Sunday 9 February 2014

It's Pronounced "poo-KEH-koh"

On my Facebook page, I briefly explained the pukeko thing, but it really deserves a little bit more elaboration.

For the non-New Zealand audience, a pukeko is a goofy-looking black and blue bird with spindly red legs and a red beak that tends to occupy roadsides and seems to spend much of its time trying not to become roadkill.
A pukeko, foraging for food./ Photo: David Burgess
Its ancestor, some kind of proto-pukeko, arrived in New Zealand only a few hundred years ago, probably from Australia, presumably blown here in a big storm.  I heard it described in a documentary on native wildlife that it is an example of a bird "actively evolving an inability to fly."   And, considering the ways I have seen pukekos navigate whilst airborne, I think that's being generous.  Pukekos are also the subject of a very successful Genesis Energy ad campaign.  That should give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

But, you might ask, why associate an animal of any kind with your cycling-- why not just be Chris or Lake or something like that?  And that brings me to American ultradistance bicycle racing.  There is a race in California called the Furnace Creek 508 (508 for the 508-mile distance, about 800 km) which runs every year between Valencia and Twenty-nine Palms. It takes the long route between the two, heading north over Towne Pass,  through Death Valley and the race's namesake town of Furnace Creek, and then back south through Baker and on to the finish.  Besides being billed as the "Toughest 48 Hours in Sport," listed in any number of  Top X Toughest Event lists, and being an awesome achievement to finish in its own right, the race is also notable for its use of "totems."

Instead of race numbers, each rider (or team) is assigned a totem-- an animal avatar of the rider that is used pretty much as name, race number, and identity during (and maybe after) the race.  Once a rider has completed the race, the totem is his or hers for life, and cannot be used by another rider.  The Furnace Creek 508 is a dream race of mine, and so I have been thinking about my totem for a couple of years.  A perusal through the list of totems and finishers on the website shows that though there have only been three finishers from New Zealand (2 solos and one team), the obvious birds: the kiwi, the kaka, the kea, and even the kakapo (another awesome choice for a totem) have been snapped up.  Hopefully I won't inspire anyone to use the pukeko before I get the opportunity to do the race.

But again, why the pukeko?  There are two significant reasons why I would select the pukeko as my totem and as the public face of my cycling.  The original idea came to me after an accident involving one of my clubmates in the Hibiscus Coast Harriers and Triathlon Club.  He was riding his bicycle down Woodcocks Rd. in Warkworth when a pukeko ran out in front of him, lodging itself in the spokes of his front wheel.  He ended up going over the handlebars and broke a collarbone.  The bike was essentially a write-off.  The poor, suicidal pukeko didn't make it either.  As pukekos are known for spending time around the roads, and now having taken out one of our own, it seemed a natural fit to use the pukeko somehow in a cycling context.

The other reason has to do more with how I look at cycling.  I really enjoy what I do, but cycling comes with a giant dose of absurdity.  Picture in your head the road cyclist: clad in unforgiving, body-hugging lycra with mushroom-helmet on head (Don't even start on the aero-helmet!), shaved down, clomping around in shoes never meant to be walked in, speaking a language unfamiliar and indecipherable to the uninitiated: "I recently went from a 53-39 to a 52-36 and I really prefer that to the 50-34."  Then put that guy or gal on a bicycle.  Absurd isn't it?  The pukeko with its spindly legs and near inability to fly properly exemplifies absurdity.

Add it all up, and if I were looking for the perfect animal avatar for cycling-- it's definitely the pukeko. In the end, what does an ultradistance road cyclist do but spend most of his time along  the side of the road, trying not to become roadkill?

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