The Long Haul
|From left: Simon, Jonathan and Paul Kennett in the Nelson to Christchurch race 1994. Photo by Patrick Morgan|
Back in 1990 a good friend of the Kennett Brothers bought a Fisher mountain bike tandem. Before long he was inviting them along to try it on some of Wellington's rugged off-road rides. A little later he moved, taking his tandem with him, but by then extraordinary levels of fear and excitement had buried a seed deep in their collective subconscious - "Tandemonium is good".
Three years later, as the writing of the second edition of Classic New Zealand Mountain Rides drew to a close, another friend suggested the three brothers ride down a local firebreak on Avanti's triple bike as a publicity stunt for their book. Concerned that the frame might break, resulting in injury, Avanti declined to lend the brothers their triple. But the idea would not die.
The Kennetts lay awake at night dreaming of the speeds and mayhem-induced adrenalin possible on a bike built for three. Early in 1994 they approached New Zealand bicycle builders Reiker and received a favourable response. Simon Kennett produced a rough design outline, Eddy Bosomworth completed a detailed CAD (computer assisted design) drawing of the frame and Reiker ordered the special tubing required from Australia. All the specialist componentry was ordered, including four right-hand cranks, a 58 tooth chainwheel and a Hope Technologies tandem disc brake hub from England.
Day after day Reiker's top frame builder, Murray Harding, mitred and welded the tubes until one of the longest mountain bike frames in the world lay before him. It was late October, just two weeks before the Triple's debut event. A team of up to four mechanics at Sams Bike Shop worked hard for three days overcoming the unique challenges of assembling 'the beast'.
Five days before their first race the Kennett Brothers heaved the Triple out onto the street and ever so sheepishly wobbled off on its first test ride.
Saturday 12th November, midnight.
The Kennett Bros pulled up to the start line of the "Great Nelson to Christchurch Race", with many unanswered questions spinning through their minds. "How will it climb?", "Which part will break first?", and "Can we hack a 428 km non-stop race?"
The gun went off and the big bike slowly gathered more and more momentum. Soon it was hauling the whole field along and the bros realised they'd have to calm down to get a turn drafting. After 30 km the first big climb arrived and the bunch disintegrated. They reached the top with two other riders, a good minute down on the leader.
But as soon as they began to descend the Triple's major strength became fully apparent. It shot downhill through the dead of night like a guided missile. At the bottom they had the hapless leader within range, changed into the 58 tooth chainwheel and cruised past at a cool 70 km/h. Then everything was behind them, only a black void lay ahead. An incredibly exhilarating, primitive unknown which sent adrenalin pulsing through their veins. The 637 metre Hope Saddle was soaked up like a railway overpass.
Perhaps it was the puncture just out of Murchison or simply poor pacing, but up the Shenandoah Saddle their pace began to crumble. "Are you hitting the Wall?" Simon yelled to Paul from the other end of the bike. "Shut up!" Jonathan snapped before a reply could be given. The bros were tiring. Sunrise was approaching but it was the coldest part of the night and a light head wind with rain had settled in.
They struggled on to Springs Junction where they scoffed some extra chocolate biscuits and got into an argument with the Service Station attendant for no good reason. Their mood matched the weather as they set off to tackle Lewis Pass, the highest point of the ride at 907 metres. The triple was too flexible to be ridden standing up, and as they resorted to the 28 by 28 gear on the steep pitches Jonathan considered getting off and jogging along side. It would have been faster and easier.
By the top, where snow was visible despite thick cloud, Simon's hands had become too numb to control the brakes, so Paul hopped on the front. A cautious descent was followed by a painstaking series of small sharp hills and a few fast flat sections.
The rain stopped. The bike was still in one piece. Spirits lifted as a countdown to Christchurch began.
Culverden saw the onset of the 'sideways wind tunnel test'. The pace slowed dramatically as they tried to control the cumbersome beast and at one point they were blown off the road. Some serious visualisation of the finish line at Cathedral Square and warm bathes followed by soft beds took place to renew their determination.
A TVNZ camera crew joined the team on the outskirts of Christchurch and a pretence of serious racing resumed. Through the suburbs children and adults alike stood and stared agasp as they sped past...'what the hey?!'.
