The Bluff

22 01 2011

In Poker a bluff is a crucial tactical play where the player feigns a superior hand as a show of strength to scare off their combatants. In cycling a rider can also (to a degree) ‘bluff’ their way into the minds of the bunch in order to fool them into mistakes and panic manoeuvres. As the road turns upward this can become more difficult as the speeds drop and drafting becomes less effective. Some climbs have a league of their own and there will be no faking it.

New Zealand’s southern most township is also Bluff. Most famous in culinary circles for its Oysters, Bluff also strikes fear in the cycling community. The road peaking on the tip of Bluff Hill is as notorious as any in the country. While it may not be as steep as Dunedin’s infamous streets or long as our great mountain passes, it’s reputation as the finale to the Tour of Southlands traditional first day means that anyone approaching does so with respect. Every year a few of the nations best will be reduced to walking. While those hunting for stage glory will bring out the special occasion gears; tall dinner plates at the back and compact crank set’s at the front, and yes we’re talking seasoned professionals.

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Of course it doesn’t have to be impossible. Local club riders simply out for a challenge will cruise out from nearby Invercargill and after a hard but short final push on the steep ramps bask in the glorious views of the mighty Southern ocean, Stewart Island and the dangerous Foveaux Straight .

However the true legend of the climb is on that first Monday in November after the heads of state in New Zealand road racing have been forcing the pace for an already exhausting 80 km. As winds howl in from the North West the peloton stretches in a single file fighting for every inch. On the approach to Bluff township they start to arc around the horseshoe bay. The final punishing slopes of the hill top finish now in plain view of the racers just across the water to their left, striking fear in the weak and further exciting the hopefuls. The gentle curve in the road gradually moves the wind off their tail and onto the shoulder. Echelons form in the hope of some reprieve but the big boys are now racing for position leading to the start of the climb and the speed remains.

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There is a downhill run into the beginning of this beast acting to disrupt leg speed and climbing rhythm. One right hand corner away from the water though and all the gravity feeding is over.

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Tour of Southland 155All that stands before them is a rising bitumen surface that will leave even the strongest of men grabbing for lightest gear their machine allows. The hard climbing starts immediately, though the wise know this only to be an appetiser. A slight tilt to the right brings them to the first K.O.M points line (this climb is so bad it has two K.O.M’s). Then as if sent from the heavens a downhill dip allows the weak to blissfully freewheel momentarily before the fires of hell rise up. This second part is where the game face turns to survival mode. Immediately angling at 20%, part 2 is where the strong really start to separate from themselves and the fallen resign to simply finish.

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Again though this climb teases with temporary respite. While it may not be exactly another coasting downhill, the lessened angle will be welcomed by many as the front runners shift down the cassette and prepare for the main course.

Tour of Southland 159A left hand turn brings ‘the straight’ into view and every bluff up to now will come under scrutiny as rider after rider forces the pace for stage glory. It is on this straight that Tour folklore is often created. Pitching at an average of 19% for close to a kilometre this is where legend is made. Still the wise hold a little more in reserve; desert still awaits. As the straight is devoured fans pack a right hander at the top like hungry wolves. Just when you thought things were tough a wall appears.

Hero’s will be humbled, resorting to a humiliating zig zag in orderTour of Southland 162 to keep forward momentum until finally, finally rounding a long left the most beautiful finish line in domestic racing appears before them and an epic 2 km is over. The body cries for joy in relief. Satisfaction over comes pain. Vast expansive panoramas open up from the tar seal that has taken up all the previous focus. Reward of another climb conquered overwhelms.

Climbing can make you feel like a disaster. But climbing can be beautiful. The suffering has a end, and at that end is a rainbow like no other. Find your Bluff and enjoy the conquest.

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Climbing a numbers game

22 07 2010

It’s that time of year when we are sitting at home watching the world’s best battle hell up in the heavens of the French Alps and Pyrenees. The commentary rattling off numbers of percentage to better describe the severity of each climb and it’s category rating. While you sit at home wondering how that relates to your own terrain, in the hope that what you battle with your mates on the weekend has some resemblance to the stuff the pros tackle and give you a glimpse of their relative super powers. Maybe on the occasional lone wolf ride you love to pretend your one of your heros smashing his or her way up an Hors Category Climb having broken away from the imaginary peleton en route a beautiful victory. Maybe I’m revealing too much about myself…

Lets look at some numbers of some famous Tour de France climbs and then relate them back to something closer to heart and home. You might be pleasantly surprised and yet you also might be unsurprisingly humbled. This years Tour is the centennial anniversary of the big mountains inclusion and to celebrate the organisers have devised a route highlighting the Pyrenees. In particular the climb of the Col du Tourmalet, which will cruelly be ascended twice. Once from each side and only a rest day to separate them. Heres a profile of this years Queen Stage 17:- 

No your eyes are not deceiving you that is finishing the stage on top of over 17 kilometers of climbing totalling 1268 meters of vertical gain, at an average gradient of 7.4 with maximum ramps set on serious hurt just over 10%. This is one of the more brutal climbs of the Tour any time it is included, and appropriately carries and Hors (out of) Category rating.

