Grab your phone. Choose the Write Message function and type out the words "ah shit". Send it to someone. Put your phone down.
How long did that take? Probably more than 20 seconds.
The grand plan of never having to race Karapoti again was thwarted by that barest of margins on Saturday. I'd said that if I joined the 3 hour club, I'd never return to the God-forsaken place (sorry Carl). I also said that if I didn't get under 3 hours (or was beaten by Mike) then I would leave the country and return to Aus. I say some stupid things.
All eyes were on the weather websites in the week leading up to the Big K. And it was looking good until Friday, when the predicted showers turned up and decided to become rain overnight. It was still coming down as we (Josh my co-pilot and music critic for the trip up) got to the start and parked the Laser in a paddock which looked and felt like it could swallow up a small hatchback if any more mud was churned up. Paul was parked in front of us, and you could see his hair and hear his voice from half a km down the road. The usual pre-race shit talk was in full swing as friends, Romans and countrymen wandered around nervously nattering to whoever was in proximity. "Howya goin' mate, feelin fit?" "Yeah na good, good.... goooood" as their voice trails off with more than a hint of trepidation and the eyes turn skyward.
For someone who was about to line up with the Pro/Elite field, I was feeling strangely calm. I'd said to Matt Farrar that sub-3 could be out of the question due to the conditions, and maybe that took some pressure off. After all, it's all I'd been thinking about (besides beer and sex) for the last few months. But deep down, I knew I was still going for it, because what I was about to go through wasn't high on my must-do-again list.
There were already riders lined up in the river while the race briefing was still going on and a few trips up the road to 'warm-up' were required. I lined up behind Paul and beside Andrew, one of our customers. I took it easy through the river as the gun went off, trying not to slip into the deep spot and be trampled. Of course the deep spot found me, and I had not only soaked shoes but a soggy chamois as well. It would become a soggy, sandy and slimy chamois soon after, making the clean river water seem like a better option after all. Up the road, into the gorge, glasses already rendered useless by the mud and water flying off the other riders wheels and my own. I'd planned for this though, and was packing 2 spare pairs in my pack. Andrew was stopped on the side of the track not far in, bent over his bike looking at the drivetrain. I saw his bike in the shop on Monday, rear derailleur snapped in half. That'd do it.
Starting before the masses has it's benefits, mainly not having to battle through swarms of punters strewn all over the early climbs, pushing their bikes up the riding line. Riding in a group of about a dozen, including Samara Shepherd and a bunch of guys who didn't seem to want to ride on the front, I kept repeating my race mantra of "ride your own race, ride your own pace". Which only meant that in no time I was on the front, dragging their sorry asses up the road before shelling them like peas as we hit the Warm-Up Climb. It was halfway up where I spotted Paul off his bike, doing his best Andrew impersonation, bent over but only lubing his sucking chain. Soon after I passed Matt, who I'd remembered Ratas saying he'd passed in the same spot last year. I was feeling comfortable as we crested the climb and bombed the short downhill into the creek.
Onto Deadwood, more granny gear action until no traction. Mike joined me as I had a little push before re-mounting and completing the climb with Mike right behind me. We had a bit of a chat and I told him we were ahead of schedule for a sub 2:45, according to the splits I'd worked out off the website. We hammered across the rolling stuff across the top, and Mike looked strong as he took the front and kept the pace high but comfortable. Singlespeed guru Garth Weinberg came alongside soon after, and said to me "Can you smell it?" which I took to mean the putrid bog hole we'd just ridden through. He followed his own question with "The blood in the Rock Garden... Oh yeah!" I thought "hmmm, must be close to the Rock Garden.." and then "man, that guy's an animal" as he hammered out of the saddle over another rise in the trail.
I'd pre-determined that it would probably be in my best interests to walk/slide/crawl the Rock Garden rather than ride it, but when you're in a race and there's guys in front and behind you, the best-laid plans get tossed aside like a baby's head-sized boulder tumbling down the trail in front of you. Mike was sliding down the first big drop on the left, and even though this looked like the worst option available, I followed suit. Not completely thrilled with that piece of poor judgement, I rode most of the rest of it, interspersed with moments of tripoding, flailing, bouncing and sliding, with only one foot clipped in some of the time. By the bottom Mike and I had swapped places, but were still within spitting distance (I actually felt some of Mike's spit hit my helmet at one point.)
Devil's Staircase was next on the menu, along with the realisation that you'll be carrying your bike for the next couple of km's.
