Can you manufacture obsession? Can you redirect passion?
My name’s Henry – I’m a mountain biker. Through and through. I’ve been lucky enough to shape my whole life around my hobby. I split my time between Europe and New Zealand and work at a place that I love – Vertigo Bikes, Queenstown
. I’ve lived and breathed mountain biking for years and it is the central pivot of my life.
A bit of background about me – I’m not scared of a challenge and I don’t mind a pedal. In fact, not minding a pedal is something that my friends hear me say all too often. In 2015 I climbed a million feet of vertical
. Once I finished that, in October of that year, I was at a loose end. I rode some park laps, I partied myself into the ground and, all in all had a whale of a time. But after six months I was ready. Ready for something new. Something different.
In March 2016, during the Tour of Aotearoa, the topic came up of the shortest time ever recorded to ride New Zealand end to end. At that time it stood at around one hundred and nineteen hours. A few brief minutes of conversation later and it was settled, I was going to give it a crack. I used to ride road bikes as a teenager. How hard could it be? My body would remember, right? But my approach would remain largely similar to what it had always been; this would be Average Joe's Revenge.
So I got a bike from Giant Bikes NZ and some lycra from Tineli. It matched and everything. I got sweet disco tech dancing shoes that would take cleats at the bottom. OneSquareMeal supplied me with more delicious energy bars than you could shake a stick at and then I was all set. I certainly looked the part, if nothing else. I was blown away by the level of faith and support these companies showed me. It was both humbling and flattering. It both validated my ambition and also put some fire in my belly.
I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. I’m not really a racer. I hate high-intensity training with a passion and really am your Average Joe. That all being said, I do love big days on bikes. A good ride is starting in the dark and finishing in the dark. I’ve found this strategy serves you well – especially as a way to ease up those miles out of winter training and into the lengthening days of spring.
My idea for the preparation was simple. I wanted to keep my motivation high by riding my mountain bike as often as possible and once a week or every ten days I’d swing a leg over the road bike to sharpen up. I just had this idea that mountain biking, especially in Queenstown, was basically just doing intervals up steep hills. I’m pretty sure, somewhere along the line, I'd read that this constituted good training. I ate cottage cheese before I went to bed and had muesli in the morning. I was basically an athlete. My main source of carbs was beer and it made me sleep well, too.
After a few weeks of following this rigorous training schedule I decided to see how this ol’ diesel engine ran on a proper day. I chose to ride the three hundred and fifty kilometer return trip from Queenstown to Te Anau. I think three fifty is a nice distance. With road cycling I struggle with motivation of anything lower than two hundred K. It hardly seems worth the effort. I’d rather pedal some ridiculous mountain biking loop a few times and burn my legs out on climbs than sit there smuggling budgies. That ride to Te Anau went well though and I really enjoyed it. After that, I knew I had my old legs back to me and that I was on the right path.
I decided to miss the Euro summer in favour of a more secure and stable lifestyle in order to get more training in. It was my first winter for years and many months of hard miles followed. In a funny turn of circumstance though it made me realise that, if anything, the winter riding in Queenstown is better than the summer. Most people hit up the ski slopes so the trails are prime. I don’t like using gondola’s anyway so that didn’t affect me, either. Dust was replaced by dirt and the moisture in the air meant it was “all time” all the time. Once or twice a week I’d hop on the tarmac. I actually was enjoying the balance. Only a few roads weren’t dangerous due to ice and this actually helped I think. It limited the amount of road miles I could cover which enabled a more relaxed approach. I would go quite hard and try and get quality over quantity whenever I did decide to go out.
Once spring came and the snow was chased up the hills by the sun I started eking out those bigger days; two hundred and fifties, three hundreds, four hundreds and eventually five hundred kilometer days. I’d do one of those rides every two weeks and apart from making appearances at Queenstown’s most serious casual ride, or maybe most casual serious ride, Wednesday Worlds, I largely just kept on the dirt. It was great. 7000 m of climbing and descending a week. No serious training or puffing and panting. Just good times to be had. I also had one eye on my separate target of Everesting Rude Rock. I’d given it a crack two years prior but due to an error with my GPS I had stopped sixty meters of vertical too soon. I was desperate to go back stronger and more prepared than ever and get that all important 26th lap in one sitting. When I got that Everest I felt like a weight had been lifted. I didn’t struggle this time. I enjoyed it. I pushed on the descents and laughed on the climbs. This was, for me, a massive nod to the fact that I was in the best shape I ever had been. It was the confirmation that I sought and, indeed, got.
