I think we are lucky in New Zealand on several fronts. We have a relatively small country with constantly changing scenery and terrain that can both challenge and inspire. We also have people wanting to share it with the masses. The Tour Aotearoa was a vehicle for the organiser, Jonathan Kennett, to introduce a new cycle path from the northern most tip of the country to the bottom. By no means did we take the shortest route, but we did take in some amazing trails and scenery. We have a style of bikepacking in NZ that allows participation by people who might be put off by the caffeine fueled all-nighters that are the norm in some other events. A mandatory 6-hour stand-down for every 24 hours makes the events safer and more achievable for many. The event was capped at 300 riders. In the end around 230 started and about 18 pulled out. That’s not a bad completion rate.
Drafting is legal in most NZ dirt brevets, but you do have to deal with the personalities of your fellow riders if you chose to ride as a group for the duration. Someone commented that if we were spending 100% of the day with our spouses, it would likely result in a divorce after a few days of limited sleep. In our case, on the first day a self-selecting team was born, comprised of Geof Blance, the Tour Divide 4th place finisher from 2014, Matt Dewes. a graphic designer with an eye for a great shot, and Steve Scott, the hard man roadie with 5 Tours of Southland under his belt. Geof and I were the only ones with previous bikepacking experience. Matt had spent time as an under 23 XC racer in Switzerland so we knew he had a big motor. To date, I still haven’t seen his conversation threshold breached. He was young and fit and would dance up the hill and take snaps as we rode past, sharing them on social media when cellular coverage allowed. We have Matt to thank for most of these images. If you have ever watched the Tour of Southland you know what kind of an animal Steve must be. It must be the hardest race in the southern hemisphere with hills and the kind of weather that makes you put an extra duvet on your bed.
Day 1. Cape Reinga to Waimamaku. 206kms.Day one was always going to hurt. New Zealand is a very hilly country. I knew from experience that average speeds for the fast guys in dirt Brevets in this country are around 14kmh. We had to average over 20kmh to make the last 8pm Ferry to Rawene. Unfortunately mother nature had other plans in the form of a head-wind on the beautiful “90 mile beach.” Bikepackers learning to ride in echelons was a comical thing, and I was struggling with cramps for some reason. I ended up stopping to clean my chain at the end of the 88km beach segment before carrying on, in hindsight a bad move. We had a whole lot of climbing to do after the beach, before reaching the ferry and we killed ourselves to get there. It would have been nicer to save that extra 10 minutes of energy. We time trialled our brains out to arrive at 8.02 pm. Luckily the ferry hadn’t quite pulled out. Phew. It was like an 8 hour stage race. Not bikepacking as we know it. The beach was really something and one day I’d love to go back and enjoy it with less pressure. There was a funky little whole-food shop there at Rawene and we spent plenty of time stocking up on pies and stuff for the next day. Most of the other riders hit the road straight away, but a few decided to stay at Rawene, including Darren Burns, who had already broken his saddle, not sure how – maybe a violent “buttock clench” after seeing people rub wheels and go down right in front of him on 90 mile beach! There were a few moments out there for sure. Someone tried to lecture Steve on how to lap out in an echelon which was a bit of a laugh considering his “roadie” background.
The night was still young so we carried on for another 25 odd kms to Waimamaku where Geof spied a good spot behind a local hall for us to bivvy in. No need for tents yet as it was very warm. There was a tap on the side of a building which was good for those of us who were washing and alternating their shorts daily.
As we were preparing to leave the next morning at 5am we saw a few people roll past in the dark, moving onto the first photo point of Tane Mahuta, the giant Kauri Tree in the Waipoua forest. The problem with only stopping for 6 hours a day is that you miss about 5 hours of scenery due to darkness.
Day 2. Waimamaku to Hunua. 138 + 116 = 253kms not including the ferry trip.
If we thought day one was hard, we were in for another shock. We still had to average around 20kmh to get to the next (Poutu) Ferry by 12pm. I think a lot of people thought the TA was going to be a fast “roadie” affair with a lot of sealed roads. They were wrong. As soon as the first hills abated we were into a series of relentless steep gravel climbs that just kept on coming. By the time we got to the “ferry” 7 hours later we were cooked. We were also 12 minutes late, but the boat was still there. The next one was at 6pm that day, so we had to catch this first one. Imagine riding into the red for 7 hours, then clambering up a loosely mounted modified aluminum ladder attached to a tiny boat rocking around on a high tide with a 22 kg bike on your shoulder. It was funny and grim at the same time. As usual, somehow Matt managed to photograph it for posterity. I guess there were about 20 of us who made this first cut. Sad story of the day went to Kevin Moginie. He must be incredibley strong, as he had the aerodynamics of a Mack truck while he motored along on his full suspension Santa Cruz. He caught us earlier in the day, then I think we recaught him at Dargaville. I saw him taking a turn on the front at some stage and then he just disappeared. I guess we assumed he had a mechanical. Apparently he wasn’t that far behind, and he missed the boat! Not to be deterred I think he may have caught up and passed us again by Mangakino on day three. Now the pressure was off, or so we thought. No more ferries to catch, for a while anyway. Event organiser Jonathan Kennett had decided that if we wanted to, we could utilise the 3 hour boat trip as part of our 6 hour continuous downtime block. We took Geofs advice as a seasoned campaigner and decided not to use the boat time as part of our 6 hour rest. A few of them did, Ollie, Seb, Anja, Matt, Cliff. They rolled down the road to the closest cafe and took the extra 3 hours napping there.
