The inaugural Tour of New Zealand featured a lovely twist: riders and teams got to choose whether they joined the North Tour or the South Tour and they met in the middle for a race. It will come as no surprise that the rugged South Island tour proved to be the most popular choice, though in the second instalment of the 2012 Tour of New Zealand I take a look at the North Island leg, and found it to be just as satisfying.
Part one of this article ended with me having completed three stages of the Tour of new Zealand in the South Island, travelling 270km from Queenstown through to Geraldine, including the challenging Crown Ranges and Lindis Pass. After a wet day in the saddle in the South Island on day three, my group was given the opportunity to leave the southerners and join up with the riders in the north. From Geraldine we drove 130km to Christchurch to pack our equipment before taking a plane to the north. For the first time we were able to treat ourselves to a longer morning sleep; the subsequent 200km trip to join up with the northern riders gave us a break from riding and a more relaxed schedule.
The Mount Ngauruhoe Volcano in the Tongariro National Park
As a passenger inside the bus travelling towards Ohakune, just past Tongariro National Park, I had a better chance to take in the country than I could on the road bike. The North Island is more densely populated that the south and this is reflected in its development, the cultivation of the land and also the traffic on the roads. It still delivers breathtaking nature, less extreme and vast than in the South Island, but greener and with more variation. The climate quickly changes when losing or gaining altitude and it is here I find the lush ferny rainforest environments that I had really been looking forward to.
Are we Road Racers or Mountain Bikers?
Before we could think about meeting the north tour riders on the long 130km ride on Stage 5 from the Tongariro National Park to Whanganui the following day, we had a small warm-up ride planned: mountain biking in Ohakune. Although we were in New Zealand for road cycling, I also enjoy mountain biking and I had been a little jealous while I was on the road bike when I would hear of all of the popular off-road trails in each area that we passed. Now it was my chance for some of this action and Darren of the Station Lodge guided us to some of the Central Trails tracks in Ohakune. Darren runs a MTB hire company that offers summer and winter accommodation and is keenly involved in the growth of the trail networks in the area.
We took a short single trail circuit across a railway bridge followed by winding paths that were really only the tip of the iceberg. The opportunities for cross country mountain biking, enduro, all mountain and even downhill and free ride are fantastic. The government funded New Zealand Cycle Trails initiative has created a well organised and presented series of trails and riding opportunities across the country. In short, mountain biking in New Zealand is inviting and I will be back for more.
A glimpse of mountain biking in the Ohakune with old railway bridges, tunnels, single trail and gravel sections
After the chance to spin the pedals once more I was energised and motivated for the next day, which would be a long day in the saddle, though also a route that boasted some of the most spectacular road riding in the North.
Stage 5 Tongariro National Park to Whanganui, 133km
It was back to very early morning starts as we faced a 40km drive to get to the starting line, which we made just in the nick of time. We were within sight of the Mount Ngauruhoe Volcano (which is Mount Doom in the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and even though it wasn’t snow capped, everyone was rugged up. There were no ‘maybes’ when it came to arm and leg warmers; most riders also started with warm cycling jackets to ward off the freezing wind.
Starting at the back of the pack gave me the advantage of passing other riders, rather than having them pass me. I was with a healthy contingent of relaxed cyclists who were very well prepared for the long distances, though happy to settle into a comfortable pace and enjoy riding.
Stunning scenes that greeted cyclists around the Tongariro National Park
This stage was one of the most amazing stages of the whole tour; a cloudless sky took us along the rough but relatively level highway to Raetihi where we turned off and the fun would soon begin. Rolling country-side offered gentle downhills and only a few uphills before we started into the long descent to Pipiriki. Ancient native flora was mixed with pine and the dense green backdrop with ferns here and there made for breathtaking cycling. With virtually no traffic except for the odd supporter’s car, the riders could use more of the road to take the corners at speed.
It was an absolute joy cycling down to Pipiriki
I had to be wary since some of the corners were tight and difficult to judge while riding into them. On one occasion dramatic braking was required to keep me from crossing to the other side of the road and shooting off the edge. The ‘virtually no traffic’ still included a logging truck negotiating a tight corner as well as road workers and their equipment. The tight corners, traffic and gravelled sections meant that care was needed.
It wasn’t all downhill to Pipiriki, the short uphills were however painless and before long we made it to a very small town on the edge of the Whanganui River. Many of the riders, myself included, took the time to really enjoy this part of the tour rather than opting for tunnel-vision determination to beat the clock.
