Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Downhill demons confronted at the Diggler DH

Ollie busts a Vic Park huck in the early days
Downhill racing has always excited this XC racer, even going so far as dabbling in the local DH race scene six years ago on first moving to Christchurch. Shuttling the trails in Vic Park made for a perfect way to spend a dusty Saturday afternoon, shredding the hucks and jumps of Old nats, Raadi garden, and Drop track. The weapon of choice back then was an early edition Keewee Stealth hardtail complete with period Manitou Shermans, the latter sporting vice like stiction that can only come from a solid year of hucks to flat.

Back then, my personal issue with gravity riding was a lack of self control. While the thrill of a blistering 3 minute run should have been more than enough, the constant quest for speed and thrills pushed me to try bigger drops and jumps, culminating in the famed Christchurch 40 footer (which actually measures 35 feet).

As a firm believer in the mantra ‘crap happens when you party naked’ it was no surprise that crashes resulted, often leaving me with broken bike or body that meant I couldn’t ride for weeks at a time.

It came to a head with a nasty knee incision that left me hobbling stiff legged for a month, and after this I decreed never to push myself into DH again. While the short intense gnarliness and associated self destruction were a rush, I’d much rather be shredding less exciting XC tracks without the injury induced periods of inactivity.

The catalyst for a change in attitude was an upcoming event which has sparked my passion for the gravity scene. From the ashes of the Brake Burner has risen the Outside Sports Super D, and after a half day of post-Motutapu shuttles at the Skyline Gondala venue I was itching to give the 6 hour enduro DH race a burl. Thoughts quickly turned to preparation and what better way to become accustomed to bike and mindset than a DH race, and the 4th annual Bike Methven Diggler DH presented such an opportunity.
Shuttles Mt Hutt style
Photo Bike Methven
With age comes maturity, and a better (if inevitably more conservative) understanding of risk. I’m confident now that I can roll around a jump or drop outside my ability ignoring the pang of regret that would have prompted the younger Ollie to ‘hit it up’.

There is no denying the fun of a DH race. The sheer challenge of distilling practice runs into the very essence of a trail then swilling this down in an endorphin fuelled dash for the finish. A mixture of elation and exhaustion abounds as you sprint to the line.

And the Diggler didn’t disappoint. It was low key in the truest sense, family run and grom infested, with none of the factory team hype that seems to pervade modern DH. In her first ever race Heidi would be joining in on her hardtail, while Jeff ‘Tenzing’ Collins pulled his X-5 out of the shed, leaving his entirely unsuitable Maxxis Larsens on in a show of cocky tire choice.

The track was relatively easy, or would have been had the weather decided to play ball. While we left the rain behind in Christchurch, overnight showers had left the Mt Hutt trail in a delightfully slippery state, the first steeper section reduced to a traction stealing slither.

The only difficult feature of note was a tight step down, and putting age hardened risk assessment skills to good use we eyed up a line and hucked the gap. Casing at first we learned quickly to sneak in a few pedals prior, landing it smoothly and peeling into the berms below with new found speed.
Ollie clearing the stepdown in his race run
Photo Bike Methven
Gradually the trail began to firm up, with mud pushed from racing lines making higher parts of the course fast and predictable. The exception to this was the wooden structures, which collected tyre shifted mud and rendered the slats slipperier than a greased weasel, kicking the back wheel alarmingly off the edge and into thin air during my penultimate practice run.
The slippery bridge claims a grommet
Photo Bike Methven
Briefing was typically low key, with groms preceding under 17 and women, before senior men took to the course. Suggestions by Jeff and I to shift the finish line to back up the hill (maximising the advantage of our lightweight and widely geared trail bikes) were declined in good humour. We’d have to bring the noise were we to compete with the full on DH rigs.

3...2...1... Go!
Photo Bike Methven
Race runs started from the access road on a rickety wooden ramp, and as rider after rider descended the nerves were running high in a manor I rarely experience at XC races these days.
Ollie heads off on his first race run
Photo Bike Methven
The first run was over in a flash, with plenty of scope remaining to steal back seconds on the next race run. It all came to together for the final, riding what felt like my best run of the day and sprinting to the line with new found stoke in 2 min 40 seconds.

Jeff who was seeded numero uno
Photo Bike Methven
Jeff’s second run was less ideal, ghosting his bike through the first section and requiring the assistance of a gawking spectator to rescue it from the bracken. His best run ended up being his first, a solid 2 min 46 seconds.
Heidi sporting some nose-gnar after a huck to face on her first run
Photo Jeff Collins
She adopts the tripod to avoid the dreaded 'slippery salmon'
Photo Bike Methven
Heidi’s maiden race proved an awesome success. Her gritty resolve saw her overcome a bloody nose inducing huck to face on her first practice to finish a close second in the hotly contested Open womens field.

Timaru local and ex-Canterbury University MTB club pinner Cam took the win in a blistering 2min 25 sec.

With race runs over and complimentary chocolate consumed, Jeff and I headed up the hill to sample some of the other tracks on offer. Although similarly slippery substrates kept speed at bay, the lower section of Bang for Buck proved a highlight. Racing into berms with too much speed, the raised corners would catch drifting back ends and flick them in the right direction, an awesome trail sensation which brought whoops of joy. This track alone would justify a visit in the dry, and I for one will be sure to head out for one of their famed shuttle days when time allows. The Bike Methven crew are onto something special with their Mt Hutt bike park, and as word spreads more and more Cantabrians are associating the Hutt with premium mountain bike trails rather than mass market snow sliding.

