer to "why"? The Contact Epic finishing line is the garden bar of the Hawea Hotel. This is the first time I have ever been handed a medal for turning up to the pub late.

* Times are approximate. Except for the start and finish.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 02 Oct 2014 15:00:28 Processing Time: 454ms