Stage 6 Transition: Pipiriki to Matahiwi
One of the delights of Stage 6 was that it was split in two; a section of road that follows the Whanganui river is unsealed so it’s unsuitable for road bikes. It was a slow and dusty 7km in the bus with spectacular views over the river. All of the riders benefited from this transition to the starting area in the tiny town of Matahiwi, the break meant that everyone could recover their energy and made the 130km stage that much easier.
During the transition, the race leader in the north, Dan Underwood, reveals his ‘freaky’ side.
I was feeling good after the transition and left with the first bunch out of Matahiwi heading along the Whanganui River road. The pace was a little slow, so I stepped it up and after a few short climbs was in front. The pace car kept its distance and I became a lone breakaway rider, soon there was no one in sight. How long could I keep this up? With the New Zealand Air Force team of fit young cyclists somewhere behind me I thought that it would only be a few kilometres until I was caught. One of the Air Force riders confided in me before the start that they were averaging 45kmh, which was (as I later discovered) an impressive and generous over-estimate. The Air Force team were leading the race in the North Island, though even as a team they were outpaced by a solo rider, Dan Underwood.
I kept a healthy pace and the lead for the next 15km until I was caught by surprise. Although I spotted the team coming from behind, they were silent as they came up to pass me and their lead rider screamed ‘BOO’ in my ear, giving me a fright. The road continued to follow the river, up and down, left and right and the bunch was fast, though I stayed in touch at around 38kmh. This is a pace I could hold… for a while at least.
Along with signage, the lead car alerted the traffic that the cycle race was underway
The up-and-down wears you out and after 20km of hanging on, my legs were looking for a more comfortable pace and I slid off the back. Following the windy river, now with only patches of forest, the road was hedged between small cliffs and the river before giving way to farmland. I approached a challenging ascent as the road turned away from the river, a hill that tried to get the better off me and a few riders caught up and past me. This was a good hill however as what looked like the top really was the top and the rewarding descent allowed me to get back in touch and even try and bridge the gap to 3 riders heading into the wind.
I couldn’t make it across the gap, however, and a bunch formed around me. It started to feel like a long 130km stage again as my bunch raced into Whanganui. The road joined the river and more and more housing appeared. It was a big town and the finish line was much further away than I anticipated. We were finally marshalled though a roundabout and over the bridge crossing the river. Another sharp turn, watching for traffic, and the finish line was only metres away. Not far from the finish line a delightful cafe served a delicious bowl of wedges to go with a well deserved latte macchiato.
At the finish line in Wanganui, cyclists discuss the stage
Later in the afternoon I joined the post race presentations in Whanganui. It was a relatively casual affair where a designated pub is filled to the rafters with cyclists and prizes were given to the winning riders in each race category for the stage and for race supporters and helpers. For my group it was then into our support bus for a one hour trip from Whanganui to Palmerston North.
Being on tour gives you an insight into the lives of the cycling pros, a job that is far from a romantic holiday. Instead of choosing what to do and where to go each day, there is a tight schedule and you can’t sleep in. Throughout the tour we hadn’t spent much time in any of the towns. As I was not a seasoned pro, or even a regular business traveller, each of the towns we stopped at or passed through presented itself as more than just a stop-over location. I wanted to be able to explore. The obvious solution for this is to extend the trip and plan in a relaxing week in New Zealand after the race, but not on this trip.
One of the things that the pros probably don’t have to think about much on tour is washing. For this event it’s unreasonable to bring a fresh jersey for each stage, just as it is unreasonable to wear the same kit during each stage (at least for the sake of others around you). I used a cyclist’s “frequent flyer” technique of jumping into the shower with my kit on, having a good wash with soap, rinsing and then rolling the gear up in towels and using the heaters or heated towel rails in the hotels so that two complete kits were enough to allow me to ride each day with a clean, fresh and dry kit.
Stage 7 Palmerston North to Masterton, 104km
We arrived in Palmerston North well into the night and we were up at dawn for Stage 7. We had a short bus trip to the start just on the outskirts of town, ready for our last big day in the saddle. This time we arrived with plenty of time and were looking forward to a relatively flat stage.
Leaving once more with one of the first groups off at the start, it was a matter of riding a comfortable pace knowing that the New Zealand Air Force team would swoosh past at any time. The green rolling countryside only had a few minor inclines and plenty of curvy roads. It warmed up quickly and if the roads continued like this I felt that it would be a really enjoyable stage. After about 20km, my bunch still leading, we were asking where Team Air Force was, regularly checking the road behind. We couldn’t see beyond the last curve, but with our riding pace hovering between 30 and 35kmh, we thought it wouldn’t be long.
