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The Wellington to Auckland Cycle Challenge

The Wellington to Auckland Cycle ChallengeSaturday 11th February saw my wife and I head to Wellington to get ready for the start of the 7 day event, for which training has taken up much of my spare time over the past two months. The journey to Wellington was uneventful, though I must admit to being somewhat nervous. Once we arrived at our accommodation and met some of the other participants, the nerves settled somewhat. Registration took place at a BMW franchise at Kaiwharawhara, and there with all entrants the excitement was clearly building. This was followed by a meal at Lower Hutt, an early night for an early start next morning. Colin Anderson (Wal), Averil Sheehan and Steve Stannard were the other Palmerston North participants in the event. Hamish MacKay from Radio Sport and TV3 entered again, and the event included All Black legend Ian Kirkpatrick!

The format is 13 stages over 7 days, with riders in one of 3 groups – Group 1, the racier group (Steve), Group 2, a few competitive masters (Wal and I) and Group 3, those not taking things too seriously (Averil). Most days has Group 3 starting about 30 minutes ahead of Group 1, then 5 minutes to the Group 2 bunch. Stage 1 and 13 are slightly different, where we all start together.

Day 1 12 February 2012

Stage 1 – from the Lower Hutt Town Hall, finishing at the top of the Rimatuka Hill 37km.

What a tough assignment first up. 8.00 its all go to get to the start, have I got this, have I done that….8.30 too late we are away, 149 riders hell bent on cycling up a rather large hill. The group stay together for the first 20kms, neutralised. This is because there are heaps of traffic lights and roundabouts to navigate before getting on to the main road to the hill, just through Upper Hutt. Once there it is all on for young and old. Before we know it the first climb hits us, rising quickly above the Te Marua stock car track, that has already spread the field out over some ground, and a number of smaller groups have formed already as the varying abilities of riders become evident.

A small amount of time to recover and we are then into the 7km climb to the top of the main hill. This was hard work, but Wal and I are in a small group of about 7 riders, who are working well together. Two kms to go and we hit the roadworks (we were warned of these at the pre race briefing). This is a pain because they upset your rhythm somewhat, but around the last corner and there it is….the top!!

We wander down the other side of the hill into Featherston (Rugby Club) for lunch in a two hour break; lollies, cake, all those good things and get ready for Stage 2, to Masterton, via Martinborough (unfortunately not enough time for a wine stop).

Stage 2 Featherston to Masterton 66km.

We set off to Masterton at about 1.30pm and maintain a good steady pace, and no hills to speak of. Several riders though are casualties on some of these wee bumps. Wal was up to his old tricks, having a dig or two, at one stage nearly creating a breakaway of 8 riders. The break lasted about 10km before being pulled back by the peleton. In a sprint finish adjacent to the Masterton Airport, ends up with Wal and I finishing in the bunch sprint, tired, sore legs, time for a rest, feet up, a spa, a massage, meal and reenergise for Monday.

Day 2 13 February

Stage 3 Masterton to Pahiatua 76km, via Dryers Rock and Alfredton finishing at the Pahiatua Stadium

Monday morning and stage 3 take us from Masterton to Pahiatua, via Alfredton (obviously not the main road!). Reasonably comfy trip with 3 tricky hills in the last 10kms to take away any chance of bunch finish. And so it was, this is where any racing started, and consequently the hills strung out our group somewhat, and in the end it was whoever was first over the top of the hill behind Pahiatua who was able to race down to the stadium.

Steve wins this stage, putting his local knowledge to good use. Wal and I are still battling each other, the gap has closed slightly though. Averil is riding well, and completes the stage before being caught by the Group 1 riders. The Group 3’ers seem to be getting quite a buzz over this achievement.

No stage 4 to Palmerston North, because of the gorge closure, so an opportunity to head straight home for some R&R and get ready for two really tough days with lots of hills.

