It’s a typical Rotorua morning – there’s a cold drizzle and a slight wind, the forests are shrowded in deep mist, and the air is redolent of sulfurous fumes.
On this particular morning, a couple of hundred riders are lined up at the Waipa mill in a colourful display that belies the monotonal grey skies. There’s a quiet nervousness on the air – and with good reason.
While Rotorua has made its fame for predominantly downhill and Enduro-based riding, it boasts an extraordinary collection of trails among the Redwoods forest. To link it all together is a piece of mountain biking genius – but also one of serious suffering.
The Whaka boasted over 100km (and 100km on a Garmin means at least 110km), with climbing figures reading up towards 3800vm, depending on the device – a lot, at any rate. What goes up however has to go down, and almost every single one of those metres was, with the friendly assistance of Reliable Mr Gravity, dished into the sublime singletrack of Whakawarewa.
This event had been a huge target for me personally in 2017. I couldn’t imagine a better and more challenging race to do, and had been hoping to come in firing strong for the big climbs and swooping descents. Sadly, taking 4 months off racing and with minimal riding didn’t really have much impact on curing the dastardly beast that is chronic fatigue, and I came in slightly broken and resigned to the fact that even finishing would be an accomplishment.
The start gun sounded at 8am and the riders streamed off into the moist forest. After a brief fire-road loop the race began with the singletrack windings of Creek, swooping around slowly. The start felt sedate and measured, perhaps weary of the challenges ahead. A few pinches later and not much had changed, and a few sneaky whips were pulled on the flowy, gentle jumps of Dipper.
All good things must come to an end however, and on the first serious climb up Tokorangi Pa – a sharp scrapple on a rutted fire-road – the group detonated. I wandered backwards and tried to find rhythm and settle for the descent of Gunna Gotta.
If there is something in equal measure to the difficulty of the climbing at the Whaka, it’d be the difficulty of the descending. Taking in Grade 4 (advanced) trails, these would be fine on their own right – but hitting them both lactic and blind can lead to mistakes. Sure enough, with the greasy rain on the trails, a rider in front had a huge spill down Gunna Gotta, and gaps in pacing between groups were enormous. Slowly getting my head around both the phenomenal grip of the Rotorua pumice and the need to trust the rut, there were a few shakey moments around Gunna Gotta and then A Trail. I got to the bottom and realised my main bottle had gone with slight horror, and diverted at the 23km mark to refill my remaining little bottle.
This was enough to persuade me to settle down and focus on survival while the battle raged ahead, with Edwin Crossling and Cosmo Bloor dropping Jason, and the lead pack splintering with minimal value in pacing or group tactics. And now, the climbing was really beginning. A sharp grind up Sidewinder led to more windy sketchiness on Tokihinui, through the midst of a recently cleared section. Then turning into the spitting wind, the first major climb started up Direct Road. The change in body language was marked with the severity of the task – find a rhythm, pedal conservatively, hold the rhythm. After the steeps of frontal Lobotomy, we eventually gained the shuttle summit, and plunged down the famous Billy T.
Mentally hooting to Janet Jackson, it was a fun blast down the wide and sketchy trail. A brief fire-road climb followed, heading to a trail completely unknown to me: Kung Fu Walrus.
With a name like that, the trail had to be awesome, right? With tighter and steeper riding covered in pine needles feeling like a round of the Enduro World Series, the Walrus threw up different challenges. Approaching a sharp drop, a rider in front of me balked. Off-line, I hit the drop poorly – and, with a flat landing, soon heard the dreaded “BRAAAAAAAAAAP” of a rolled tyre.
I had a few minutes at this juncture to contemplate some poor life choices:
- Running Maxxis flat-free for so long had made me so arrogant I was only riding with a pump instead of C02 – a quick blast could have seated the tyre again, but no, a tube had to go in;
- I had known quite well that the huge grip levels at Rotovegas demand much higher tyre pressures, but had mistaken tyre roll for too much pressure the day before – and had dropped pressures…
With a steady stream of tyre burps from passing riders on the same feature, I slowly pumped away, now very much resigned to a fun day on the trails. After some hefty pumping I trundled off again and cautiously down the Walrus, almost having a massive spill on another sharp drop further down. A fire-road roll around Blue and Green Lake provided an opportunity to rest and regather some focus, and plan for the ride ahead. If rattled, the scenery was stunning!
It was with heavy legs that the 50km mark passed and we headed into the back half of the race – the heavier climbing section. It is a fact universally known that nothing beginning with the title “Lookout Road” can possibly end well. 15 minutes of slogging in my smallest gear later – legs issuing great protest and mind unmotivated to push hard – the lookout was indeed attained, still mired in the misty rain of the day. We approached another old and sketchy trail – the aptly named No Brains.