Team Air Force often gained a few riders who were integrated into the bunch
Air Force was not the first bunch to reach us, however, rather it was a large mixed bunch who merged with us as the kilometres slipped away without sight of Team Air Force. Forty kilometres passed, sixty and then seventy kilometres; what had become of Team Air Force? In the North Island I was in the same bunch that I finished with the day before whereas in the South Island I was generally one of last riders to be released from the start line and had to play catch-up, moving from bunch to bunch with a lot of solo riding in between. As the days went on, I felt more and more competitive. Whether participating cyclists were racing against the clock or taking it easy and enjoying the ride, riding in a bunch made a huge difference; facing the oncoming wind alone over one hundred kilometres is hard work.
Most of the participating cyclists were friendly. Some bunches were controlled by teams while other bunches formed and unformed along the way. Hearing that I had been riding down south there were a lot of questions about south tour. There were also riders in the bunches who were more reserved, not unfriendly but concentrating and just riding. There was also some space for the riders who simply couldn’t ride well. They are everywhere in the cycling world and even the Tour of New Zealand had a few. These are the type of riders who have the strength but also serious deficits in their cycling ability such as the “pedal then stop, pedal then stop” type or the “race up to the front and immediately fade away” type and the dangerous “can’t hold a line” type. Nobody wants to ride behind the bad rider, which mean there was plenty of movement inside some of the bunches.
As with any ride I found it challenging at times to find and then hold a good position in the bunch. Each bunch and each rider was different, so for safer riding I tended to keep near the front or the back. The good news was that most riders were skilled and courteous, they were in it for the friendly competition and it felt like a community.
Although in the north I was riding in lead groups or bunches with riders who were taking the racing seriously, the more relaxed riders tended to stick together in their smaller teams. It is definitely not a family fun ride, though is still well suited to family teams with older teens who are keen cyclists.
The rolling hills of the North Island still takes its toll on riders causing a bunch to split
When Team Air Force finally came past our lead group, they powered fast into an ascent and only one rider from our bunch could jump across. It was the last stage in the saddle and I was becoming quite competitive so I moved forward to counter-attack with another rider. We left the peloton behind as we chased team Air Force up the hill and I pushed as far as I could before the steam ran out. The bunch behind was then content to absorb us back in and settle into a relaxed pace.
The stage avoided major roads and manoeuvred its way along the gently flowing country roads towards Masterton. Closer to town the pace increased as the roads straightened and the fields around us broadened, a strong headwind keeping the bunch together. Attempts by riders to make a breakaway were welcomed; the rest of the bunch then used this to their advantage drafting behind. The big bunch turned onto the road leading into Masterton and this time the finish area seemed nearby. It was time to sprint and see which riders had been saving their energy. I was close to the front as we negotiated the tight turns into the finish area on Lake Henley and made the top five in this bunch.
Our driver, guide and mechanic in one, Bas (who had supported my group during the entire tour) rolled in sometime later with refreshments and a bite to eat before we stepped out of the bright sunlight and into the bus headed towards Wellington. We took our lunch break in Greytown, a charming town were many of the old building facades on the main street have been restored. As a town surrounded by wine country, and within close reach of Wellington, it has become a junction for wine lovers. After lunch we were back on the bus which made its way up Rimutaka Hill, a busy road and also a challenging cycle route which, we are told, is best attacked in the early morning to avoid traffic.
I closed my eyes for a nap to awaken a little later in the heart of Wellington where we headed up to Mount Victoria, a hill overlooking the town with wonderful 360 degree views. Back in the city it was buzzing, just like in my previous visit to the city some years back. The tourists as well as the locals give it an international feel. As we had reached the city on a Friday, the city really came to life after dark.
Wellington City Criterium
In Wellington, the Tour of New Zealand reached its finale. Both the South Island group and the North Island group met in the city centre for a criterium on a short windy 1.2km race course in front of the “Beehive”, the New Zealand Parliament. Yet another early start was necessary. Although there was little traffic on the sleepy Saturday morning, the South Island cyclists needed to catch the ferry on time as it would take them over the Cook Straight and back home. My rental bike (minus myself) was also due on that ferry so it was more convenient for me to miss the criterium rather than facing a rush afterwards to pack it up.
