On moving to NZ, one of the first races I looked at was the Contact Energy Lake Hawea Epic. Promising a lap of a moraine lake in a glacial tarn, stunning alpine South Island scenery, multiple river crossings and access to normally inaccessible trails, it proved a tempting proposition.
In its tenth year, the race involved multiple options, ranging from 35km to 160km (New Zealamd’s first 100 miler) – with the Epic taking in a full lap of the lake at 125km. With approximately 2400vm of ascent, while seeming flat, the course was anything but, with numerous pinch climbs.
I awoke at about 5.30am in the murky darkness to the sounds of the Centurion 160km race starting and heading off into the night. A groggy and cold morning soon followed, with ominously freezing feet before the race had even begun. Rugging up at about 6.30am, I rolled down to the darkness on the dam in the start, and found my arrival too late, and seeded about 150km back.
A Frantic Start
While this led to an internal state of mild panic, with almost 30km of tarmac to begin the race, it wasn’t a terrible proposition. Leap-frogging like a possessed roadie on the first few road climbs out of Hawea, it took about 4km and rather a lot of lactic to move up to the lead group of riders. Ominously, I wondered just how many matches I’d burnt trying to jump the 150 positions or so to the front group, but consoled myself that it had at least been a decent warm-up.
A decent bunch was rolling along with a lone cyclocrosser off the front. With not much to race for on the tar, the pace was irregular and disorganised, and despite covering something like 34km in the first hour, the pace didn’t seem too strong. I’d marked out Edwin Crossling as the strongest rider in the group – only showing occasionally on the hills and riding with an ominous composure. With the first golden bath of daylight soon streaking across the mountains enveloping Lake Hawea, a perfect day was promised. The first rays of direct sun were streaking in as we transitioned to the dirt.
Foolishly sitting on the front, I was caught off guard when Edwin attacked straight away on the dirt and blew the field to pieces. Despite a small chase group forming, the gap opened quickly, and on the first few pinch climbs, he’d soon rolled into the distance.
Shattered Ambitions and Hard Realities
I attempted to collect myself on the dirt, find a smoother rhythm, and wait for the day’s major 200vm steep climb. When the climb came, all aspirations rapidly unravelled. Due to poor preparation and set-up, I was struggling with my position, and blew my lower back up overextending on the first stretches of the climb. Power vanished from my left leg, my pedaling was irregular and rough, and I drifted backwards.
The race then took a punishing form as we headed up the valley towards the rising northerly sun, with a rocky and rough doubletrack surface diving from creek crossing to pinch climb and back again. When the trail eventually opened into the grass on the lake’s river feed, it seemed a respite from the endless climbing.
Slogging through the thigh-deep (and freezing cold) crossing of the Hawea River, the race turned around to the halfway point, and skirted some rough-cut singletrack through the paddocks, heading South on the Eastern bank. Rolling along and trying to keep my back moving, a slight tailwind and brilliant morning sun reminded of a perfect day out on the bike.
A Bump in The Road
This came to a violent halt at about the 70km mark, when a rider in the Classic got a tricky ditch crossing wrong, and cartwheeled through a tree in a massive crash. Within seconds of the crash he’d passed out and was unresponsive on the ground, with wheezing breath. After a panicked discussion with fellow riders we sent off for help in both directions and I found myself questioning my distinct lack of remote first aid training. After a nervous 5 minutes or so, other helpful riders had stopped, and our poor crasher slowly started to come around, thankfully with no major injuries except for a (slightly comical) loss of short term memory.
The rescue helicopter eventually hailed, a paramedic handover later, and it was time to roll on. At this point, the ride became purely about the scenery on a perfect day. The rocky trail resembled singletrack as it ground and plummeted between creek crossing to rise, skirting slowly around the Western shore of the lake. After a hard grind to the 90km aid station, and a loop away to Dingleburn Station, the beauty of the setting was almost overpowering.
Despite perfect conditions there were a number of injuries that kept the safety and medical team busy. Five riders were evacuated by helicopter for accidents involving shoulder, hip and ribs. Two Centurion riders lived up to the titles of Roman soldiers by completing the 160km with reasonably major injuries. Being part of the inaugural 2008 Epic race and having completed every one since, the Last Men Standing made it to the finish line despite the pain endured. Andrew McLeod, a local doctor, had self-diagnosed broken ribs as non-life-threatening and Bruce Thomson from Christchurch used a sweatband to cover a gash to his arm but couldn’t make prize giving due to being operated on and stitched up at Christchurch hospital. Both stated they were not ready to withdraw from the Last Man Standing just yet. A huge thank you to Bill Day and the crew for flying rescue missions all day.
Finding the Scenery
With one violently steep climb remaining and the promise of a faster road surface for the remaining 35km to the finish, it was time to tuck in and push on into the morning sun. A section skirted between cliff edge on both sides with startling views and exposure to the still blue lake below, swooping along a contour pinned against the cliff – a beautiful evocation of riding a mountain bike in a stunning place.
With the finish line came mixed feelings – a disappointing day and performance, but consoled by a beautiful day on the bike in perfect weather – some days, it really is all about the scenery!
Alexandra’s Shaun Portegys was the first Centurion over the line with a staggering time of 6:41, followed 15 minutes later by local David Drake(2nd) and Gore’s Simon Callaghan a close third. Multisport athlete Floortje Grimmett won the women’s title with a time of 7:31, Dunedin’s Ronel Cook came 2nd (7:40) and Christchurch’s Whitney Dagg was third (8:48).
The $2400 first prize purse went to newbie Edwin Crossling from Wellington with a time of 4:39 and local physiotherapist, Jo Williams with a time of 5:31. Men’s second place went to Wanaka’s John Metzger (5:57) and one tenth of second later was Mike Sangster from Alexandra. Soozie Wood from Nelson was seconds behind the female leader and Nina McVicar (Christchurch) was third with a time of 5:39.
The Classic winner, Wanaka’s Richard Anderson was just over a minute off breaking the course record with his time of 4:09, second was taken by 15 year old Archie Martinovich (Christchurch) and third 16 year old Ty Sarginson (Wanaka). The women’s Classic winner Maureen Kernick(Wanaka) had a time of 5:31, second place Sarah Gillespie (Wanaka) 5:41 and third place Pip Depree (Christchurch) 5:45.
For further results view www.contactepic.co.nz