The descent was actually very enjoyable, with slow, sharp chutes and rooty drops. About midway through a sharp turning rock drop with a hefty drop caught me by surprise, and I got my line wrong – and was rewarded by rolling my front tyre clean off the rim. Begging a tube off a very generous rider nearby, I had 15 minutes more to contemplate my life choices with a back-drop of surprised yells at the drop from passing riders, and internal profanity as I played with about 2mm of valve thread extending beyond the deep carbon rim.
Now rattled into some rather dark and ragged places, the Ed self-pity-party commenced. Sometimes this happens so frequently in my racing that I worry I actually race my bike to indulge in self-pity. Which in turn, leads to self-derision, and then to more self-pity, in a perpetuating cycle of two-wheeled self-indulgence.
The following trail of Taura put this to bed. A gentle and flowing descent, this turned a rattled and tyre-rolled grump into a whooping, jumping BMXer – discovering that, with tyres seated tighter with tubes, I had a head more control, and enjoying the gentle flow of the trails.
This joy was short-lived, with an almost immediate reversion to climbing – this time, a seriously long climb up the Pondy Elevator. I started in my smallest gear and nearly broke my thumb willing my shifter to magic another gear out of the ether. I thought of the rampaging singlespeeders around us – (including the 5th place Tom – seriously!) with a mixture of admiration, pity and just the slightest dash of capricious schadenfreude as the gradients of the Elevator got seriously nasty. A singlespeeder then joined me for a chat, grinding away at 40rpm as we slowly slogged to the top of Split Enz. Despite the difficulty of the course, the singlespeeders were out in force – with Tad Mejdr holding 4th on a rigid bike against local hero Garth Weinberg and Matt Dewes.
While the Whaka sure is tough, it definitely deals out plenty of reward. This distinguishes it from the races that indulge in suffering of the worst kind -the unrewarded, the pointless, the suffering merely for the sake of the suffering. While the Whaka is one of the toughest – it’s also one of the most rewarding, and the stupendous, grin inducing, everlasting descent of Split Enz was the ultimate atonement for the suffering of the climb.
Now back at the low point of the trails, a pleasant dally through the little-known, gentler XC trails (still with the occasional unexpected 4ft drop) of Yellow Brick Road, Old Chevy, Mad if You Don’t, and Sweet and Sour followed. Even after 2 flat tyres, a dropped bottle and a completely uncooperative respiratory and immune system, it was hard not to enjoy the flow of these trails. A desperate detour for a refill soon followed, before riding past the same tap on the track some 10 minutes later, before the final climb.
Direct Road is named aptly. It is steep, and direct, and mocks weary legs with incessant gradient. The top came as both sweet relief and cruel torture, as the trail soon pointed up again, and again, and again, in unrelenting ramp after unrelenting ramp, before finally yielding to the old school fun of Hot Cross Buns.
An old trail with labrynthine rough lines, Hot Cross provides some steep and nasty chutes for tired and worn out riders. Willing hucks and bravado soon mellowed into pure survival on the steeper sections, with some riders choosing to walk and not take the risk. Leaning back and trusting the ruts, multiple blows to the stomach suggested that a dropper post could soon indeed be in my future. Barrelling into Be Rude not to, the descending continued aplomb, before the sharp climb of Lion brought back awful memories from singlespeed the WEMBO 24h at Rotorua. With the end in sight, every pinch became a tease, every rooty drop a risk, and the kilometres barely teased by. With cramping legs, the final chutes and pinches of Rose Bank followed, with a dunk in the creek for good measure.
When all was said and done, Josie Wilcox had clinched a decisive victory and race record – coming home in 6h 11 minutes and smashing the course record – with Jeanette Gearie also going sub 7 hours, followed by Sarah Haddon at just over the 7h mark. In the men’s, Edwin Crossling had confirmed last year’s second place with a decisive win, with a tight race between young gun Cosmo Bloor and Jason English for 2nd. Singlespeeders had placed 4th, 6th, and 10th – with an amazing 5h 41m time for Tad.
100kms, a ton of climbing, but mostly importantly, km after km of unbelievable trail, rightly regarded as the best in the world. The Whaka 100 definitely lived up to its moniker as one of the toughest, but it’s definitely one of the most rewarding races – unique descents, huge hills, stunning scenery, and sublime singletrack. I’ll be back – not for the toughness – but for the incredible trails!