The Ruapehu Express. A new event taking in ‘an exhilarating descent down the Tukino Road' and traversing clockwise around the mountain through army land, Karioi forest and Rangataua forest to finish at Ohakune. ‘The 80km will be one tough event suited only to tough riders.’
If only the weather had played ball, this race could have been a corker.
All 150 competitors who’d signed up for the 80km mtb race piled onto the bus outside the Powderkeg in Ohakune at 6.30am, ready and raring for a fast downhill and more through the forest. I was really looking forward to it as I’d raced a lot of uphill recently so some downs were in need. We wound our way up the Tukino ski field road on the bus and made it to the top via a couple of hairpin bends, peering over the steep drop offs.
Once at the top where our bikes awaited us (having been brought up by the organisers the night before), we were told that some of the rivers were flooded and too dangerous to cross, so the course was to now be changed. As the new course was still being finalised I made some last minute checks to my bike – mainly ensuring the brakes worked – and we stood eagerly wondering whether we’d being doing hill reps of the ski field road.
The new course was to take us down the mountain and around as far as we could get before double backing to the 2WD car park one third of the way up the road and then a return to the dry lake. As such, this would cut our course to 52kms instead of 80kms and also include some uphill. It would also mean we spent most of the race on the scree, sand and gravel, rather than heading into the forest trails. I can’t say I was that happy, as I was hoping for fast and down, but the weather had spoken, and at least we would get the down we had all signed up for. The rain had at least begun to ease a little, and the mist and fog we’d been cowering in was beginning to pass.
So off we all went, with a slight wimper.
The down was definitely that. Approx. 7kms with the first 1km being a steep descent, then a slight reprive as the terrain flattened for another km, but it was short-lived and we were quickly thrown into a further steep descent with a couple of tight corners for good measure and plenty of rocks, scree and sand underneath to test your ability to corner at pace – still to be worked on. My brakes were used to their full capacity, but I was able to keep with the 2nd group, which I was happy with.
Then the real fun started. Wet, slippery sand, thick mud, dips, inclines, drop offs and everything you could think of for 10kms out and back with a small hike a bike section. I managed to lose the group as I attempted to take my jacket off and cycle in sand at the same time. My back wheel was skidding all over the place and as I tried to corner I narrowly missed another competitor attempting the same acrobatics. I got my head down from then on and managed to gain a few places, drafting off some of the guys and sitting in where I couldn’t push on any faster.
By the first turn I was around 2minutes behind the lead female – Ali, and perhaps 500m behind the 2nd female. The 4th female was hot on my tail, and I wasn’t going down without a fight for that 3rd place, or 2nd if I could get there.
Once the terrain had flattened out and Ali felt more in her home territory, she put in a big surge to catch the lead group, trying to increase her gap on the other females. The scree roads allowed for a fast pace until taking a sharp right into the thick heavy loose sand, which for Ali could have gone better than hoped. Holding the wheel of the rider in front meant taking some extra risks in order to keep up, and that she did. Her front wheel hit a mound of loose sand and sent her over the handle bars. Luckily there was nothing more than a rock and pedal to the knee as the bike bounced back and she managed to dust herself off and keep going. Now with a whole load of adrenalin and annoyance at losing the group, she dug in and picked each of the guys off one by one.
As we all headed back along the path we’d just travelled, a slight headwind made the going tough. I attempted to pick up the pace, but I couldn’t get into a rhythm and the uneven ground bounced my back wheel back and forth in a world of its own. Just as I was losing patience, a faster guy came speeding past and I managed to get on his wheel as he surged forwards. Some of the track was becoming more compacted now and slightly easier to ride.
We narrowly avoided going the wrong way with a left turn and we were quickly on the upward trajectory back to the 2WD car park. I knew I was strong on the climb and I kept pushing. I also knew that once the climb was done it was downhill all the way, so I pushed as hard as I could. Ali flew past at what seemed like 100miles an hour, and she had forged ahead by a good 6-7minutes now. Damn it, I thought. But what about 2nd place? There she was ahead me, around 1-2minutes now. Could I make that up in the last few kms? I’d give it my best shot.
I had mud, sand and sweat all over my face and through gritted teeth I ploughed on. Pushing with all the strength I could muster. As I made the turn I realised I’d caught a few of the guys who had sped past me in the first stage of the race, and I was pretty happy about that. Clicking into top gear for the now well-trodden downhill section, I stuck to the left to avoid any people coming up the track and I pushed hard on every rotation of my peddles.
The terrain even up higher had now become compacted scree in parts with the odd boulder to make sure you were concentrating, and my tyres were able to grip and hold steady with more speed on the flowing corners as I swooped in to cross the finish line. I knew I’d just missed out on that illustrious 2nd place, but I’d got 3rd and I’d just completed my first ever mountain bike only race, so I couldn’t be happier.
As races go, the format for this one had everything I was keen to try. The down, the forests, the 4WD, 2WD, etc. It was a real shame the weather forced a change in the course, but the organisers did what was for the best and the safest option for us competitors. They still gave us the downhill and a course that was a challenge, which is what we asked for.
I’ll be back next year, and fingers crossed for good weather!
Ali is currently training for GODZone and was keen to push on back to Ohakune – rather than waiting for the bus back and to make up the extra kms we had missed out on with the short-coursing of the race. I thought, why not, lets cycle back, it won’t take too long and it’s all downhill now, right? Plus, who wants to wait for a bus? Well it was pretty much all down, just via a road section, which wasn’t the nicest, but we re-traced our steps as far as we could on the trail and then completed the loop back to Ohakune in a further 2hours. Then ready for a rest.
The link to Ali's Garmin file with the route and extra section is here.