Road riding in Queenstown is hard. It’s lonely. The roads are coarse, rough even, and the winds are strong. Doing miles here both puts hairs on your chest and then turns them grey. The roadie scene here is small yet resilient. But from that pool of some awesome folk, there were none that fancied coming on fifteen hour plus rides. Nope, this path would be one that I would have to travel alone. I’m no stranger to solitude. I’m not put off by my own thoughts nor scared to be alone with them. I’m a thinker and thinking is done best under moderately hard work, carving through a landscape at thirty K.
All of a sudden, March was coming in fast. In February a Kiwi rider, Craig Harper had taken the record down to 105 hours. Craig is undoubtedly a super talented rider, no one can say differently. I felt almost guilty. I never wanted to announce it to the world before hand so I was in a dilemma; did I think I could go faster? Yes. Was it unsportsmanlike to not warn him somebody could break his record so soon after setting it? Possibly. But let me explain this, I’m a talkative guy, I’ll spin a yarn with anyone. I’ll try and make most people that I meet laugh and I’m not afraid to be loud. However, talk is cheap. I hate saying “I will do this”. I prefer “I have done this”. I didn’t want to expose myself. I was in my own head so much I thought more external pressure could tip me over the edge. I chose to fly under the radar for a little longer. I feel bad now for not telling him. That’s one of my main regrets. But that’s the nature of the beast. I found myself at the sharp end of a sport that I knew nothing about.
How often does that happen? Going into something new and trying to break records within a year? I had no connections, no word of mouth. In mountain biking I feel like you bump into most people on the scene and then before you know it you’re talking to a friend of a friend of a friend. I did not have that luxury in road cycling. I was truly isolated. My cards remained close to my chest and both I and the world would have to wait to see what I could do. I had no reference point, no marker. I only had my own unwavering belief. A belief that was built on a hunch. A strong hunch, admittedly, and I always trust my hunches. My belief ran so deep I could feel it in my bones.
Before I knew it I was sat in a mobile home, loaded up and ready to go, driving towards Bluff, New Zealand's most southerly point. I was going with my utterly wonderful girlfriend Valentina, and two of my closest friends; Jack and Jamie. The boys would be on driving duties and as riders knew how to work on the bikes. Valentina would be on film and photos. They also had one serious undertaking – putting up with me.
We arrived in Bluff in high spirits. I remember surveying all the kit I had amassed whilst tucking into fish and chips. Scanning each bike for a minute or two. Admiring all the delicate touches. All of the setup changes specific to me. Three incredible machines, all class leading in their respective fields.
The majority of miles would be on a Giant TCR Disc Di2 - light, fast, and stiff under power. Yet it could take 28c tubeless tyres, wide by road standards, and is more comfortable than its racing pedigree would let you imagine. It’s probably my favourite bike that I have ever owned. Period. Mountain bikes and all. I had bastardised the aesthetics of it by putting aero bars on but it was necessitated by not only gains in speed but also comfort for my arms and wrists.
My spare bike would be Giant Propel – An aero bike and my original bike at the start of the adventure. In terms of all-out speed on the flat, this thing just went like the clappers. A genuinely startlingly fast bike that constantly surprises you with raw speed every time you head out. But due to it’s tight, clean aero lines it couldn’t handle tires as big as I wanted so it’s was the bridesmaid.
The third bike was a Giant TCX Advanced – Due to the November earthquake, one of the state highways was knocked out. There was, however, a section of around one hundred km of what presumed to be a relatively smooth gravel road. In the end, it was one and half thousand meters of vert, eighteen hundred meters of descent and there was nothing smooth about it. But to its credit the bike handled it. It’s the same frameset that’s seen so much action under Yoann Barelli so I really had no excuse. A ridiculously capable machine.
Look at me, talking about road bikes as if I have a clue. Even fooled myself for a moment there.
I remember running the Tineli clothing through my hands. Just taking it all in. Clothing is important. You’ll notice bad stuff, you’ll put up with mediocre stuff but you’ll love every second in nice stuff. I was so grateful that, whatever happened, I wouldn’t be able to blame any of the incredible equipment I’d been given. It was all simply superb.
I set off from Bluff well. In the first 24 hours I covered six hundred kilometers. I completed the south island in its entirety in around forty hours. The rough nature of the gravel road meant that I missed my helicopter ride. But it’s probably best. The jet set lifestyle would have gone to my head. I would have got off the heli with a cravat on and swilling a brandy. Nope, it was the sailor's life for me and I headed for the ferry. It was a blessing in disguise really. I got to hold Valentina's hand and talk to her – these moments were precious to me. How many times have you wanted to show a loved one what you can do? How many times have you wanted them to bear witness to you doing the thing you feel you’re best at? I couldn’t have even got to the start line without her and having her support on the way meant so much.
