Yesterday's gentle prologue had settled nerves and allowed the riders to stretch their legs before the challenge of six days straight of 150 km or so each day through some of the most beautiful but testing riding terrain on the planet.
It's a funny thing how the prospect of riding 1000 km in a week can unsettle even the strongest riders. While months of training beforehand is essential, ultimately, it's almost all in the head. If you tell yourself you can do it, despite the pain and inevitable muscle spasms, you will.
In that sense, today was a perfect first long day, "a Goldilocks ride", to quote Roger Teale, resplendent in the yellow jersey. Not too tough, but well tough enough to signal to all of the riders: be careful, conserve your energy, look after yourself and your riding buddies, listen to the road crew, stay left, make sure you get to bed early, and bananas are better than beer, at least this week.
We rolled out from the Novotel at Auckland Airport just as the sun rose and headed directly north east, towards Hauraki Gulf. (The prevailing wind here is a fierce nor'easter. More about that later...) Cyclists must be keen observers, of cars, road conditions, dogs, magpies, take your pick. One thing we observe closely is the quality of the tarmac beneath our wheels. If it's smooth and new, it's a treat. If it's old and knobbly and gravelly, it's at best a chore, at worst, misery. Old, dead, broken roads are the best momentum strippers around. I couldn't help noticing that as we rode away from the airport, every 2 km or so the road quality got poorer, and the riding commensurately harder.
We were soon out of the city and making our way along the coast, the gulf to the north and a palette of extravagant greens in the foothills to our south. When you train around Melbourne over summer, you get used to the brown fields and dusty roads. Here, it's a verdant wonderland by comparison. The pasture and the tree ferns almost glow green. The sheep look ridiculously happy. It's a lovely place to ride a bike.
We stopped for lunch on the Firth of Thames, just shy of 100kms into the ride. By this time, the riders had settled into a routine, meeting those in the group who they had not previously met at training, getting a sense of the group on the road and how our road crew run the ride.
The road crew is remarkable. No road crew, no ride; it's that simple. Overall, the road crew is everyone on the ride who's not riding a bike. Five or six vehicles book-end us on the road and keep us safe. But three of the crew, in particular, direct traffic, literally and figuratively: Tim Chadd, our ride director, Cindy Carle, our paramedic, and Steve "Nashy" Nash, our lead mechanic.
Tim is at the front, in the lead car. Whatever he says, goes. He has done 27 Chain Reaction rides. At the back are Cindy and Nashy. It is their job to block the traffic until, in tight coordination with Tim over the ride radio, they "open the door" to let the traffic through, before slamming it shut a minute or so later.
We have no desire to hinder the traffic. We just want to be able to ride safely. We spend a lot of time in single file, right over on the left, letting traffic through. But we always feel safe, because of the road crew. Cindy, in particular, is so cool it's scary. No-one messes with Cindy. (Think Queen Boadicea meets Rey.) Nashy works with Cindy at the back, sometimes leading cars past the peloton before retreating again to deal with mechanicals as they arise. I get the sense that Nashy could repair any bike with three rubber bands, a few Allen keys and some Gladwrap.
I mentioned the wind. The landscape around these parts is huge. There is nothing to stand in the way of the wind as it roars across the gulf. Last week, Cyclone Hola had torn chunks out of the coast road along which we battled after lunch, riding either directly into the wind or being buffeted by it from the side. While a headwind can be more of a grind, a side wind is more unpredictable. It can blow you across the road. Small guys are like tumbleweeds. The bigger guys suffer the "spinnaker" effect, catching the wind from whichever direction it blows. The last 50kms of today's ride was pretty tough, a slog, two hours of heads down, bums up, the focus on getting to Thames.
As is the tradition, the yellow jersey led us in to the hotel, where we fell on soft drinks, muesli bars and the massage tables.
Today was the first day out for the competition jerseys, awarded at last night's dinner. The white young rider's jersey went to the irrepressibly enthusiastic Angus Clark. (Angus is going to have a great week.) The green sprinter's jersey looked just the part on Richard Haigh. The polka dot "king of the mountains" jersey was worn by Anthony Coxon, which is perfectly apt given he can outclimb a mountain goat. The black "spirit of Chain Reaction" jersey went to Alex King, doing his eighth ride. And, finally, the yellow jersey was awarded to Roger Teale, who personally raised over $55,000 from his supporters for this ride. Roger embodies Chain Reaction and all it stands for. Chapeau!!
Tomorrow we head to Pauanui, on the other side of the stunningly grand and beautiful Coromandel Peninsula. 165 km of tough roads and almost 2,500 metres of climbing is all that stands in our way. We can't wait!