My Favorite; the Col du Galibier via the Col du  Telegraphe. From the north side this beauty in  the heart of the French alps is a regular ‘through route’ and more than likely the highest pass on the Tour de France; often humorously preceeding the infamous L’Alpe d’Heuz. From bottom to top it is a 35km grind that takes you to 2645m above sea level. Broken only with a 5km of descent – in other words, strap in and get comfortable you’re gonna be climbing for a long time. Mere mortals would expect to be going upwards for 2 hours plus! It’s average gradient of 6.1 is skewed because of the downhill interruption, but you can be uncomforted (is that a word) by the unsettling 10.1% near the top – of all places… 

Steeper climbs are used in other major tours. The Italians love seeing the men AND women battle on the excruciating slopes of the Monte Zoncolan during their respective ‘Giro’s’. While the Spanish have discovered the Alto de L’Angliru down south to throw havoc into their three-week ‘Veulta’. Both of these climbs rise for longer than 10 km and average over 10%. The Angliru’s final 6 kilometers are at over 13% with multiple ‘ramps’ hitting 18, 21 and 24%!! While the Zoncolan from the west averages a crushing 12% with several straights holding a femur snapping 22%. The professionals race(?) up these climbs with gears and deraileurs taken from the rear of a mountain bike – and that is the PRO’S!! YouTube both names its quite something.

What am I getting at here? Well what a lot of people ask me is how does that all compare to what we have in the Central Lakes of New Zealand. While we might not be able to provide the same vertical gains, we can certainly seek out some steep gradients, especially around Queenstown. The most famous is of course the Crown Range. Naturally there are two sides but we’ll just concentrate on the majesty of the west ascent.

On mapmyride.com the automated software breaks it into three separate sections and destroys its classification. Take solice in the knowledge that this is a genuine Cat.1 climb. The opening ramp off the Cromwell highway up to the first switch back holds on 17% which thankfully levels off at the hairpins to become manageable. Further up however just as you tire the road tilts to a very difficult 19% and sustained for (perceived) eternity – so no shame in being reduced to a slow crawl at this point!

A more pure climb without as much interruption; and one of my favorite genuine test pieces is just across the valley and the scene of the finale to this weekends Peak 2 Peak. The road to Coronet Ski Field.

A genuine Cat.1 climb in our own backyards. Starting from Aurthers Point climbing 8 km is steep straight off the bat; quickly hitting 13% and holding it for a couple of kilometers. There are some moments of respite, but experience tell us to save something for the maximum push after the second “rest area” when after a left turn the road rears up and straight sustaining 14% till just before the switch backs – which offer more entertainment than respite! The views at this stage regardless of your fatigue are stupendous and a real reward for your toil. The decent back down the same way is also (stupidly) good fun.

Still not enough, want something… steep?! Next time you are at the bottom of the Coronet Road walk directly across the highway and peer down Littles Road. That’s what 20% looks like. We climbed it as part of the Tour of Southland stage from Lumsden one year. I was using a 34-25 combination and still was reduced to one leg at a time. It doesn’t last very long, but you desire it over even sooner. Another great steep pitch is used as the Queen Stage and final finish to the annual Easter Tour de Lakes. From Glenorchy finishing at the end of the seal on the Road to Moke Lake. After 4 days of racing and a decidedly ‘lumpy’ course from Glenorchy, this 2 km finishing climb pitches your bike on a 18% angle to set you into the opening 500 metres, thankfully it does get easier, unfortunately your competitors also get faster so it’s difficulty remains all the way to the line.

So next time your watching the box wondering what it would be like, you can take heart in knowing that you’ve probably already knocked off something similar. OK we don’t have the height of the big road passes of the Hors Category, but given that my heart is potentially grateful and might there for hang in a few extra years then I’m quite happy with out them. Dream away, train hard, race your mates, what ever blow your hair back, take pride in climbing these roads they are all great achievements.