In 1977 Walter de Bont, a local of Lake Taupo in New Zealand’s north island, had a good idea: ride around the lake. The whole lake. All 160km of it. 26 cyclists joined him and one of the original 26 riders, Bruce Jaine, was 19 at the time and recalls “Most people thought that 10 kilometres on the bike was extreme”. Since these humble beginnings it has become the most popular cycling event in New Zealand attracting 10,000 competitors a year including over 350 Aussies. While the Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is not a race as such, it is one of the six UCI Golden Bike Series events, a prestigious badge for the best world-class mass-participation cycling events.
As a lead up to this year’s event, I was fortunate enough to be invited to preview the road and mountain bike courses. As I wrote in the first part of this New Zealand Special, the town of Lake Taupo and the Cycle Challenge that bears its name, offers something for everyone. You can have a look at the road riding route for the Taupo Cycle challenge in this video that I took. In this part of our New Zealand Special I’ll take a close look the events that make up the Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. That way you can decide exactly what you’ll do when you get there.
The Main Event: Solo 160km Challenge
The solo challenge is the original Lake Taupo event and it’s also the most popular with around 5000 riders participating. Cyclists grade themselves and are given start times with the official racing starting at 7am; riders are released at intervals over the following two hours. It makes sense to try and be as accurate as possible in choosing your grade to avoid having to overtake other riders constantly or worse, be overtaken throughout the race. The faster riders in the solo event are not far behind the elite at around four and a quarter hours (which works out to be about 37km/h). Regular cyclists tend to average six and a quarter hours which is a 25km/h average.
It is well worth training for this event and being confident about riding the distance. In the first 100 kilometres there are plenty of ups and downs and, although it flattens for the last 60km, there is a killer hill about 20km from the finish: Hatepe Hill. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the video profile.
There are plenty of drink stops along the way, every 20 – 30km, though riders will need to look after themselves for nutrition and energy supplements, as well as choosing the right cycling gear for the weather and tools for simple repairs such as punctures. For serious technical issues, riders are picked up and returned to the start.
160km Relay: 2, 3 and 4 person relays
Over 3000 riders competed in the relays last year. This variation on the challenge allows cyclists to ride in a team to cut down individual cycling distances into more manageable units. 160 kilometres is a long ride for most cyclists and, in the spirit of involving people of different abilities, the relay event is offered and is growing in popularity. There are three official transition points along the way which split the course (roughly) into quarters. Shortly after the start the relay riders are diverted along a different route (Poihipi Rd / Marotiri Rd / SH32) until kilometre 40 at the first transition point, which reduces congestion near the start and first transition area.
Various sub categories cater for relay teams; a majority are corporate teams, mixed (gender) teams are also quite popular. Cyclists in relays have their bikes taken to the transition points on trailers and are bussed in. Likewise riders who have finished their leg are bussed back into town.
Mens 160km Classic and OPI Women’s 100km Road Race
Elite riders leave shortly before the main field and, though this event isn’t part of an official racing series, it is popular with performance cyclists in New Zealand; the fastest finishing time for the 160 kilometres is three hours and fifty minutes. The elite Women have a shorter course of 100km which takes the competitors along on the east side of Lake Taupo to the town of Turangi and then back.
Endurance Events: 320km, 640km and 1280km
The endurance events in the challenge are growing in popularity. Circling the lake eight times is crazy, though last year six crazy riders accomplished this feat, all 1280 kilometres of it. There are also shorter endurance events such as the four times around 640km ride and the twice around 320km ride (which 84 riders attempted last year). These rides are particularly attractive for Audax riders, though they mean an early start and reliance on your own supporters. Night lights are recommended though the long days mean that the sun creeps up early.
Huka mountain bike: 40km and 85km
Mountain biking in New Zealand is excellent and there are three off-road events available in the Cycle Challenge: a 40km cruiser, an 85km challenge, plus, for elite riders, the 85km Huka XL race. The mountain bikers also begin from Taupo and head west along a short road and paved footpath route before going off-road and following the Waikato river (Huka Falls). As the trails are mostly single-track, overtaking is challenging. Built specifically for mountain bikers, they weave through forests or cleared forested land. There are berms, jumps and switchbacks which mean that concentration is key. The track surface may change from pine needles (with stray pine cones) to packed dirt to loose stony sections.
Many local riders will confirm that the 85km mountain bike events are more difficult that the 160km road cycling road. While the elite riders will fight their way through their race with clenched jaws, for mountain bikers taking the challenge or cruiser events, the trails are fun riding, both during and after the events. With section names like “Craters of the Moon” and “Junk and Disorderly”, you are in for a good time.
Some of the sections are quite new as many of the trails are through the Radiata Pine forest that are cut when they are mature and, as in the case of a large section of the course, are blown down by strong wind. In either case the MTB trails are lost when heavy equipment moves in and the pine is recovered, though the mountain bike groups and forestry companies maintain good relationships for ongoing dual-use of the areas. In 2012 there are plenty of new tracks for the 600 competitors expected to participate. Stay tuned for some video of parts of the Huka MTB course.
One Big Bike Party
Taupo gears itself up for the Cycle Challenge with BikeFest in the week leading up to the November 24th start. The BikeFest includes participation and display events for mountain biking and BMX, a street race (criterium), track events and more exotic events like hard-court cycle polo competitions and “big air” jump contents. On Friday November 23 a Sports and Life Style show will take place at the exhibition space at the town centre (Great Lake Centre). For bike enthusiasts it means plenty of eye candy if you can’t get enough of two wheels. On the main race day (Saturday November 24th) most of the activities will be centred next door at the Domain, a large grass area on the start and finish area with live entertainment and prize-giving.
For more details on the race course, procedures and programs, visit: www.cyclechallenge.com
In the first feature story in this New Zealand Series I have prompted everyone interested to book accommodation early since this is the biggest event of the year for a town of 22,000 residents. Although the town always caters to its guests (some families even share their homes) to get the type of accommodation you want don’t leave it too late. A good starting point is the visitor portal: www.greatlaketaupo.com