You know you’ve been around for a while when you take to the start-line of a mountainbike race, 20yrs after your first one. And what a start line it is- on the banks of the Akatarawa River…your feet are soggy and you’ve had a swim even before hitting the pedals.
Back in 1994, as a pimply high-schooler, it was ‘THE’ mountainbike event for anyone in New Zealand. Not much has changed in the last two decades, except nowadays I ride Karapoti on one wheel rather than two. It is an ideal unicycle race, because of the impossibly steep hike-a-bike sections like the Devils Staircase.
The weapon of choice this year was my trusty Triton titanium unicycle, decked out with 29” KH XC rim, 145mm cranks and 2.25” Racing Ralphs, and the carbon NNC Flatfish saddle. Simple, lightweight and bombproof! I decided to take the Maguras off just before the race, to save a bit of weight and add mud clearance. After racing last few years on a geared Schlumpf- it felt good to get back to the basics…no brakes, no gears, no handlebar, just a fixed wheel. I’m unconvinced a geared hub was a good option anyway, and wiped myself out last year after the cranks came loose and disengaged the hub. Unicycles are meant to be simple machines!
There were only two of us racing 2014 Karapoti- local lad Tim Armstrong from Upper Hutt, and myself, now relocated back to Wellington after several years in Australia. Tim is a formidable runner, so I was keen to get as much distance on him up the Karapoti Gorge as possible, which is pretty much how it panned out. After splashing across the Akataratarawa river, I pedalled as fast as I could up the gorge, opening up a gap before hitting the warmup climb. With Tim chasing hard, I put everything into maintaining a flawless spin.
My fitness levels were pretty average this year, but much of it depends on how you feel on the day. When we got to Deadwood climb proper, I knew I was having a great day because I just felt happy. Like really happy, instead of wanting to vomit and cry in the same spot every other year. It was a combination of great weather, smooth Karapoti conditions, lightweight unicycle and many things going great in my life right now.
Before I knew it, I was diving down the Rock Garden. Instead of gingerly clamouring over boulders, I was skipping my way through lines of mountainbikers….a $10k full suspension bike is no good when someone comes flying past with a unicycle on their shoulder.
I got to the bottom of the rock garden having passed several dozen riders, and scrambled over to the Devil Staircase. I was pleasantly surprised there were very few riders cluttering (I mean that in the nicest possible way) the staircase. Karapoti numbers seemed a little down on previous years. This made a perfect opportunity for a speedy climb, rather than ducking and weaving under a carnage of people slipping and sliding with bikes on their heads.
I got to the top of the staircase, legs still feeling quite okay, and bombed down Big Ring Boulevard as fast as I could. I was having so much fun that before I knew it, I was at the base of Dopers Hill and tackling the final climb. Tim Armstrong was still nowhere in sight, so I heaved a sigh of relief- I’ve never seen anyone go up Dopers Hill as fast as he did last year.
By my split calculations, I was on track for a sub-4hr Karapoti, which would beat my 2005 course record of 4hrs11min. It gave me extra impetus to pedal that bit faster.
I was almost on the home straight when disaster struck. Or, more to the point, a pile of rocks I was too lazy as to avoid struck my wheel. The painful hiss of a pinchflat was a little annoying- in the dozen plus times I’ve raced Karapoti, I have only ever flatted in training. Even more annoying was fumbling about trying to get the wheel off. Why hasn’t anyone invented a quick release unicycle wheel? I wasted well over 10min changing the tube, and just as I tightened up the final bolts, Tim Armstrong comes sailing past. A Deja-vu moment as he did the same thing last year when I was fixing another mechanical.
I hopped back on to chase him down, only to realise that I had not put enough air in the tyre. The wheel was squirrelling around all over the place! Luckily we were already at the top of Karapoti Gorge. I passed Tim and had to juggle staying in front whilst not pushing too hard over rocks in case of another pinch flat. There were some very close calls as my tyre bottomed out (post-race tyre pressure measured 12 PSI and there was a tear along the tube, luckily not quite a pinch flat).
Onto the final sealed road and I knew I was safe, but only had about 100m on Tim. I spun as fast as I could until I reached the Akatarawa River- splashed right into the deep end and ended up swimming. My legs cramped up on the other side, I wasn’t able to remount, with Tim coming up behind me. I sprinted (or waddled/crawled) across the line barely a unicycle length ahead of Tim. The closest Karapoti unicycle finish ever, in 4hrs14min31s!
This was one of the most fun Karapotis I’ve ever done, despite being a little gutted at missing the sub-4hr due to the puncture. It gives me a goal for next year, because I know it’s doable. Tim had taken 25min off his Karapoti PB and was within 3min of the race record…so next year could be the most exciting race yet.