When I first heard “Tour of New Zealand” my first thought was “Wow, a UCI pro tour in New Zealand.” Not long after that I was invited to ride in this event, by which time I was aware that the Tour of New Zealand was actually a unique participation event for cyclists. One group of cyclists start at the top of the North Island and heads south, while another group start simultaneously at the bottom of the South Island and rides north. Over the course of seven days and 700 kilometres, the north and south groups converge, meeting in Wellington for a criterium race.
I was invited to participate in the event both as a journalist for BNA and a rider in the race, which of course filled my head with questions. The most important one was whether I was fit enough for the mountains of New Zealand? Some quick research revealed that the stages were between 65 and 140 kilometres long and, in crossing the Crown Ranges between Queenstown and Wanaka in the South Island, there was a 650 metre ascent over 12 kilometres with an average gradient of over 10%. This is the highest sealed road in New Zealand and over the total length of the 26km ascent is considered to be a category 1 climb. I am not a pro-rider but I was determined to do what I could to come out on top.
Preparing for the Tour of New Zealand
My preparation for this event consisted of two parts: fitness and equipment. I planned to do regular cycling training and started getting cycling wear to deal with the colder and extreme weather conditions I expected New Zealand to deliver. On my list were arm warmers, leg warmers, long fingered gloves, booties and jackets. April drew nearer and the itinerary was confirmed; it was time to discover the cycling side of New Zealand.
An early morning flight from Sydney at 6am set the stage for the entire trip: early starts. Air New Zealand flies from Sydney crossing the Southern Alps and descends between looming mountains left and right into Queenstown Airport. It is worth mentioning that the in flight safety video from Air New Zealand is a real highlight – the most entertaining I have seen, which also meant it had my full attention.
Touch down in Queenstown, the town with an international reputation as an adventure capital. Queenstown has a European feel, a mix of locals and international visitors on the bank of Lake Wakatipu. You are either well dressed or you are dressed for adventure. Full suspension mountain bikes are to be seen everywhere, the chair lift up to ‘skyline’ is just one of the four main mountain biking options within minutes of the town centre. We arrived just days after the Queenstown Bike Festival with events for mountain biking and road racing as well as family recreational rides.
The Shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown
I chose to leave my own bike at home and use a rental bike. While I privately hoped for a carbon fibre dream machine, the reality was a functional Trek aluminium road bike with Shimano 105 and a touring oriented set up. Before racing was to begin the following day, it was necessary to get the bike prepared, attach pedals, set the saddle height and handlebar height and check the gears, brakes and tyre pressure. Luckily, pannier racks were not mounted and though it was really on the heavy side, it made up for the extra weight (except during the hill climbs) with its comfort. This bike had experience and was already setup for New Zealand’s conditions.
The Inaugural Tour of New Zealand starts
As a group of about 60 riders started from Cape Reinga on the tip of the North Island and headed 111km to Kaitaia, a group of 300 riders at Bluff at the bottom of the South Island were waiting to head off on their 139km ride to Mossburn. The race organisers were put to the test before the southern group could even leave the start, the signage on the lead car needed an urgent adjustment in the name of safety before the all-clear was called and the riders could then proceed.
Rider safety was a key issue and each morning the cyclists were briefed at the start so that they were aware of riding conditions and about safe riding on the open roads. The roads were still open for traffic and one of the key rules was single-file cycling. Signs were positioned at regular intervals to notify the other road traffic of the cycling event and turns were marked and marshalled for the cyclists.
I was due to join the race on day two in the South Island and this was a clue as to the style and format of the race. Although participation as a racer in this tour involved competing in seven stages plus the criterium in Wellington, day racers were welcome and could complete just a single or just a few stages. Most riders rode in teams, which gave some of them the opportunity to change riders at ‘transition points’ along the route. The Tour of New Zealand was billed as a competitive race though included a nicely integrated fund raising component for the benefit of three New Zealand charities. As a participant it had the feel-good factor but still retained the competitive race format.