Mountain Pedaler out…

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Karapoti 2011– A muddy puncture-fest

Mini-pinner Anton dukes it out with Dirk on his way to the win.
The youngest ever Karapoti winner at 16 years of age!
Photo Wheelworks Racing

The weeks leading up to this year’s Karapoti had been marred by the tempestuous tantrums of Christchurch’s shakey monster. Ravaging the city’s streets and buildings and causing tragic losses of life, it gave a strange hue to my final preparations for this race which had been one of my season goals. With my home made uninhabitable and teetering like a cinder block Jenga tower, I was taken in by good friends Ross and Anna, and even managed to escape quakechurch for the solid ground of Tekapo for the weekend prior.

Perhaps the biggest effect of the quake on me was psychological, and I felt uncertain whether I could muster the motivation to climb into ‘the box’, with doubts circulating in my mind in light of the precious fragility of life brought to the fore by recent events.

I can genuinely say that I overcame this, justifying the indulgence of racing by telling myself that to let the harsh actions of some tectonic forces control our lives would be a failure of the human spirit. The fact was we had survived and should celebrate by doing what we love.

So it was off to Wellington where we squeezed in substantial Thursday ride where another good friend Rhys took us for an afternoon tour of Wellington’s peaks, taking us down trails which were in his preferred steep and sketchy style.

Come Friday, the pounding of rain on the roof of Rhys’ loft suggested conditions would be greasy, and a day of rain induced inactivity left me twitching in anticipation; perfect for a race like the Karapoti.

Starting with the traditional waist high dash across the river, which felt higher than usual especially after the obligatory tumble finding footing on the rocky river bed, it was off on the sealed rode a furious pace.

I was well positioned here and in the top ten, biding my time as we swerved and splashed through monsterous puddles up the gorge trail. It was only a short while after when disaster struck.  A jagged rock concealed in the murky depths of one pond-sized puddle sliced an inch long gash in my front sidewall, instantly deflating it and sending me careening out of control.

Not disheartened, and clutching at memeroies of sub 2:45 times pulled out in spite of similar failures, I executed a frantic puncture fix, chucking a tube in the front and pumping the crap out of it to avoid further failures. In two minutes I was done and steaming off up the Gorge, passing an Australian rider who had also punctured at this cruel early stage. He, perhaps wisely, ended up pulling the pin.

As I hit the hill I started to pull riders back in. One by one winching past them till I was a good halfway through the field. The descent of the Rock garden is always a favourite and I forgave any line choice in favour of descending via the gushing waterfalls that flowed over the fall line, shredding past more riders and stoked for what lay ahead.

By this stage my attempt at a tire boot had revealed its inadequacy, with a giant rubber zit now bulging out of the sidewall and rubbing on the fork arch. Fearing that this friction would lead to a catastrophic tube failure, I made the painful decision to stop and put another boot in. Again it only took me a few minutes and I was off again, shouldering the bike and running sections of the knee crumbling devil’s staircase. Recent adventures in the Canterbury highcountry and Nepal have made the bike over shoulder position second nature, so it was no surprise when I pulled back some of the people that had passed me.

Big ring boulevard is usually one of my favourite parts of the course, and the top section lived up to its reputation, the fast flowing turns making me feel all too much like a bike riding rock-star.  As if sensing the stoke and wanting to keep spirits in check, a sharp rock again claimed a sidewall, this time on the rear. Throwing in my last tube and pumping with all the vigour I could muster I was off again, and set about the all too familiar game of leap frog I’d been playing with the back of the elite field.

The final two punctures came of all places, on Dopers, which is the very climb one must bury oneself to garner a good result. While I should have been seeing stars from anaerobic exertion, I was trackside fixing one, then a second flat, after the first failed due to poor patch adhesion. Turns out it is pretty difficult to get them to stick when the driest thing around was my growing repertoire of puncture related humour.

All repaired and it was off again, climbing Dopers in personal record time and gingerly riding the final descent, knowing well that another puncture would see my bike hurled off a bank and me walking home.

The gorge is always a joy, its delightful downwards gradient giving a profound sense of speed  and with jagged rocks seemingly shifted by the screeds of tires, and puddles shrinking back into the ground I made it safely to the road with inflation at a maximum.

A final surge across the river for the line and I was stoked for the ordeal to be over. 3:11 was well off my goal but the five punctures that got me there were a fair justification for the blowout.
Such is the fearsome tire munching reputation of the Karapoti, there is even a prize for the most punctures which I duly received.  Can’t imagine how the previous year tallied  a record 12 without some sort of mental breakdown.

Thanks must go to the riders who offered up spare tubes, it is this kind of camaraderie which makes mountain biking awesome. Also to Rhys and Muriel who are always so hospitable on Wellington trips.

Michi and I were generously supported by Cactus Equipment for the race, and they have been staunch supporters of this legendary event for some years.

I can say with certainty that I’ll be back to avenge the punctures-fest that was my 2011 Karapoti, and no earth shattering natural disasters will stop me!