Before very long we were getting close to Auckland, already we were missing the friendly locals from the far north and the lush green country side. Now it was fast commuter traffic and the urban cycle-ways of Auckland. We saw some sights, including a commuter completely on the rivet with a full-face DH helmet on. We couldn’t wait to get out of there and back into the boonies. We climbed up Mt Eden to be greeted by a couple of “blue-dot junkies” who had been following us the whole time. What a buzz, We were actually leading the event as the other “Ferry sleepers” hadn’t caught up yet. We shortly hooked up with Nick and Ben who knew their way around Auckland and navigated us to a McDonalds where something gave me the worst case of acid-reflux I have ever had. We headed off to find somewhere to stay. Geof was keen on accommodation but we saw nothing on route and before long we were into the Hunua Ranges which is still kind of on the outskirts of Auckland. Finding a place on the road side out of view of local farmers was a challenge. Eventually after descending down through the Hunua Ranges Geof spied a good spot amongst some trees that turned out to be mint. Another night out with no tent and no problems.
Day 3. Hunua to Mangakino. 244kms.
It was another 5am start from memory. As we rolled away the duo of Nick and his buddy Ben caught us as we glass-cranked along, as Matt had gone back to retrieve the sunnies he dropped at the camp site. Ben was “off the grid” riding with his buddy, not carrying a tracker, but he could sure pump out the watts. We rolled through the very tame Hauraki Rail Trail, then onto Matamata. This was a massive section for the aero bars and the going was fast. Steve was mashing on the front so hard that we had to tell him to ramp it back a bit. Maybe it was “milking time” or something, but I was surprised at how few cows I saw! It was quite a while before we saw some closer to the Paeroa end of the trail. We eventually joined up with the extensive Waikato Trail network where we were happy to meet Stephen “Stealth” Butterworth who had been following our progress.
The effort people made to try and say hello was really appreciated. We eventually came across a large dam at the head of Lake Waipapa and were met by a bunch of well wishers who I assumed were all Matt’s family, but it turned out that the guy offering to clean and oil drive-trains was a blue-dot watcher and blog-follower. What a surprise. It really felt to me like we were in the middle of nowhere. I decided that when I was finished the TA, I was going to go over the entire course to see where the hell I had been, because I hadn’t really done any research on the course as such. The next piece of trail was really good. Unfortunately it was very dark and just technical enough that the slow speeds we were doing were not enough for 3 out of 4 of us to generate good light via our dynamo lights, so it was on with the spare helmet lights. At one point it seemed like we had ridden the same piece of trail more than once, and every now and then there would be a granny gear climb to take back all the elevation we had just lost. I thought about Cliff Clermont and his 1×11 drive train and wondered if he was still enjoying it. I couldn’t believe how much time I spent in my lowest front sprocket and was very happy to have a triple, as were Geof and Steve. We eventually made it to the foreshore of Lake Maraetai at Mangakino where we were surprised to find an American woman who had been doing parts of the course independently of our organised effort. A toilet block with running water was an added bonus to this site. This was the first night we used our tents.
Day 4. Mangakino to Owhango. 180kms.
The next day turned out to be a bit of a tough one. We got into some pretty uninspiring 4wd track for a while and Geof was having some “sleepy moments” but it didn’t seem to slow him down at all. We hooked into the Pureora Forest Timber Trail after a while and it really was quite beautiful.
We learned that Matt had incredibly, in our view, taken his fiancee (not really a cyclist) through the Timber Trail one day, the poor thing. We all decided she was a keeper. It was 85 kms of relentless singletrack with track markers every 1km. Some people liked the markers, most didn’t. Matt was riding a Cannondale Cyclo Cross bike, but to see him ride you would think he was on a fully. It must be great to have those kind of skills. Fate caught up with him and a sidewall cut in his tubeless tire meant a boot and tube had to be used… once he could find the gash. Geof used this occasion to catch 40 winks and during this interlude a small troop of riders caught us and rolled through, Rob Davidson, Dave Cooper, Linda Wensley and her husband Craig. It really felt as if we had been on the Timber Trail all day. A full suspension bike or even a hardtail would have been great, but we were stuck with our over loaded rigids, on what would have been a really fun trail in normal circumstances. We emerged from the forest to another group of well wishers from Matt’s whanau. He really had the North Island covered. Wellington rider Nils caught and passed us as we chatted to them, he seemed to be on a mission. Later on we called into the McDonalds at Taumaranui and while we replenished our supplies Geof mentioned that there was an open home within riding distance. I rang the number and suddenly realised that I knew the host. It was sorted. Before long we were being treated to such luxuries as electric lighting, a washing machine, a dryer and some amazing soup that our host Paul Chaplow had put on for us. I think Geof knew Paul from his adventure racing days and he looked after us like family, it was a complete blast. We were overcome with the luxury of it all.