Bunch Riding in the South Island
On the eve of my first stage I was still wondering what type of riders were competing and how difficult the Crown Ranges ascent would be. I was after an early night, so following a lovely meal at the Pier19 restaurant on the waterfront, I skipped the chance to catch up with the riders who completed Stage One and were now celebrating at a pub.
Stage Two: Queenstown to Wanaka, 69km
It was early and it was cold as I was ferried to the start of the second stage at Arthurs Point, not far from Queenstown. Our group was supported by Bas (Baz) the Dutchman who had become a New Zealand local. He had stories of his cycle travels worldwide and seemed to know every bump of every road in New Zealand. It was Bas who warned us to take it easy up the Crown Ranges and avoid destroying our legs on the first day. I couldn’t wait to get on the bike and get warmed up.
In the South Island, the winning team from stage 1 was able to start the day first. The sun slowly peaked over the mountain ranges as the Christchurch Boys High School team raced off confidently. One by one groups were released and the teams showed a real mixed bag of competitors: corporate teams with MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra), family teams that spanned three generations, feisty young riders with the Pro look and even recreational cyclists on hybrids. I was released from the gate and eased into the single file and slowly the sorting began as we headed towards the base of the crown ranges and each rider and bunch found their own tempo.
Arthurs Pass presents its European side
A short hill just a few kilometres from the start saw riders already out of the saddle. The following short descent claimed a casualty as an eager young cyclist took a corner too wide. I passed by moments later and a few riders were already attending to him. Race marshals just down the road were already aware and minutes later the ambulance that escorted the tour passed. While it wasn’t the only accident during the tour, there were no serious injuries. The routes were chosen so whenever possible traffic was minimal, most of the vehicles kept a very clear berth and waited to overtake till we were past the narrow sections.
The landscape in the South felt European, much of the native flora had disappeared long ago, replaced by deciduous tree species and pine. With the golden Autumn leaves falling all around, we edged through Arrowtown to the base of the Crown Ranges and turned up onto the Crown Range Road onto a series of switchbacks. As it got steeper and other riders started slowing, it was time for me to find my own pace. My advantage over many of the riders was my younger legs, though heeding the advice of our guide I settled into a comfortable, sustainable pace. The gradient varied, some section as much as 21% (apparently), and this took its toll on some riders who continued on foot.
The Crown Ranges are the highest sealed road in New Zealand
Nearing the top, the support bus overtook and the reward at the top was a fantastic view back down the valley across the climbing road. It got better after a short break at the top, a fast winding descent that took us down towards Wanaka. As the road flattened, or rather became undulating, it made sense to join onto a bunch, taking turns at the front, of course. Passing the cosy Cardrona Hotel, the bunch was averaging around 40kmh, a pace I held on to until shortly before Wanaka.
Cruising over a hill crest, Lake Wanaka unfolded. A magnificent scene with mountains and glaciers spread out in the distance towering over the lake. The finish area was well marked and after passing though it was then just a few hundred metres to the shore where the support bus was waiting for riders in our group. After such an early start to the day there was ample time for afternoon activities; walking through vineyards and returning to town along the lake’s shore, enjoying the beauty.
Overlooking vineyards towards Ruby Island in Lake Wanaka
The Northern group travelled 79km from Omapere to Dargaville on the west coast through the spectacular Waipoua Forest. On a previous trip to New Zealand I travelled through the same area which boasts massive Kauri trees such as Tane Mahuta that has a trunk girth of 13.8m and reaches over 50 metres into the sky.