Day 3 14 February

Stage 5 Palmertson North to Hunterville via Vinegar Hill 68km

Wouldn’t you know it Palmy lays on the rain, big time – need to bring out the rain jackets!Group 3 set off from Pascal Street (Marist clubrooms at 8.30am, and at 9.00am both group 1 and 2 ride the neutralised section together in the pouring rain. At Railway Road Group 2 are stopped for 3 minutes to allow Group 1 to get away, then we are off. Even though it is wet the pace is good first thing, with Wal doing his best to keep the pace honest. By this stage it was quite common for Wal especially to warm the legs up early on, and this was good as it generally encouraged the others to pick up and maintain a good speed. We had one minor incident at East Street/Kimbolton Road where a lovely motorist thought they might just proceed through the controlled turn stop sign and mix it up with our peleton as we went through. Fortunately no crash, just a bit of a warning for us that we still have to be careful at controlled intersections! The rain clears as we move up to Cheltenham, but still a bit wet underneath. Left at Cheltenham and off to Vinegar Hill, quite a climb up here, and a few are struggling as our bunch diminishes to about 15 riders by the time we hit the top of Vinegar Hill and State Highway 1, and head the last 6kms to Hunterville. Our group rides into the finish in an uncontested sprint. Time to dry off and have some lunch – today my wife brings out the apricot balls and instantly has a number of cyclists keen to try out these sweet treats.

Stage 6 Hunterville to Wanganui 61km

Stage 6 is marred by road works. The first 20kms is neutralised, as the road is in very poor condition with one long sections in particular awkward to navigate. I believe there were over a dozen flatties in this section, however all were repaired before the two groups were sent on their way to Wanganui, once again Group 2 a couple of minutes behind Group 1.

A decent hill climb just after the get go immediately split our group, and this created a bunch that had a solid hit for the rest of the journey to Wanganui. We did have a couple of crashes – along the road through Fordell, just after a big climb up Reids Hill, that neither Wal or I knew anything about until after the finish. As I understand this was where we were picking up slower riders, and they tried to join in with us, and being tired and not concentrating, errors of judgment, obviously high risk stuff! Two or three riders required attention and one was hospitalised. So it does pay to keep close to the front and generally keep out of trouble.

Day 4 15 February

Stage 7 Wanganui to Kakatahi 51km

Starting from the velodrome at Cooks Gardens, the weather is cloudy with a hint of possible rain. The route takes us alongside the Wanganui River for the 15km then the hills start, and just keep coming until the uphill finish at Kakatahi School. This is a special day for the school as all 11 students use our visit as a fundraiser by providing us lunches, plenty of pasta, BBQ sausages, and salads cake sandwiches and so on. They all line the finish area and cheer all riders through; they seemed to make more noise than 11 children! We found out later that they managed to raise in excess of $1200 toward their next field trip. Fantastic.

Stage 8 Kakatahi to Ohakune 52km

Hills and more hills in the next stage, which starts with a decent hill, followed by two rather long climbs of 7km and 4km respectively. Most were tired from the morning stage, so it was a case of getting into a comfortable cadence, and finding a happy place. The stage started at around 200 metres above sea level and ended in Ohakune at over 630metres! My computer said over a 1000m of climbing on this stage. What happened on the climb….different hills, same result. About a dozen of the stronger riders, including Wal and I, form a small bunch that gets away from our main group, and we work through to the finish at Ohakune, picking up one or two tired Group 1 riders on the way. Oh it was a wet finish, and cold rain. I thought it was hail, stinging so much on my face. So ended what many had said would be the hardest day, with heaps and heaps of climbing – a great test of our mental fortitude. It was good to see the finish, and then head off to shower and rest up for tomorrow, the longest day.

Day 5 16 February

Stage 9 Ohakune to Turangi 86km

Thursday morning was a crisp start to our jaunt to Turangi. While there is only one significant hill climb much of this leg is up for the first 75km, then the hill climb, flowed by a massive descent down to Tokaanu, where we clocked over 80kph. Stewart Imrie (a rider some members may remember ex Palmerston North) reached over 90kph!! Mind you he is not a small man). The group  2 riders stay together a lot longer today due to this, but at the hill the same group of 10-12 riders emerges to fly down the hill to Tokaanu and then travel into Turangi via a couple of back roads I never knew existed. We finish at a lovely park area with lots of shade – the day was starting to heat up a bit. Great after a few days of average weather.

Stage 10 Turangi to Taupo 50km

At 1pm after a spot of lunch and a walk around we head to Taupo, on state highway 1, the only time we are on this busy stretch of road. So behaviour and safety are high on the agenda at the pre stage briefing. We do want to get to Taupo safely! This is a ride many cyclists are familiar with, as it is covered in the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge ride each November. The ride itself is pretty straight forward, except for a wee bump at Hatepe where we go up a rather large hill. Again our start group stay together until the hill breaks us into groups of our regular riding buddies. The ride down into Taupo is always a quick one, and we arrive at the finish in good time, even though this is the longest day – in terms of the kilometres ridden, over 140km.

