Monday, March 2, 2009

Channelling Harry Watson

Some books just aren't for putting down, they find you in the ideal state for slipping into their story, filling their water bottles and waiting for them at the finish. I found one the other day. Harry Watson: The Mile Eater, the second of the New Zealand Cycling Legends series published by the legendary (although people tell me they are very real) Kennett brothers and written (in this case) by Jonathon Kennett, Bronwen Wall and Ian Gray.

Harry Watson was the first New Zealander to compete in 'Le Tour' - the greatest of all sporting events - and he did so in 1928 when the tour was perhaps at its hardest. The near perfect circumnavigation of France in 1928 was 5500 km long, compared to todays around 3600km. The roads were not much more than cart tracks, with some like the famous Col Du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees paid for or upgraded by the organisers. Riders got by on high energy foods, much like we would today without the gu's, and a cacophony of illegal substances, they quote the 1923 tour winner;

"Do you want to know how we keep going? Cocaine for our eyes, chloroform for the boils, and pills - we ride on dynamite"

What most attracted me though was the stories of the immense missions that were road bike races in New Zealand and Australia during this time. The National champs was a gravel gruel festy from Waimate to Christchurch - the original starting place in Ashburton and then Timaru both deemed to be of insufficient length. It seems not unusual to have a week long race with 300km a day on terrible roads and the stories of the riders suffering and lifestyle really are worth reading.

But why this story made this blog (the personal experience one) was that I decided to try and channel Harry Watson. I headed out on my bike over the old Tawa Road, soaking in the retroness of the western suburbs. I crossed the motorway at Porirua and headed round the southern side of Porirua Harbour to Pauatahanui. This is still a peaceful coastline, row boats walllowing in the muddy water, lines of boatsheds hugging the road. From Pauatahanui the road very gradually gets steeper and steeper before dropping off in a rush down Paekakarirki Hill. Its the profile of a roche moutonne. As you rise over the crest first you are confronted with the green windswept swathe of Kapiti Island, then just further along the arc of the Kapiti Coast stretches away with lines of breakers into the distance. Between the beach and the island giant cloud shadows play on the rippled surface of the Tasman pond.

I descended Paekak Hill, just to climb it again. Facetious maybe, but I was trying to channel Harry Watson. I turned quickly at the bottom as I had seen a mystery cyclist 5 minutes ahead of me on the hill, maybe I could catch him. Watson used to come this way on the Palmerston North to Petone Classic race. A long flat grind, then a sudden hill, although with only a few gears to choose from the change in pace would have been quick. I spun hard up the lower part of the hill and Watson was there with me, "the mileeater", the first valley is the steepest but when you emerge from it you still see the top of the hill towering above you. Watsons psiton like pedalling style powered past me. I hung on for a while, gamely, following his wheel, before adjacent to the 400m to the summit sign I feel adrift, he rubbed it in by accelerating over the crest. Needless to say I didn't see him again I am never very good at the downhills.

As I descended the gentle slopes to Pauatahanui, now regenerating in native scrub. I thought of Watson and his rivals, hard bastards, screaming down this gravel road, with ruts and crashing into the burnt out landscape. Fighting for every kilometre, aching for every change in slope. I meandering back home over Haywards Hill, happy to be out on the bike and feeling fit.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Jamie,
Did you take along cocaine, chloroform, and pills?

Jamie said...

Hey Robb,

Only make believe ;-)


Bob McKerrow said...

Was Harry Watson your grand Dad ?

You are clean Jamie, you wouldn't touch cocaine, chloroform, and pills. I know it and how could Robb dare think it ?

In 1928 my Dad cycled from Ch Ch to dunedin on an old black beauty bike with double forks. He did it in three days.


Jamie said...

Hey Bob,


I'm clean as a whistle, and have got proof. Was subjected to drug testing over summer, pissing in a little cup in front of a big man (although he was nice enough to turn on the tap to encourage me).

What those old timers did on crappy roads with pretty basic technology (as in technology that is basic to fix) is pretty impressive. I think we have forgotten how efficient bike transport can be if you practice a bit.

Take care


Mick said...

Thanks Jamie,
I'll try channelling Watson on my daily commute, might be helpful. There's a Waikanae-Paek-Upper Hutt ride on in 10 days too:-)

Jamie said...

hey Mick

need to catch up sometime soon man, hope all is well.

was thinking of doing the Kapiti challenge, would be a fun ride, but maybe next year, Penny has a rare weekend off, so will be doing something more social!