Stage Three: Wanaka to Omarama, 113km
As the north group continued 70km from Dargaville to Brynderwyn on day three, the south tour began at Lake Wanaka and headed 113km northwards to Omarama. It was no surprise that there was another early start to the day and even with a few sun rays peaking through, arm warmers were a real help. Efficient cycling was very much about finding the right bunch to match your tempo. Though I started towards the back, the gaps were small and it wasn’t too long until I discovered that Team New Zealand Safety South had a good tempo. They were a fairly large corporate team and had counterparts in the North Island, Team New Zealand Safety North. There were a few other South verses North corporate teams who were competing against one another in friendly rivalry.
Most teams had an unofficial team leader, there was often a particularly strong rider who would do more than his fair share of work at the front of the bunch, breaking the wind and also supporting and keeping an eye on his team of riders. While the teams would often remain together from start to finish, most welcomed other riders that joined onto their bunch.
A few teams such as Team Hong Kong broadened the definition of the Tour of New Zealand into an event also catering for recreational and touring style cyclists. For Team Hong Kong the tour was a challenging fun ride – no lycra, no carbon fiber; instead hybrid bikes with panniers. It wasn’t a race for this team and a number of other smaller teams and family teams, it was about enjoying the cycling together. I was pleasantly surprised to see all of these different types of riders so well catered for in this multi-stage event.
Continuing past the halfway mark the roads were windy and hilly, and they got steeper and steeper. Climbing up to Lindis Pass 80 kilometres into the ride was completely unexpected. While this ascent was mentioned in the itinerary, it was describe as a “bump” which is not what it felt like. It was a granny gear ascent to 971 metres above sea level that left riders struggling, myself included. Not far from what I felt was the top, a few supporters on the side of the road, who were waiting for their riders to pass, shouted words of encouragement. That helped me turn over the pedals. What didn’t help was a stinky cattle truck that pottered up the hill spewing hot exhaust my way and making each pedal stroke to the top that much harder. What did help was passing other riders who seemed to be having a much harder time, and the top was in sight.
Lindis Pass sits in the distance, intimidating the cyclists
I took a short rest at the top of the pass and this is where the spirit of the tour really shone through. Supporters who were waiting for family or team members to conquer this climb kindly spared some water so that I could hydrate and fill my bottle. In just a few minutes my energy levels were back up and I was ready to go. The support bus for my group was still miles behind looking after other riders and it would stay that way for some time. I was told it was now downhill all the way to the finish, that was probably meant to help me psychologically rather than accurately describe what was ahead.
The bunches were either behind me or in front of me, so I was solo on the downhill, passing riders in dribs and drabs. For some reason I thought the stage was only 103km and was counting down the kilometres. After the road started to level out, way too early I felt, the wind began pushing across the plains; cycling alone was became difficult. I was on the look-out for the town of Omarama, I couldn’t spot it in the distance but it had to be somewhere nearby. All I could see across the plains were distant mountains and patches of trees. My odometer clicked over to 106km then 107km; where was the finish line?
I was passing riders as I edged closer to the phantom finish line and I felt ready to stop, ready to get more liquids into me. As it got tougher I tried to motivate myself, my legs were still ok so “Shut up Legs” didn’t work. I was just tired. At 109 km my support bus passed and I was told “you’re almost there”. 111 km ticked over and I still couldn’t see Omarama, though I powered on wondering how far away it really was. Finally, a bridge and a town, so where is the finish line? Of course it’s on the other side of town so I was relieved to finally pass through the finish line and get stuck into some recovery drinks. I felt great now; the sun was shining and once the rest of the riders from our group started arriving we sat down for a lovely meal and a cappuccino to make up for the one I didn’t have for breakfast.
Made it to Omarama, and still happy
Seven Kilometres at Lake Pukaki
After our lunch we set off from Omarama in the bus towards Twizel for some more riding… more riding, huh? There was something special planned and it did indeed involve more riding, but only for a short distance. Just after Twizel is Lake Pukaki which is a lake that dreams are made of. A fantastic deep blue lake with snowy mountain peaks in the background. This activity wasn’t part of the Tour of New Zealand, instead we were invited to look at and try one of the newest parts of the New Zealand Cycle Trail.
