Getting Volcanic at the Craters Classic

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Taupo is located on the verge of the gorgeous 80km Lake Taupo.  While serene and beautiful, it hides a secret: the lake is actually the caldera of a supermassive volcano.  Sitting astride the Taupo volcanic zone, the area is a volcanic hot-spot.

A remnant of the geological history – the stunning Craters of the Moon host the race

The Craters Classic is a race adjacent the Carters of the Moon – a geothermal hotspot located just ten minutes outside Taupo.  Skirting the hills surrounding the lake’s outflow – the Waikato river – the race plunges through the Wairekeri forest.  It’s also conveniently set with the start and finish at the lovely Wairekeri resort, complete with hot pools, bars, coffee, and all the good things.

Post race vibe

With this combination, the race sold out for 2017, with 650 riders registered to race over 12km, 25km and 38km distances.  While not sounding particularly significant in terms of distance, with the course comprised almost exclusively of singletrack, it was still a reasonable proposition and decent distance.’

The history of the Taupo volcano is particularly interesting and slightly terrifying.  Approximately 20,000 years ago, the Oranui eruption occurred – approximately the latest known “bang” in geological history – audible all around the world.  If New Zealand had been populated before, it wouldn’t have been afterwards.  About 2000 years ago, the Hatepe eruption occurred – covering the surrounding mountains in volcanic refuse, the islands in metres of volcanic ash, and plunging the whole world into “The Year Without a Summer” from the subsequent effluent propelled into the atmosphere.

On this fine Sunday however, there were no ominous augers of impending geological doom (indeed, your author swiftly dodged a M4.2 shudder in Christchurch), and despite a frosty start, the sun was shining, the wind was low, and a simply stunning winter day was promised.

Taupo looking lovely

The practical upshot of all this volcanic history is pumice-based trails with superlative drainage.  As with Rotorua, this means the trails have superb water-resistance, and can be ridden and raced even after considerable rain.

The Ominous Signs

My race started poorly before it had even begun.  With very poor preparation (ostensibly caused by long hours and manic weeks at work), my packing had been somewhat shoddy.  The unfortunate consequence was leaving my rear skewer behind.  10 years ago this wouldn’t have been an issue, but with the veritable smorgasbord of skewer/axle combinations now on the market, it’s almost impossible for bike shops to carry them.

After a frantic run through Taupo and on the phone to Rotorua, I was fortunate enough to track down a Bontrager skewer from a Ride Central employee who conveniently lived in Taupo.  Saved, I had soon cobbled a spacing system from shampoo bottle heads to make the Bontrager skewer play nicely with the Norco frame.  Crisis averted!

The Big Kaboom

The race started at 10am, a nice civilised time, and in keeping with my horrendously disorganised weekend, I almost managed to miss the start despite having all the time in the world to be prepared.  Scooting around the resort on grassy chicanes, the course then climbed away, beneath the highway, and out onto the sinuous trails.

Beneath the Highway

It was soon apparent to me that things weren’t going well.  Unlike the spectacular volcanic explosions of the region, I went out with a whimper and not a bang, losing track of the leading group quickly, and then drifting backwards steadily through the fields.  So soon into a big race and to be so far below the speed I liked to go at – the eruptions inside my head were rather more spectacular as the course dipped and wove its way through the pine forests of Taupo.

Pyroclastic Flow

With the course comprised mainly of the refuse from volcanic vents, the trails wove up strange and irregular hills, then back down the other side.  These were formed by the vomited contents of the volcanos – pyroclastic flows of molten rock spewed forth from the vents from the massive caldera.  These became something of an analogy for my race.  While anything that remotely involved pedalling was a painful proposition, flow could still be found on the stunning downhills.  On the days when things go badly, things generally go very badly, with missed lines, dropped bottles, and all the usual fun – and the flow, rather than that of a smooth river, resembled a strange progress of molten rock, ploughing over everything in its path in a manner distinctly lack in subtlety or flow.  Even the superb jumps and hips of SH Fun became mangled heaps, following the smooth lines of Tristan Haycock, “fresh” off 2nd in U23 at Finale Ligure.

The course soon transitioned over the road and towards the hillier portion of the Craters trails.  With a climb up Tank Stand and then the steeper Grinder, the legs began to sting with the bit of the effort.  A blast down Deb’s track through the frost on the other side soon followed before another climb up to the summit.  Transitioning towards the descent, I started to find the flow on the trails.

Strange Detritus

The centre portion of the Craters trails has recently been clear-felled.  The trails have been re-cut, carving through the gullies and circling two massive hunks of rock spat from the volcano.  With my legs feeling appropriately violently dismissed, I wound my way around the rocks slowly, drifting every backwards.

Sam Osborne on the hunt for the win

Beauty from the Desecration

If there’s one thing that volcano soil does beautifully (apart from draining to make lovely mountain bike trails), it’s provide great soil for organic growth.  Plunging between the pines, pockets of lush rainforest could be found, with rich ferns and the deep, clear smell of plant growth masking the ever-present sulphurous overtone of the volcanic plateau.  Which led me to reflect that, despite the immense destructive power of the Taupo caldera, the long-term outcome of its violence was a place of renowned international beauty, capped off by mountain bike trails.  With these thoughts in mind, the final loops around through the forest were immensely enjoyable – finding something redeemable in my own terrible legs, and finding the intrinsic joy of mountain biking even with the race not going to plan.

A Sense of Perspective

Sometimes when racing, it’s easy to lose a sense of perspective and bury in negativity if a race isn’t going well.  There’s nothing like riding adjacent a supermassive volcano to remind you of the beauty of life and its preciousness.  Likewise, of the joy of mountain biking, how much better it is than being at work, that the trails were riding absolutely sublimely, and that Taupo had turned out the perfect day for mountain biking.

All this came home and true finishing the race in dazzling sunshine, hopping into a 38 degree hot pool, and hanging out on the grass with a coffee waiting for the presentations – it had been a lovely day on the bike, even if the racing hadn’t gone to plan!

Finish line wheelies

Results

Battling up front for the day, Sam Osborne had prevailed in a close battle over Glenn Haden.  Pinning junior Max Taylor had also jumped through the field in an amazing ride to pick up 2nd overall,   The women’s race provided equally close racing with Amy Haddon prevailing over Emma McCosh, only 14 seconds up on Josie Wilcox in 3rd.

Podium champagne

Full results can be found here

I’m looking forward to heading north again later in the year for Nduro’s flagship event, the Whaka 100 – a rowdy 100km blast around the finest of the Redwoods with more climbing (and more descending) than you can poke a stick at – truly one of the toughest.

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