Wednesday, January 25, 2012

climbing Onuku hills

With climbs, there's a tendency to focus on those which gain big altitude and are frequently ridden, preferably in top-level races. However, sometimes it's the back-road little-known compact climbs are equally memorable, or in this case, surprisingly challenging.

The day after my big Banks Peninsula hill ride, I went for a short scenic ride with Cara south of Akaroa. The goal was to check out Lighthouse Road. From the distance Lighthouse road is clearly visible, etched in the side of the treeless hill, the occasional car snaking its way slowly up the road's numerous switchbacks. It looked steep. But before our trip I'd set Cara's bike up with a 34/32 SRAM 1070 cassette with a medium cage SRAM Rival rear derailleur, a very nice combination which seemed to work very well (I detected no reduction in shift quality relative to her previous SRAM Red short-cage). So I figured we'd go check it out and see how steep it really was. Looks can be deceiving.

In central Akaroa, she zipped away in her frequent fashion, thinking I'd meant the road to the present location of the lighthouse. But the lighthouse was moved years ago when the actual heavy lifting of keeping boats off the rocks was taken over by an automated beacon: the old residential lighthouse was now just another tourist attraction. Lighthouse Road went to the old site, where the beacon now lives.

The coastal route Cara led us on didn't pan out as expected, however, as first it turned to dirt, then ended in overgrown brush at an exit point for a treated sewage line. Not a tourist hot-spot, I decided, although I hate to discriminate against sewage pipes. I was reminded of the proposal in San Francisco to rename the sewage treatment plant after George "W" Bush, but it was decided that was unfair to the workers there. In any case, we backtracked and continued the way I'd intended, towards Lighthouse Road.

The Banks Peninsula is volcanic, and like Maui, another volcanic land mass we'd visited (in October), the land rises up from the sea without much pause: if you go inland, you go up, at least until you start going down towards the opposite shore. So moving inland to intersect Lighthouse resulted in some non-trivial climbing on Onuku Road at a fairly stiff grade.

But Lighthouse Road was in a different league. I turned briefly left onto the road and immediately recognized this wasn't the sort of thing I'd planned to take Cara on, especially since she was recovering from toe pain at the time.

So instead we continued down Onuku Road which leads to the town of the same name. Onuku is a Maori village whose primary tourist attraction is the 19th century church there: a melding of Christian and traditional Maori iconography. Prominent is a big face with it's eyes bulging and tongue extended, a trademark Maori expression.

The church was in fact very nice, right near the shore. As we were there, a tour guide riding a motorbike with a client in an attached sidecar came by, paused, U-turned, and returned to Akaroa. But we weren't ready to turn back.

The road cut inland from the church, tilting upward before turning a corner. "Uh, oh," I said, "this looks steep!"

"We'll see," Cara replied, and up we went.

Around the corner it kept climbing... and climbing... and climbing. I wondered how far it would go. Once a road starts going up, it's hard to turn back; the top might be just around that next corner!

Eventually I got to a junction, the road continuing steeply in both directions. One direction, labeled Hamiltons Road, appeared to be a more major road than Haylocks Road, the other direction. I paused for a bit, not wanting Cara to get confused about the direction I'd gone, but then I decided she'd probably recognize Hamiltons was the "obvious" route, so that's how I went.

the junction

Wow -- now this was really steep. Cara, I realized, probably wouldn't climb this far, so I wished that the road would end, even if I wasn't ready to turn around voluntarily. My wishes were met, however, when I reached a gate marking the entrance to Onuku Farm Hostel. A car which had recently passed me was there, the passenger opening the gate, but I didn't try to slip through. I declared this the top of the public road, and turned back.

top of Hamiltons
gate at top of Hamiltons

When I reached the junction with Haylocks, I was surprised to see Cara waiting there. Not only had she climbed to that point, but she'd gone further: up Haylocks a bit, before turning back. I looked once again up Haylocks, only now appreciating how pathologically steep it was. Just by climbing a part of that, even with her new climbing gears, Cara proved I'd underestimated her. I told her I'd check it out myself (not wanting to be out-done) and would be back soon.

Haylocks was too steep for me to clip in directly, so I did a little loop at the junction to get into my Speedplays. Then I started to climb.

I was in my 34-26 (34-23 being simply out of the question), but at times I wondered if I'd be able to keep that gear turning. This road was really, really steep. Not Filbert Road in San Francisco levels of steep (31.5%), that road I could only handle for a short distance, but this road was close to my limits for sustained climbing.

After a bit, I noticed a house in the distance, well up the hill, a road leading to it. Roads not being in huge supply around here, the reasonable conclusion was the one I was on led to the house. I steeled myself for the life of pain to which I would be condemned for the foreseeable future... But then, salvation arrived. The road crossed a rough cattle guard at a gate.

the end of my Haylocks
gate marking the end of my Haylocks climb

I briefly considered "sprinting" to a speed which would give me a chance to get over the wide gaps in the guard, as the gate was open, but then I noticed a sign proclaiming "Lambing: keep out" and marking it as land for a Bed and Breakfast. I decided to follow orders, and returned to the junction where Cara was waiting. This descent gave me another hint about the grade: it couldn't be much over 20%, because at around 25% such as I encounter on several blocks near home, I have problems controlling my speed, while here I was in no danger. After I joined Cara we then rode back to our holiday park, a journey which took us over three significant steep climbs, but nothing more of the level of Haylocks.

The ride ended with an epic fail as I went hard at the base of Old Coach Road, intending to set a good Strava time to the holiday park on Morgan, but I simply had nothing in the tank, my motivation snapped mid-pedal-stroke, and I came to a virtual stop seconds later before recovering enough to crawl the rest of the way up the steep hill.

For the ride I was using only the Strava Android app on my phone. My personal Garmin Edge 500 was lost before the trip (stolen? misplaced? Maybe I'll never know), and so I had a Garmin only when Cara wasn't using here. The app records only longitude and latitude, with Strava using map data for determining altitude. This works surprisingly well, but not as well as the altimeter built into the Garmin Edge 500, so there tend to be fluctuations in altitude about the true value.

Here's that result, where I show the profile for riding from the Maori church to the junction and onward up Haylocks to the gate. I constructed this from my climb first to the junction, and later my climb from the junction up Haylocks:

Haylocks profile
profile of Haylocks from Maori church. Ignore wiggles, a mapping artifact; climb is continuously up. Hamiltons profile had greater artifacts and is not shown.

The line shows a 20% grade, and Haylocks has no problem keeping that pace. It would have been interesting to see how it continued on to the bed & breakfast. I suspect it was more of the same.

As for Cara, I'm super-impressed she was able to ride up Haylocks at all, especially after riding the climb to the junction. She's getting much stronger in her long return to her fitness levels she had before her mountain bike crash in 2009.

Later in the day I considered returning and exploring Lighthouse myself. However, I was simply too tired from all the recent activity. I needed some rest.

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