Prediction: The Tour of New Zealand will be the greatest ride in the southern hemisphere within 5 years. A grand claim but I can’t think of another cycling event which offers fiords, rainforests, pristine beaches, volcanoes and plenty of prime pinot noir.
I started on race eve with the Pinot, the idyllic backdrop of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu and the resurfacing of old memories. In 1992, fresh out of Uni, I worked as a waiter and bus driver in the adrenalin hub made famous by bungee chords, jetboats and powder-hounds that carve it up by day and some who snort it by night!
I am role playing for my entry into middle age by drinking expensive wine, remembering “the good old days” and admiring spell binding views of the lake, the town perched upon its shore and hemmed in by jagged mountains that, tomorrow, I have to climb.
My alarm sounds at 6 am. I’m hung-over. Hardly responsible preparation for a race which will see us ride 700 kilometres over 7 days. “But, that’s the point” says race director Peter Yarrell “It doesn’t have to be a race, as long as you can pedal 100 kilometres in under 5 hours…” - easy!
600 Riders signed up for the race’s inaugural year. Uniquely, there were two starting points. One, from the furthest reaches of the North Island in Cape Reinga. The other from Bluff, at the very bottom of the South. Both groups would spend the week converging on the middle, Wellington.
My brain haze lifts with the starters gun (not really, but I need to move on from grog talk). The air is crisp; the mountains ahead focus the mind. It’s 69 kilometres to the next town - which you’d think is a piece of cake. Not so, when the icing on the cake is the country’s highest pass.
Legs burn as we grind to the top of the Crown Range. Then, a quick descent to the Cadrona Pub – reputedly the oldest in NZ and a must see. A fire burns inside and thaws our thighs but no sooner had I ordered a drink and my colleagues want to get going again. Some people have no appreciation for balance in life! I’d let them go but for the benefit of drafting. There’s a bit of a breeze and the ability to tuck in behind a rider in front saves much needed energy.
The people I meet are having the time of their lives. Kiwis mostly, a smattering of Aussies and in our group, a contingent of Chinese and Japanese. New Zealand is well positioned to become a globally competitive market for the booming business of cycle tourism. The mountains of the south island rival the famed French Pyrenees, the air is as pure as the Swiss Alps, the roads are in great nick and there is no one on them. In 7 days of riding, there was little traffic to speak of.
We arrive in Wanaka in good time. It’s not far from Queenstown but possesses a different feel. Less pretentious, slightly more relaxed but just as beautiful. The lake glistens with reflections of distant glaciers and closer to the shoreline; Rippon winery displays a patchwork of vines which lead to the tasting room and, yes, more Pinot. It’d be rude to say no.
Day 3 is a tough 115 kilometres of open plains and tussock country. I miss most of it as I barely lift my head all day. I’m struggling with the long steady incline which culminates in a steep kick over the Lindis Pass. Rolling over the other side I experience that brief but endorphin filled moment of triumph and relief to see another summit pass under my wheels. It is this moment which, for so many cyclists, is addictive.
It’s hard to explain the attraction of endless hours on a bike seat, pressured perineum, early mornings, a diet of bananas and sugary drinks, and a wardrobe which consists solely of Lycra. It’s even harder to pretend that Lycra looks good, particularly on middle aged men with softening middles. So why do we strut into cafes seemingly oblivious to how ridiculous we look? It might be that cycling makes you feel young and carefree again. There’s a sense of freedom which comes from being miles from an office, and virtuosity in the knowledge you are seeing the world under your own steam. Just you, your legs, and a bike. That, and a desperate desire to battle the bulge, is what keeps riders puffing and panting their way down endless roads, up lactic laden mountains and into cafes resplendent in Lycra. It’s bloody great fun.
Half way into the Southern tour we exited the shadow of Mt Cook to join the [North Island]North Island tour. Milky Blue glacial lakes gave way to the stunning cool climate rain forests of Pipiriki, the volcanoes of Mt Ruapehu national park and some colourful locals in Masterton.
Masterton has a high unemployment rate and a reputation as the teen pregnancy capital of New Zealand. The men are men, the sheep are nervous (sorry, had to get one sheep reference in) and the women are not to be messed with. At least, that’s the impression I got when our tour bus passed through and a couple of locals gave us the one fingered salute while simultaneously eating their burgers. It didn’t detract from the tour, it added to it. Kiwis are down to earth people, they have wicked senses of humour and they know that any busload of dudes who think they can get away with wearing Lycra in their town deserves a single digit wave.
http://www.airnewzealand.com.au/http://www.airnewzealand.com.au/Tour of New Zealand
Next year’s dates are set to be April 13 – 20, 2013