I was standing, laughing with some friends who had been waiting to see me come by. A woman I didn’t know asked where I’d just ridden from. I replied ‘Cape Reinga’, and she laughed, or sort of scoffed, and walked off. I looked at my friends and we all cracked up. I was on my the final leg of a 3000km bike ride of New Zealand – the Tour Aotearoa, from the tip of Te Ika a Maui, Maui’s fish hook, to the toe of Te Wai Pounamu, the Waters of Greenstone, entirely self supported, and going as quickly as I could.
The Tour Aotearoa is not a race but rather a brevet, an organised bike packing event, an adventure, a lighter, faster form of cycle touring, a pedal powered summer holiday. It’s the brain child of Jonathan Kennett. He, along with a few other enthusiastic individuals researched and mapped a cycle-friendly route the length of New Zealand, incorporating several of our new dedicated cycle ways, a few ferries and an epic jet boat ride. His plan was to define a route for future bike packers to enjoy and Tour Aotearoa was the inaugural (and perhaps only) event to test the route.
But some of us, who are that way inclined, tend to get a little bit competitive about these things.
Tour Aotearoa seems to have provided a lot of entertainment to a few people as well, as all the riders are required to carry GPS Spot Trackers. These little gadgets ping off a location signal every 15 minutes, and update a rider’s locations to a website where people can track your progress. Since the only things I was concerning myself with were riding, eating or sleeping, I was completely unaware that I had gathered quite a following and bunch of friends, family and colleagues were now completely addicted to watching my spot travel down the country, turning this bike packing business into a serious spectator sport.
I had pretty simple expectations for this adventure. The first and most important was to love it. The second was to go fast as I could and hopefully finish in under 15 days. So on Sunday 21st February, at exactly midday, myself and 100 other keen riders took off from Cape Reinga. Another nearly 200 riders followed in two later waves, all following the same route, all tearing down 90 Mile Beach, aiming to reach Bluff within the 30 day maximum limit.
That first day our wave split and I found myself in a small bunch at the front of the pack. We wove our way down 90 mile Beach, Northland, through Auckland, across the Hauraki plains, the Waikato, Ruapehu, Manawatu and Wairarapa, all in under 6 days. We rode through the night, through sunsets and sun rises. I slept in a wheel rut on the side of a track, in a bus shelter, under trees. I didn’t shower much, I ate far too many white bread, triangle cut egg sandwiches.
Our band of riders whittled down to five, then four then three. We lost our unofficial leader, Ollie Whalley, when his riding shoes were nicked from outside out motel room in Wanganui. But his new shoes must have had rocket boosters in them because it wasn’t long before Ollie’s superior efficiency and positive energy had him back on pace with us.
I tackled the entire South Island on my own. I had to let my companions Ollie and Seb ride away out of Picton as I was having increasingly more frequent stops to adjust the arrangement of clothing I’d wrapped around my saddle in an effort to alleviate pain I was getting from chaffing. It wasn’t long before they’d stretched 20 minutes into two hours, then 5, and by Bluff they were a full 8 hours ahead, but still, no one caught me from behind.
The whole journey was a massive adventure as well as a test of determination – mostly due to how awful it felt getting up in the mornings- peeling my clammy face off my bed roll at 3:45 and organising my life back into my minimalist luggage, alone, in the darkness. Once I was rolling and my knees warmed up, it was easy. Well, easy-ish, and the prospect of a 300km day was just a matter of ticking off the miles between Four Squares and gas stations.
I reached Bluff, 10 days and 7 hours after I began in Cape Reinga – way short of the 15 days I would have been satisfied with. Ollie and Seb (clean, clothed in Bluffs finest 2nd hand bargains and well fed on meatylicious Dominos) and my mum met me at Stirling point, the official end point of this adventure. No fanfare, no prizes, just a glowing satisfaction of achievement and a desperate urge to be clean and comfortable. I smelled, my legs were swollen and I was weary. The Tour Aotearoa is for sure the hardest but most satisfying thing I’ve done by bike. And although I might have taken a race-like attitude to it, I swear I didn’t miss any of the sights or scenes of our unforgettably gorgeous country or the character of our regions.
Thank you to Jonathan Kennett for making this happen, for the inspiration and organisation. Big thanks to my friends who tracked me down and shared their energy with me on the stretch into Queenstown, especially Willy, Erin, and Bryn at T7 Queenstown who gave me a massive boost on the final few kilometres of the ride, and a couple of last minute essential mechanical supplies. Thanks also to Santa Cruz bicycles – the Highball 29″ hard tail was the perfect weapon for the job.