Lake Wanaka

The wind whipped across Lake Wanaka, a frigid hand slapping Fiona across the face as she adjusted her helmet. Dawn was a bruised purple on the horizon, mirroring the nervous knot in her stomach. Today was the Motatapu Challenge, New Zealand’s grueling 150km mountain bike race, and Fiona, a florist shop owner a seasoned cyclist but a Motatapu rookie, felt a cocktail of fear and exhilaration.

Beside her, her teammate, the ever-optimistic Tom, bounced on his balls of his feet, a stark contrast to Fiona’s quiet focus. “Ready to conquer this beast, Fi?” he boomed, his voice swallowed by the pre-race chatter.

Fiona offered a tight smile. Tom was a natural, a mountain goat on two wheels, while Fiona was more comfortable on the smooth tarmac. This race, with its treacherous climbs, loose gravel paths, and unpredictable weather, was a leap outside her comfort zone.

The starting horn blared, shattering the tense silence. A sea of lycra-clad bodies surged forward, a blur of colour against the stark backdrop of the Southern Alps. Fiona and Tom found themselves swept along in the current, legs churning, lungs burning. They quickly fell into a rhythm, Fiona drafting behind Tom, his powerful strokes shielding her from the worst of the wind.

The first climb, aptly named “The Old Man,” loomed ahead. Riders began to peel off, their gears groaning under the strain. Fiona gritted her teeth, shifting down, her legs screaming in protest. But she refused to give up. Tom, sensing her struggle, dropped back, offering a reassuring pat on her shoulder. “One pedal stroke at a time, Fi. We’ll get there.”

The sun finally peeked through the clouds, bathing the mountains in a golden glow. As they reached the summit, Fiona gasped. The view was breathtaking – a tapestry of emerald valleys, turquoise lakes, and snow-capped peaks that seemed to pierce the sky. The sheer beauty of it momentarily erased the ache in her legs.

The descent was exhilarating, a rush of adrenaline as they navigated switchbacks and loose gravel. Fiona, usually cautious, found herself pushing her limits, the thrill erasing all fear. But the thrill was short-lived. A misplaced rock sent her tires skidding. She fought to regain control, heart hammering in her chest, but it was too late. The ground rushed up to meet her, a symphony of pain erupting in her shoulder.

Dazed, she sat up, adrenaline ebbing away, replaced by a dull ache. Tears welled up in her eyes. The race was over. Tom skidded to a halt beside her, his face etched with concern. “You okay, Fi?”

Fiona gingerly tested her shoulder. It throbbed, but there was no obvious break. Relief washed over her. “Yeah, I think so. Just a bit shaken.”

Disappointment gnawed at her. She’d trained for months for this race, pushed herself beyond her limits. And now, a stupid fall had snatched victory away. Tom, however, seemed unfazed. “Hey,” he grinned, pulling out his granola bar. “We may not finish first, but at least we’ll finish together. And who knows, maybe you’ll beat me next year.”

Fiona managed a weak smile. Tom was right. Defeat was bitter, but giving up wasn’t an option. As they continued, the pace slower now, the camaraderie of the race unfolded around them. They offered water and encouragement to struggling riders, receiving the same in return. It was a reminder that it wasn’t just a competition, but a shared journey, a testament to human resilience.

Finally, they crossed the finish line, exhausted but exhilarated. Fiona’s shoulder throbbed, but the ache was a mere whisper compared to the surge of accomplishment that washed over her. She hadn’t won, but she’d finished. She’d conquered The Old Man, the wind, and her own fear.

Later, huddled in a warm pub, a beer warming her hands, Fiona listened to the stories exchanged between riders. There were tales of triumph and disaster, of unexpected friendships forged on the mountain. It was a celebration of the human spirit, a testament to the power of pushing oneself beyond perceived limits.

As the sun dipped below the mountains, casting long shadows across the lake, Fiona knew this was just the beginning. The Motatapu had challenged her, humbled her, and ultimately, inspired her. She raised her glass in a silent toast to the mountains, to the race, and to the indomitable human spirit within her. She would be back. Next year, she’d conquer The Old Man and the Motatapu, one pedal stroke at a time.


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