At 2.35pm, 14 hours and thirty five minutes after leaving Nelson, they reached the square. A finishing crowd of three offered congratulations in an understated English manner and politely looked away as the three brothers guzzled sports drink, rubbed their numb bits and wondered, "what next?".
Saturday, 26 November. Their next ride would be the 160 km Round Taupo Challenge. With 2000 participants the challenge was to avoid running over any of those pesky single rider bicycles. Paul had the flu, so an in-form Jonty Ritchie was plugged into the back seat.
Twenty minutes after a very slow start the triple bore down on the front bunch, which was being lead downhill by a tandem which had run out of gears. Simon shifted into the 58 by 11 gear, Jonathan yelled out warnings of their approach while Jonty hung on with an insane grin from ear to ear. As their cadence approached 120 the bike's vibration reached some sort of resonance and it began to shudder. At speeds around 100km/h it was time to stop pedalling, get into a tight tuck and watch the road fly by like an Olympic luge course.
As fast as the triple passed the lead bunch on each descent the lead bunch would re-pass the triple on each climb. On the flat their advantage was not enough to drop close-drafting road racers. Realising that they would lose out badly in any group sprint they pushed the pace hard into Taupo in a final attempt to drop any tiring riders. This attempt was only partially successful and in the final 500 metres, where the course negotiated tight corners and judder bars, several roadies shot past.
The team of three were happy to cross the line in 16th, 17th and 18th place with a time of 4 hours 4 minutes.
5 March 1995. It was time to take the beast home; back to its roots - off road. Steep climbs and tight single track were out of the question so the Kennetts decided, after successfully testing the triple off-road on the Big Coast ride, to try the Mt Climie downhill on the day of the Bell Eliminator. In an attempt to spice things up Paul and Simon would ride blindfolded - the ultimate test of their faith in Jonathan's riding skills.
It was mid-afternoon before they had a chance to set the triple up at the top of the steep 6 km descent and don the blindfolds. Paul claimed not to be scared as Jonathan barked out reassuringly authoritative commands. "All aboard. Left pedal up. Go!" Simon trembled a little. "Left turn. Lean. Straight. Rear brake! Right turn. Right. Right!" A spectator laughed and yelled to go faster. "What am I doing here", Simon mumbled to himself. "Uphill. Pedal hard. Right. Left. Straight. Sharp right. Brake. Lean right!" The rear end of the triple began to wash out and carve a huge radius round the turn - the rear tube had punctured.
The huge braking force on the rear wheel had pulled the tyre and tube around the rim, shearing off the valve off. The rim was so hot that the polyurethane rim tape had melted into the spoke holes and a quick spit onto the disc brake dissipated into steam.
They continued running the event and returned later in the day to finish their run down the mountain. By the time a 2nd puncture had been repaired almost everyone had gone home. As they carried on towards the 'Big Dipper', a 30 degree slope that sees single bikes exceed 90 km/hr, a faithless Simon ripped his blindfold off and started yelling unintelligible commands. But by following a line clearly marked out by the numerous downhill racers before them, the triple lunged safely to the bottom.
Soon after the Dipper they suffered a third puncture and with a mixture of disappointment and relief, abandoned their attempt. Till next year.
Frame - Handmade in NZ by Reiker
- Reynolds 501 mountain bike tandem tubing
Hubs - XT front, Hope Technologies Tandem Disc rear
Spokes - Alpina 13 guage
Rims - Fir, 36 hole
Brakes - XT canterlever front and rear
- Hope Technologies rear disc brake
Front and middle bottom brackets - concentric design
Chainwheels - Front 36 left, middle 36 left-46 right, rear 46 left, and 28, 44, 58 on the right.
Freewheel - 11-28, 8-speed
Sprung seatpost on the rear
XT front thumb shifter
XT rapid fire rear shifter
SPD 737 pedals
Shimano XT and Sedis Mtb chains
Weight - 65lbs
Speeds - 50 km/h on the flat, no wind
- 70 km/h on the flat with a tail wind
- top speed unknown (computer cuts out over 99km/hr)
Price - approxiamately $7000