The north island beckoned, after a small to moderate amount of faffing in Wellington we were on the way. Only 1000K to victory. Only 1000K until I could get off my bike, high five my friends, jump in the sea and shotgun my first beer in months. I couldn’t wait.
Sadly though, it wasn’t to be. Sometimes you get what you deserve. Sometimes you get what you don’t. That’s just life at the sharp end. Failure is a huge part of achievement and something I both respect and cherish. If I can’t fail at the things I’m doing then the task at hand isn’t that credible. Over the next thirty six hours after Wellington I went through two significant bouts of heat stroke. I felt robbed. I think my already tired body just couldn’t handle the unrelenting heat. I couldn’t retain food or water. I was a mess. I went through the first bout of heat stroke, carried on, lost my mind, carried on and then recovered. Going into that last 500km I felt great but that’s when the second bout hit, harder than the first. I just remember lying in the back of the van, shaking violently whilst hiding under a blanket. So hot and yet so cold. At that moment I appreciated having my friends there. Valentina trying to get sense out of me. Jamie, bless his heart, giving me numbers, the average I needed to hit. By this point I was still on the smash the record. I would also find out after a trip to hospital once I was back in Queenstown that I was fighting an agressive infection in a saddle sore. The sore was so big (6CMx3CMx3CM) that it was throwing my whole pelvis out of kilter. I think that combined with the heat stroke just pushed me over the edge.
After an hours sleep, probably my eighth in total since the ride began I headed into Auckland. At rush hour, on a Friday. It couldn’t have been timed worse. But that’s that was the hand I’d been dealt. There was nothing to do but do it. I headed into Auckland, fending off the traffic whilst still delirious with nausea, and slumped between traffic lights. The one thing I needed then was to keep moving, keep that air rolling over me, but instead, I sat in traffic fumes in the baking sun.
Forty kilometers north of Auckland I called it. I remember thinking “If I get hit by a car then I can walk away from this without a stain on my record”. I couldn’t hold down water. I knew my number was up.
It’s testament to my friend's belief that they didn’t believe me at first. They were all shocked. Their support was unwavering and for that, they’ll have my eternal gratitude. Jack, who had been tireless in his ethic, literally spoon feeding me at times. Jamie, who had kept my spirits high even when I was on the brink of losing my mind. Looking into Valentina's eyes was the hardest part. She knew how much I wanted this and, to her absolute credit, she willed me to go on. “Just sleep now and you can do it”. She didn’t believe that I was beaten. The thought never entered her mind and her patience and respect is one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever carried with me.
The van was eerily quiet and I recorded an announcement. I then rang my mum and cried like a baby. She’s undergoing treatment for cancer at this time and I wanted to struggle in solidarity with her. I wanted to show her that she wasn’t alone. Even as I write this tears streak my face and I gulp air. That’s the hardest part. f*ck the record and f*ck personal ambition, this was for her. f*ck cancer.
I sit here with nerve damage and ruined tendons in my hands. Typing is difficult. There are few things I would change or do differently. The whole thing has taught me a lot. I’ve been kind of disappointed with my reception in the road community. A previous record holder even going as far as to disparage my attempt on my personal Facebook page before sending a kind of weird, almost passively aggressive message to me. He has since referenced this and there are no hard feelings but it still makes me slightly uncomfortable. I worry he feels aggrieved because I didn’t make a song and dance and maybe belittled the credibility of the record by not announcing it formally. Well, I like to think that my movements make noise and shouting isn’t for me. There was also criticism for me not running it north to south like previous record holders. But I live in the south. It’s a point to point record. Not a race. Direction is rider privilege. Both have ways pros and cons - that’s part of the fun. That’s part of the strategy. When I do it it again I’ll start at Bluff again. It makes more sense logistically. The only thing that should matter is the rider. If we start putting too much regulation on a sport that is held by together by goodwill and agreement then it can only end badly. If we put regulation on direction what about regulation on the amount of support vehicles? Helicopters? Mandatory stops? Money invested? How shiny your bike is? Just let it run. Let’s push each other forward not push each other out. The record is arbitrary really. It’s awesome and I will go back one day but I will go back with my friends, a smile, a sense of humour and willingness to laugh at myself, my badly shaved legs and my own failings. It’s only bicycles and taking it seriously is a crying shame.
What next? Mountain biking! I’ll be helping the FlowStyle Patrol team at the World Cups and trying to pass on the help given to me in my attempts by helping others as best as I can. I remember talking to Harry Molloy and he asked me whether I appreciated the importance of a good support team. In short, yes. Yes, I do. Everything has unsung heroes and behind the scenes worker bees. It’ll be nice to be helping others for a change.
I'll come back for that record one day. I don't know when. My immediate plan is to start training "properly" and stretch my legs in some 24 hours races. Only 24 hours? I know, right!?
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