About 7am this coming Monday, in the company of some 100 other cyclists, I’ll roll down the hill from inspirational Cape Reinga to start our 3,000km ride to the far end of the country, stirring Stirling Point in Bluff.
Over the following three weeks another dozen wave of riders will depart, with each day’s start timed for low tides (hence hard sand to cycle on!) down 90 Mile Beach. Actually, we only ride some 85km of black sand on the first stage, 103km down to Ahipara. But they are notoriously hard yards into the predominant south-westerly winds.
We’re riding the Tour Aotearoa, the wonderful gift to cyclists from the three Kennett brothers of Wellington. Paul, Simon and Jonathan have been figuring out routes, writing guides, publishing cycling books and promoting cycling (see: https://www.kennett.co.nz/) since 1984. Very deservedly, they were inducted into California’s Mountain Bike Hall of Fame two years ago.
They launched the Tour in 2016, after painstakingly piecing together cycleways, gravel roads and other quiet but challenging routes down the country. It embraces the complete kaleidoscope of Kiwi terrain from beach, bush and mountains to forests, farmland and riverbanks, with lots of small settlements, some towns and a couple of cities along the way.
As I ride down the country over the next 30 days, you can follow my GPS position in real time at https://touraotearoa2020.maprogress.com/
My preparations for the Tour began last July when I ordered my new bike from Shand, a bike maker just outside Edinburgh. They are famous for their tough, beautifully designed and well-built bikes, particularly favoured for long distance events off-road, or on rough roads.
My model is a custom-sized and built Stoater, which is a gravel bike. With fairly wide, knobbly tyres but no suspension it is fast on dirt roads but can still handle all but the most rugged mountain bike trails. It has a 14-speed rear hub, with a toothed carbon belt drive, which needs no adjustment or maintenance for at least 5,000km. The dynamo front hub feeds a battery and USB port in the head tube, so I can charge my phone, bike computer, iPad etc. as I ride, which is handy because I’ll be camping almost all 30 nights on the Tour.
My work trip to the UK last August included a visit to my family outside Edinburgh. So, I couldn’t resist a visit to Shand to talk bikes with them. I was accompanied by my sister Kate, my brother-in-law Peter, my nephew Dan and my great nephews Douglas and Felix.
My dark blue Stoater arrived in Auckland in early December…and I got to work getting the set-up perfect for me, and making lots of decisions about bike and camping gear. The bags are excellent ones from Revelate, an Alaskan company that pioneered this style of “bike packing” gear.
Meanwhile, since early last year I’ve been working on fitness, tuning up for my fifth Tour of New Zealand – a week of road racing around the country in April – then for two of our classic long distance day races in November. Now I consider myself a geri-athlete, I need help. So, I’ve been getting excellent evaluations and good advice from Cindy Morrison and Danni Couling at the University of Auckland’s Health and Rehabilitation Clinic. I’ve also been going to spin classes run by Paul Leitch. Paul rode for New Zealand in two Commonwealth Games (and was a medal winner) and two Olympics 1986-98. Last year, he was NZ schools cycling coach of the year. A superb and inspiring coach, he mapped out an on-road training programme for me over the past two and a half months, with the bike fully loaded. Camping and bike gear, clothes and “office equipment ” total 12kg, water 2.5kg and food 2kg.
My grand finale for all this preparation came last Friday. I cycled a hilly 52km, with 1,000m of climbing, from home across town to Whatipu, a remote, beautiful black sand beach on our west coast. I’d pitched my tent by the time Lynn arrived by car bringing beer, salad and food for me to heat up on my camp stove. After dinner we had a glorious sunset walk on the beach, then she drove home. I camped the night and rode home the next morning.
That was a very fitting celebration with Lynn for all her help with my preparation and obsession. She was been a constant source of encouragement and support for my investment in time, money and focus on this. Even when I’ve been away for hours riding (typically 10-12 hours a week), or talking boringly about too much arcane detail, or riding home New Year’s Day with two broken ribs due entirely to rider error on my part. Thank you, hugely, darling!
This past week I’ve taken it easy, with just a spin class on Tuesday evening, and today my usual Saturday morning coffee ride with a group of friends I’ve ridden with for years. It was great to see everyone again because my training schedule has had me away for the past few months riding longer, hillier, slower and rougher routes than we do on our regular Saturday road rides.
Likewise, Nigel, a member of our group, was back from training with his fully loaded mountain bike. While I’m riding north-south for a month down the country, he’ll be riding east-west for 12 days or so across the North Island on a rugged new route mapped out by the Kennetts.
The shirt I wore this morning was from my Great Ride for Heart a decade ago. That too was from Cape Reinga to Bluff, but on-road and shorter and superbly supported on road and with motel accommodation by the Heart Foundation. So we cruised down the North Island in seven days and the South Island in six, raising $5m to endow a new chair in heart health at the University of Auckland.
Many of you are also very generous with donations to Bikes in Schools when I organise a couple of teams every other year for the Tour of New Zealand…so I won’t do a big campaign for this Tour Aotearoa. But I will have a link from the Bikes in Schools website to this blog, hoping some kids around the country will follow my travels. If you want to send some money their way, they, Paul (the founder of the charity), his staff and I would be very grateful! Thank you! Just click here, and please mention the Tour Aotearoa.
This will be the longest bike tour by far I’ve had in my life to date, and with extra challenges of lots of off-road riding and camping. I’m ready to roll…and I just hope I’ll have a bit of energy to spare at the end of each day to tell you all about it!