Cyclists listen to the early morning Wellington pre-race briefing
Everyone was able to enjoy the rare opportunity to ride the criterium in front of Parliament House
Instead of lycra, I was able to wear my jeans and watch from the sidelines as each group was announced. While a criterium is usually a fast and edgy race, the fun thing about this criterium was that all of the riders were involved. The recreational touring riders lined up for a few slow laps, the senior riders were faster, the corporate teams faster still and the Christchurch Boys High School team and Team Air Force turned it on for this last race.
The final showdown was skilfully controlled by the Christchurch boys team and their star rider, Anton Cooper, a professional mountain biker and Junior World Champion, crossed the finish line half a lap ahead of all of the Team Air Force riders. Dan Underwood was competing as a solo rider in the North and beat his South Island solo rival Geoff Williamson for overall honours, while Dian Bell, also of the North Island, won the overall women’s solo category ahead of Jan Litt from the South.
Dan Underwood in the lead for a convincing victory in the solo men’s category
All in their teens, the Christchurch Boys High School team took a decisive victory ahead of team New Zealand Air Force
The prize giving followed at the Intercontinental in Wellington who kindly hosted hundreds of lycra clad cyclists. There were a lot of prizes, from the obligatory New Zealand wine all the way through to complete bikes. With the ferry departure in mind, time was of the essence, so after all of the sponsors and supporters were duly acknowledged and prizes presented, the makeshift bike room that was filled with two wheeled masterpieces, racing machines and plain old bikes emptied in no time as the South Islanders raced off to catch the boat.
The Competitive and Recreational Tour of New Zealand
New Zealand already feels like a country that welcomes sporting and recreational cyclists. In my short time there I became aware of so many cycling events across all different disciplines. Only in its first year, the Tour of New Zealand has taken road racing inter-regional and along well thought through routes that let cyclists travel the length of the North or South Island. For most of the riders there was an element of competition involved, but the overall experience was equally as important. The result was a friendly competitive race with a healthy community feeling that everyone was a part of, from racers to relaxed tourers.
Sponsorship by local business made it possible to fulfil the vision of the race organiser Peter Yarrell. The support of volunteer ground crews was essential for the event while the fund raising for charities component further strengthens this as a positive cycling experience.
The overall consensus among the riders and supporters was that it had been a fantastic race with many promising to be back next year, encouraging family, friends and colleagues to take part as well. If the riders are already talking about next year, it means that this event has a lot going for it. The race organisers have already earmarked April 20 – 28 in 2013 for next year’s race. More information about the event and cost are online: www.tourofnewzealand.co.nz
Tour of New Zealand Action Video
If you want to get a bit closer to the action, check out this short video I have created using a bike mounted camera. Watch the HD version here
Christopher’s tips for Australian cyclists riding the Tour of New Zealand
New Zealand is closer than you think, just a few hours on the plane. I flew with Air New Zealand who will take you within good reach of any region in New Zealand.
The Tour of New Zealand is a wonderful cycling event though it does limit the number of activities you can do during the ride. Even with a support vehicle and designated driver, the race schedule of riding followed by travel to the next location will leave you with less time in an area that you may like. The perfect solution, however, is to extend the holiday and plan in a week after the cycle tour to enjoy your favourite regions a little longer.
Most of the teams pre-booked accommodation during the tour and the event organisers can arrange hotels and support. There was no shortage of camper vans as team support vehicles and, depending upon the size of the team, these are an attractive option. Consider, however, the cooler temperatures of New Zealand in April and the supreme comfort of motels, hotels and charming guest houses.
Because of customs restrictions, you may not be able to bring certain energy food, bars and gels into the country. It is easier to buy these locally.
I hired a bike and, even though you can get one at a reasonable price, you may miss the comfort and weight savings of riding your own race bike. A hard shell bike travel case is recommended if you do bring your own bike, though they are bulky to transport when you are on the road (unless you have the same arrival and departure location and can organise for storage). An alternative is to use a beefed up cardboard bike box (donated by your friendly local bike shop) with cardboard struts inside for better side protection. A cardboard box can be folded into a more compact space while travelling.
The more training you do, the more enjoyable it will be. The tour is not an elite event and catered well to senior riders, as well as touring orientated riders, who wanted a comfortable cycling pace but were confident with the distances.
Make sure you have enough cold weather gear and that your cycling gear and shoes are comfortable.
Don’t forget travel insurance; the event is a race, though not a professional race, so you will have to check on the type of health cover you may need for peace of mind.
Photos 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20 © Bicycles Network Australia
Photos 1, 6, 7, 8, 13, 15, 16 © Tourism New Zealand