Body is starting to get tired, legs are heavy. Need some rest and food – boy I can’t get over how hungry I am getting, and how much I want to eat!!! So back to the hotel for the usual R&R.

Day 6 17 February

Stage 11 Tokoroa to Hamilton 95km

Friday is a bit different, we have to move from Taupo for a stage start in Tokoroa. Up early to get organised and on the road by 8am, to the supermarket for the daily supplies and a short drive to Tokoroa. This stage takes us to Hamilton via Lake Karapiro and Mystery Creek and is the longest stage of the tour at 96km. The ride is generally flat with some smaller rolling hills around the back of Karapiro, so that should break our start group up as per usual. The pace is on from the start of the stage, don’t know why, as I suspect most people feel like me, rather tired. The lead group was down to about 15 riders, when just before Karapiro we are joined by a Group 1 rider who has had a mechanical problem that stopped him for a wee while. It should be noted that there is mechanical support on the ride, however the support cannot pick where to be, so the support van rolls up and down the whole field, meaning if you are unlucky and have an issue you may have to wait some time for help. Flat tyres for most need to be remedied by ourselves.

Anyway this Group 1 rider by the name of Vaughn Obrien, from the USA, is a real live wire, and ended up being a great captain of our group. He encourages us, drove us to ride like we hadn’t ridden on any previous stage. He is a very strong rider himself, and does more than his share of work to maintain a fast pace all the way to Hamilton. We guessed that he probably worked us so well we completed the stage at least 5 minutes quicker than we would have without him.

A number of our group passed on Vaughn’s efforts to the organisers and consequently Vaughn won the day’s most impressive rider.

That extra effort took its toll. When we got back to the hotel, tidied up, it was a sleep I needed, so nana nap it was!! But hey one day and two stages to go….easy.

Day 7 18 February

Stage 12 Hamilton to Glen Murray 67km

Hamilton to Glen Murray was our Saturday morning stage, which began in fog, yes good old Hamilton fog. We started from the BMW dealership on Te Rapa Road at the northern end of Hamilton. The ride took us adjacent to the Waikato river north passed the Huntly power station then turned west toward the coast to a town (petrol station come dairy and a community hall) called Glen Murray, about 67km. For the most part the ride was flat, however turning toward the coast meant having a few rolling hills which again broke up our start group to the usual suspects at the head of the bunch. When we do get to Glen Murray there is not a lot of effort for a bunch sprint and we roll over the line together, probably all tired and happy there is only one more effort required.

The lunch break at Glen Murray was held at a great we park like area adjacent to the community hall, with lots of trees for shade. The fog from Hamilton had cleared into a rather hot sunny day! You could feel the anticipation that we were nearly there! Everyone, even though tired, was keen and eager to get to the finish.

Stage 13 Glen Murray to Pukekohe 38km

The last stage, 38km to Pukekohe. Rolling countryside with lots of ups and downs – the stage started with all groups moving out together – not mixed up, group 1, small gap then group 2, small gap then group 3. Of course being on the back of group 1 got the adrenaline going in a number of group 2 riders so of course we try to hang on to group 1. We do OK until group 1 splits in the middle, due to the fast pace by its leaders, and up a hill – what a surprise.

So a good sized bunch of group 1 and group 2 riders form, and stay together through until the finish, after a long steady climb, turn right at a roundabout and 500 metres down the hill is the finish. We’ve done it! What a great feeling. Hi 5’s with each other at the finish, a cold Steinlager. A great way to end an epic journey.

12 stages in 7 days, 149 participants (including 31 women), over 740 kms and 5500 metres of climbing hills, through some really unique New Zealand countryside. Great weather (except Palmy and that heavy rain) met some neat people on a really well organised event. This is an event well worth having on the bucket list.

Finally for the record

The overall winner – Steve Stannard from Palmerston North in 22 hours and 4 minutes – well done Steve. Wal and I finish 47Th and 48th respectively just over 2 hours behind Steve.


GB #61 (on left) on the slopes of Fields Track, can’t quite see Wal – he is right behind #100’s head


Averil (far right) experiencing Fields Track


Steve Stannard at the Turangi stage end – looks pretty relaxed!!

NB: A number of different packages are available, and there is some flexibility around accommodation and meals. Each night there is an official social gathering , with presentations for the daily stage and GC results. This is normally followed by an excellent buffet meal. Accomodation is generally pretty good, although you cannot beat your bed at home.

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