I made it! That is the most important reflection on my 3,400km summer bicycle ride. It was such a great adventure that I am now looking forward to other similar adventures, the short list is already growing!
I have to admit that I was a sceptic around this time last year when I purchased my manual Trek mountain bike. Up to that point, I had viewed hills as a major obstacle to an enjoyable bike ride and given that there was more than 30,000m of them to traverse on a ride through Aotearoa, that was a very significant factor that was likely to kill my ambitions.
During the ‘test’ ride from Kerikeri to Cape Reinga, I did not completely conquer my aversion to hills but I identified the problem and started to deal with it. It was my mental attitude. I was focussed on the gradient ahead of me instead of simply dropping the bike into its lowest gear, switching my mind to neutral and pedalling. It is amazing how quickly, despite the near pedestrian speed, that the terrain will pass by. Along the way, enjoy the views that hills afford, have a deep conversation with yourself about anything and the savour the downhill run on the other side.
My winter ‘training’ rides encompassed plenty of climbing and by the time I got into some serious climbing in the South Island, hills were just another part of the ride. As the weather warmed, it was the heat that was the biggest issue on the climbs. With low speed, you lose that self generated breeze that helps to keep you cooler, even on a hot day. When I hit the North Island hills, in high summer, with high temperatures and high humidity, overheating was an issue – alleviated by plenty of stops and fluid. I came to enjoy the hills and found riding for extended periods on flat terrain (not many days like that) a little boring, plus, you have to pedal all the time.
Riding unsupported and on my own for most of the trip seemed like a daunting prospect pre departure. However, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell reception and little signs of habitation, it was not at all disconcerting and actually quite refreshing. All of the madness that is going on in the World seemed, well, like a World away. The real challenges were around the very limited food and accommodation options in some of these more remote areas. Businesses that had survived pre-covid had either closed or now operated on very restricted hours. I quickly realised that I needed to be a little more self sufficient than I had planned.
There were quite a few risks associated with riding during a pandemic. In the South Island in late spring, the risk of lockdowns was always present although I felt these were rapidly diminishing as vaccination rates increased. In the North Island during the beginning of the Omicron wave, the risk was in being a close contact and having to isolate and the associated logistical problems that would entail. The flip side of these risks was the rare opportunity to ride through Aotearoa sans tourists and even kiwi travellers. The South Island ride was amazing from this perspective, I felt that I was the only one travelling around the Island and I probably was one of the very few, well especially on a bicycle. While it was a little busier in the North, unlike the South Island, the route through the North had few sojourns onto State Highways.
Was I too old to pedal a manual bike over such a distance? I certainly had plenty of feedback from others on that topic and most of it was not encouraging. I guess like Putin, negative feedback tends to make you ‘double down’ on your determination to do something. Having completed the ride with no real issues, I would certainly encourage any other septuagenarian to ‘give it a go’. I think the important factor is that you are happy with your fitness by the time you leave and, of course, have no underlying health issues that could become a problem when the going gets tough or remote. Having good communication options such as cellular and satellite devices also give you, and those worrying about you, some comfort.
If you are riding the Tour Aotearoa route and read blogs by other riders or follow the tour forum on Facebook be aware that those who are providing the feedback are usually riding the Brevit which they attempt to complete in 30 or less days. To do this, you need to be averaging 100+km per day which means that you will be on the bike for at least 6 hours a day and probably more on most days. I see videos of people biking in the dark and wonder – why – might as well sit on an exercycle in a dark room. For me, that was not a pleasant thought. I wanted to enjoy the journey through the Country, not find it a grind. Sure there was the odd day that was a little tougher – I had two rides of more than 100km, but overall, I tried to keep my daily rides in the 60-70 km range and was particularly mindful of the climbing and surface types for each ride. The highest cumulative elevation that I tackled in day was around 1,300m and unfortunately, due to logistics, that was also an 85km ride, early on the Kauri Coast section and, ‘Murphy’s Law’, it was a hot and windy day. That was my most exhausting day of the entire journey. Covering 120km on predominantly flat state highway was not a challenging as 40-50 km of hilly single track.
I quickly learnt to forgo ‘rest’ days. If the weather was favourable, I rode. On some days I had a relatively short ride and they would became a ‘rest’ day. These were usually to avoid an unduly long ride on one of the following days. However, after a while, I grew confident that I could complete consecutive longer rides if I had to. I covered the section from Fox Glacier to Wanaka in three days, from memory, that was about 280 km. However, after about 80km, my backside starts protesting. I aimed to get to a destination between 2-3pm giving me time to get washing done and relax a little. Furthermore, I usually enjoy a more ‘relaxed’ start to the day. I say relaxed because unless it is a short ride (less than 50km), I still aim to be on the road between 7:30-8:00am to beat the worst heat of the day.
The best advice that I can give to anyone is that, once you get on the bike and start pedalling, the adventure ‘kicks in’ and any reservations that you had melt away with the kilometres. I tried to ease into my journey and had to be reasonable flexible around my plans in the interests of making my journey much more enjoyable.
I get asked about the highlights. What was the best part? What was the hardest? etc. Each day delivered something special, whether it was vistas of snow capped mountains in the south, dramatic virgin native bush, encounters with rare native birds or spectacular sand dunes in the north to unusual sculptures spotted on farms in the Wairarapa. The overriding highlight was the simple privilege of being able to experience so many parts of our country that most people do not get to see or if they do, ‘experience’ it at a speed of 100-120kph. I could simply stop the bike when I wanted to take in the surroundings!
I will let the selection of pictures do the talking: