Ever since racing the NZO 24hr Race back in 2006, I’d been itching to get back to ride Rotorua’s sublime singletrack. My race and ride buddy Garrett and I missed out in ’07 so we planned well and booked early to make the trip across the ditch for 10 days of mtb fun. My swanky green Mojo made the trip across the ditch with me.
Thanks to some fortunate timing we entered two well known races — the NZO 24hr Race one weekend and the Karapoti Classic in Wellington the next. I didn’t know anything about the Karapoti Classic before landing in NZ but the opportunity to do another event a week after the fun of the NZO 24hr race in Rotorua was just too good to pass up. It was a good way to round out 10 days of riding in the land of the long white cloud and a chance to catch up with some old friends in Wellington before flying out.
Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa (pronounced Fukka-reh-wah-reh-wah) Forest is a spectacular forest of massive Californian redwoods, pines and a lush rainforest-like underbelly that’s simply jammed full of the most amazing MTB trails you will ever ride. It’s but five minutes drive from the town centre and we’d only ridden a fraction of it on the last trip, so we made sure we would ride as much as we could this time. A noodle around the Redwoods the day before the race served to blow the cobwebs out and help us get our bearings. It also gave us an excuse to order Hell Pizza!
We arrived at race HQ at about 8:30am and in true NZ style the event centre was being arranged in a relaxed, almost casual manner. Compared to 24hr events we’re accustomed to in Canberra there is little infrastructure for this 24hr. A demountable shed as HQ, finishing arch, an assortment of pop-ups for results and sponsors, bunting, a brilliant coffee van and a handful of toilets is all there is. And simple feels great. It’s not a huge race, just a real nice one! Another upside was we could drive right up and park our rental van right alongside the race track and simply raise the back door – all ready to race... Sweet.
The skies looked ominous and threatened to replicate ’The Big Wet’ of 2006 (where the 24hr course turned to mush and was closed for 6 hours) but the event organiser (Dean from www.n-duro.co.nz) must have done a deal with the weather gods as only light rain or drizzle fell during the race making the tracks just a bit more tacky so you could lay it down even more in the corners. The only stressor remaining for us was that our race lights (which I had posted over a couple of weeks before) were held up in customs and may not be there for the event. Thankfully Gaz from NZO came through for us and handed us the box before the event got underway.
The NZO 24hr was a thoroughly enjoyable event and saw Garrett and I and the other lucky entrants careening through amazingly buff singletrack like ‘A Trail’, ‘Tickler’, ‘B Rude Not 2’ and ‘Exit Track’ with huge smiles at every turn. The climbs were not crushing, but wore you down steadily so double laps allowed us to hook in well and then have a good rest between turns. Extra laps don’t seem quite so hard when they’re as nice as this, and the night laps fanging through such fun trails were an absolute delight. The 12.8km course was both challenging and rewarding and we had great racing, consistent lap time, a little snoozing in, no crashes and managed to pop a 3rd in Men’s Pairs. The Mojo made everything I rode feel like melted butter, it was just so smooth and when pointed down in fast singletrack it was one fun fast bump-eating ride.
A rest day saw cleaned bikes and a revived crew of Aussies ready to ride the trails that the guys at various bike shops had said we must ride, so armed with a trail map, breakfast and a strong coffee from Zippy’s, we all set out from the centre of town. We rode some of the singletrack from the race to get us up to the back part of the course and then started to climb steadily up. This continued for quite a while, up and past the start to ‘Hot X Bun’ and eventually up to where the national downhill track runs close to the road (and looks silly steep). Our climbing was rewarded with some great flowing singletrack in ‘Billy T’ as our first run, then a back track climb further up past ‘Billy T’ took us to‘Tuhoto Ariki’ (a 4.8km ride through some of the muddiest tracks I’ve ridden in a long time, and where we laughed ourselves stupid with some outrageous offs). Yet more climbing saw us rewarded with what I think might be the pick of the crop so far with a long rollercoaster of a ride down a track called ‘Split Enz’. This track is incredibly well built and flows at speed tightly hugging the steep hillside. The view about halfway down this track illustrated just how high we had climbed. Excellent tracks like ‘Pondy Downhill’, ‘Pondy New’, ‘Rollercoaster’ and ‘Chop Suey’ followed closely before some our crew started to fade (and the pain of some offs kicked in). We had long since consumed our trail food and water but thankfully a water-stop was right there so we took a well earned break, refilled our hydration packs and made the decision to make for home. 5 hours riding was enough for today… Problem was there were many more tracks on the map that we hadn’t ridden. We were heading off South the next day, so next year we’ll stay a few days longer in Rotorvegas and ride them all! We found a bike shop in town with a stock of Mojo's in the window, so you're all set if you want to buy a different colour one while you are here!
We’d seen some knowing looks and heard a few curious comments about the Karapoti Classic before we left Rotorua. Words like gruelling, epic, relentless, tough and honest etc so we started to wonder whether we had brought the right tyres, fortitude or legs with us. Dan (the guy we were staying with in Wellington) was also entered in the Karapoti as too were nearly all the Welly riders we’d met previously. It seems to be a right of passage… a must-do annual event for the serious mtb rider. All of them said it was tough. We went for a ride with Heidi and Ross up the local trails of Makara Peaks on Thursday night, and it was here that they started to let us know what to expect at Karapoti. Three really big hills apparently… and steep ones at that. Then there’s the rock garden, the bogs and the hike-a-bike sections to name a few. Oh yes, and there were serious rainstorms predicted for the weekend just to make things interesting.