Although you are reduced to a lycra Jesus bearing an aluminium (or carbon if your name is Mike) cross and have nowhere to go but up, there are always some dicks who feel compelled to yell "move it" or "pick up the pace" as they crawl up behind you. Actually, this dick was in front of me, so he was saved a mouthful of return advice this time. Mike was edging ahead on a couple of the rideable sections, and as we got to the top of the Staircase I could see him exiting the trees as I approached the last little pinch. My pre-race plan was to stop to lube my chain and change my glasses to a fresh, non-mud coated pair. I saw Ricky Pincott just taking off, and I thought to see him this far in I must be going OK. Mike had scuppered off without stopping, not wearing glasses and not concerned about his chain's condition apparently. I wish I'd had his foresight, or any sight at that stage.
Big Ring Boulevard is always a relief, although the heart rate doesn't seem to drop much as it's an adrenaline-filled ride, especially when you overcook it into a few of the tighter corners at over 40kmh. I was in a little train with two other guys, and through the creek at the bottom I passed them when they got off and pushed up the steep exit, while I managed to ride it out fairly nicely. All there was to do now was prepare mentally for the climb up Dopers (and to get as much gel and water down that I could).
After the pre-run a few weeks ago I was confident that if I could get up here at a reasonable pace then the 3 would be well within reach. I tried to check my computer and the time-splits taped on my top tube, but my vision and the mud conspired against me, and all I could deduce was that I was about 5 minutes behind 2:45 time. That would do nicely. What I didn't take into account was the fact that the time on your computer is going to be out after carrying your bike for a good chunk of time (spinning the front wheel a few times while hiking up the Staircase doesn't make much difference, apparently.) And only two days later did I even think about looking at the watch on my wrist....
Dopers is a bitch of a climb, in the fact that it just seems to keep going, with plenty of steep pitches that necessitate walking (well for mere mortals anyway). I didn't seem to be going anywhere near as fast on the easier bits as I'd remembered the pre-run. Two other dudes had been with me all the way up, and as we crested the summit and headed onto the most welcome downhill, I encouraged them to hit the gas and help each other back to the finish. Of course, one guy was dropped straight away, before the other on got away from me heading down towards the river. I was on my own and would have to keep my speed up without any wheels to magnetise myself to. Back along the gorge, passing a few 20km Challenge riders (who looked way shagged) then being joined and passed by a guy who may or may not have been riding with me earlier; it was all a blur at this stage. He was winding it up and I grabbed his wheel, weaving from side to side to avoid a face-full of mud every two metres. Coming onto the road, I passed him with the words "c'mon bro, let's nail it." By the time I hit the bridge 100 metres away, I turned around and he was blown. Not gonna get any help there... I buried myself down the road, with my computer showing about 2 hours 53. Even with the minutes lost from carrying and stopping, I was sure I was gonna make it. Coming back towards the river at full tilt, wondering whether to blast into it or get off and run, there was only one choice after my near-drowning at the start. Straight into the deep spot, flail around then crawl out like some primordial fish and run up the bank for a textbook Sven Nys re-mount (without the textbook part) and the sprint home (without the sprint part).
"3:07 for Joe Bloggs" was all I could hear over the PA as i approached the line, and as the realisation that I'd missed the mark hit me, I let out a few choice words for the benefit of the kiddies at the side of the track. Ant Bradshaw was in the finish area too, and I asked if he'd made it... just. I made my way over to Mike and Karen (who'd ridden the Challenge, nice one) and asked if he'd made it. Yeah! I was so stoked for him and gave him a big man-hug for his trouble... he loves a hug does Mike. But I was wrestling with the demons of having missed by a margin I still wasn't sure of, and I was holding onto hope that the times were to be corrected for the timing mat time (rather than the gun time). It was a slim chance.
Meanwhile, late-starter Josh turned up looking like the creature from the Black Lagoon, with a smoking 2:47 and the win in his age group, 19th outright. Awesome, and all on a 2x9 drivetrain.
There was only one thing to do. Have a beer. Or two. Later the results were posted, and there it was. 3:00:20. Twenty seconds. The internal post mortem begins. Where could I have gone faster? Nowhere really, I rode pretty much the best I could. I knew exactly where the time was lost, and that was at the top of the Staircase. Even when I saw that Mike hadn't stopped, I still stuck with my plan to lube the chain and change my glasses. I had the option to go on, but clear(er) vision and chainsuck prevention were my priorites. But 56th outright and 35th 'Pro' ain't too shabby. Oh yeah, Cabin got the win, but times were around ten minutes slower than last year, showing how much the conditions played a part.
Well I'm still in the country, and already am plotting next year's attempt. Even if I'd gone under this time, I still had so much fun out there that I would be back anyway, maybe on a singlespeed cross bike, or a 20-inch girls bike, but something happened on Saturday that made me see why people come back for this horrible, beautiful, brutal, sublime ordeal year after gruelling year.