Hey, how hard could it be? It’s only 50kms…
Well, pretty bloody hard as it turns out and if I’d taken the time to read through the Karapoti website (beyond finding out what date it was on) I would have learned that besides being the longest running mountain bike event in the Southern Hemisphere it “revolves around an uncompromising, some say cruel, 50km of 4WD trails, gnarly single track, wheel sucking sludge, raging river crossings, wall to wall wilderness and huge hills that have you grinding a granny ring up but grinning like a goon on the way down. It's the toughest mountain bike race in the Southern Hemisphere.” The description is spot on.
The race started with age group waves launching en mass Le-Mans style across the stone strewn Akatarawa River with bikes on shoulders. A sprint up a tar road and then onto the dirt through Karapoti Gorge and into the ‘warm-up’ climb which is a series of increasingly harder climbs and descents ending with a steep drop into a riverbed which marks the start of the first proper climb called Deadwood. I had an ordinary start to the race where a lot of people flew by, well before any of the real climbing. Uh oh.
Each of the 3 climbs ascend to about 600m, all of them sharply and I reckon the first climb was the toughest for me. I had dead legs right from the start of the race and then the shock of walking the steeper sections I couldn’t clean had my heart rate peaking out. I was not alone, many riders were trudging up one behind the other. Some of the more gifted riders who made it higher into each section before eventually dismounting were an inspiration to me to get further on the pedals. I’d try to ride where I could but it’s pretty nasty on the legs. I kept hoping I was near the top, but there were all these rolling tops and extra little climbs so I was never sure when the big descent into the Rock Garden would begin. It was nice to finally point down and the descent to down to the Rock Garden was fun and fast. The Rock Garden is a 4WD track about 2kms long littered with lots of big rocks and boulders all over the shop making for very interesting or downright scary line choices. There was a line visible from early waves to make getting through here easier. The Mojo made it possible to ride this section quickly without looking like a muppet. I passed a fair few people but there were spots I got off and ran. It was in the Garden I passed Dan, and a little later on I passed a Taswegian guy we’d met in Rotorua. Dan was in the wave ahead, and I found later he’d flatted and was riding conservatively as he only had the one spare tube.
The bogs in and around the Devils Staircase climb were not quite to the knee (but can be far deeper in wet years) so I made sure to run with bike on shoulder rather than trash my driveline. The Devils Staircase is freaky steep (which all you can do is walk) but the nastiest bit felt shorter than the first climb and then spits you out onto a series of granny pinch and roll sections that were mostly rideable. I still had to walk a number of these but kept on trying to go further before dabbing. Traction was good and the Mojo felt willing, but the legs and lungs could have done with a few months hill training… bummer.
At the summit there’s a water station and later huge smiles as the next chunk of distance is mostly a fast downhill called Bigring Boulevard where I grabbed a big gear, screamed off and managed to scare myself silly on a couple of tight corners in the process. Fun was had!
The final climb was the longest at about 3km and still hurt but it felt easier than the first two. The grade wasn’t as steep, though there were many little pinches to keep you honest. Getting to the top meant no more ups and the middle and big rings got a workout for the homeward leg. The 5km downhill was a hoot and then it was time to crank big for the final 6 or so kms to the finish. I didn’t have a lot in the tank, and cramps started to niggle just before I got onto the tar for the final descent. I was racing some guy who I’d started chatting to a few kays back. The lucky bastard lives at the very edge of the Rotorua Redwoods and was in my age group, so I just had to beat him home. It was enough incentive to push me down and into the final river crossing at pace and come out the other side to cross the line a few seconds ahead. I am glad the rain held off, as traction would have gone out the window and could add hours to ride time. Shortly after we crossed the line, the heavens opened up.
The finish times had me in at 3:31:19 and Garrett who was in the wave ahead finished only a few minutes back with 3:34:17. They’re not bad times apparently, but going under 3 hours is a respected (almost magical) achievement. We had beers and pizza with a few locals at a mates place after the race and a number of them did some seriously fast times, Gavin McCarthy in 2:25:25, Ricky in 2:38:39 and Lisa in 3:08:39! These guys live to race, and clearly rate the Karapoti as a favourite. With local trails like this is it any wonder these guys can stomp hills? Watch out if they ever come to Stromlo.
I was trying to think which tracks I’ve ridden in Canberra that come close to how steep the Karapoti climbs are. If you’ve ridden up Webbs Ridge from Flea Creek in the Brindies (or up Gentle Annie for that matter), Karapoti climbs are similar to this but steeper or if you’ve ridden from Two Sticks to the top of Mount Coree, the climbs are similar to the nastier stuff near the top, but again still steeper and damn long. The Devils Staircase is freaky steep with no prospect of riding (though I reckon it would be cool to see the elites charge up there at race pace to see what they make of it all).
The Karapoti was one hard race but it’s certainly got us hooked. Chalk up two more Aussies dead keen to get closer to or even go under the mythical 3 hour mark. We’ll be back.
If you like your pain in sharp hard fought bursts of say 50km, then www.karapoti.co.nz is the event for you. If you like to rail through fantastic flowing singletrack for hours on end, then you simply must go to Rotorua.
Why not do both.
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