The New Zealand government has invested about $50 million (NZD) in cycle trails across New Zealand since 2009 with local governments and organisations adding another $30 million. We were looking at part of the Alps2Ocean trail which will become a 312km cycle trail from Mt Cook to Oamaru. This is just one of the many New Zealand Cycle Trail rides that has been built or is currently being built and they’re attracting local and international cyclists, particularly mountain bikers. The Alps2Ocean trail is currently in development and on the 7km section that we rode which followed the shoreline of Lake Pukaki, a new technique to seal the surface of the trails and protect them against erosion is being trialled. The result is an easy to ride trail that feels a little like bitumen and comfortably fits two-abreast. When the trail is finished it will be a spectacular 6 day trip from Mt Cook to the Pacific Ocean.
The Alps2Ocean test trail on the shore of Lake Pukaki
We left Lake Pukaki and continued on towards Lake Tekapo, another beautiful lake with a mountain backdrop. The region generates a lot of hydroelectric energy and contributes 55% of the electricity that New Zealand derives from this power source. A system of channels and hydroelectric stations flow from Lake Tekapo and we spotted salmon farms in some of the channels. Though New Zealand salmon is a favourite, I instead opted for a juicy New Zealand steak to top me up for the following day’s ride.
Scenes from beautiful Lake Wanaka
Stage Four: Tekapo to Geraldine, 88km
No more big hills, instead on day four we faced the rolling and winding countryside from Tekapo heading East towards Geraldine. The day started with sun as the bunches cycled out of Tekapo and the more competitive teams increased their pace. This leg of the tour was a shorter ride than the previous day’s and our group also had the option to finish halfway in Fairlie as we had a flight planned to the North Island for later that day.
A beautful start to the day departing Lake Wanaka
The route presented long stretches of road and meant that there was plenty of over taking as well as riders dropping off bunches. In the distance a massive storm front crept slowly towards us. After beautiful weather during the past few days, the outlook was ominous and the first drops of rain also bought a temperature drop. It was a matter of biting through the spray and just riding through to Fairlie where we were to rendezvous with the support bus. There was a cosy cafe on the corner in Fairlie which was enough to convince us to stop and warm up around the fireplace as the other teams battled on.
After a coffee and lovely half hour break, the support bus pulled in. We were still good for time and I managed to convince some of the riders in my group to get their wet weather gear on and continue to Geraldine. With only 45km to go, the route presented undulating roads that curved around and over hills. With warmer cycling gear on we were able to travel with a little less discomfort as the rain and cold temperature held on. Most of the other cyclists had also been able to get some wet weather gear on along the way from their support cars.
Your author in wet weather mode on the way to Geraldine
Not far before the finish line in Geraldine a cyclist had collapsed on the roadside with fatigue. She was already being looked after so we were instructed to continue; shortly after an ambulance passed us and was on the scene. Before long the countryside was behind us as we entered Geraldine and followed the prompts towards the finish line. I delivered a sprint for some friendly competition on our final South Island stage, though we all passed the finish as winners.
Geraldine is a quaint town in Canterbury surrounded by agriculture and grazing pastures. We were due to meet in a restaurant for lunch which unfortunately turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap. I will spare you the details except to say that it had parking spaces for big buses. Lots of big buses.
After that episode we were due on the North Island, which meant taking a flight from Christchurch airport, about 100km from Geraldine. On the trip to Christchurch we passed through massive areas reserved for dairy cattle; sheep farming in New Zealand now takes a back seat. We entered Christchurch remembering how recent the devastating earthquake in 2011 was. While we didn’t pass through the seriously damaged areas, our driver and local resident Bas shared stories of the devastation and the unity of the community and entire nation in rebuilding. Christchurch has always been a strong hub of cycling and in the Earthquake a number of popular road cycling routes and mountain bike trails were damaged, some so severely that they can’t be rebuilt. The cycling community in Christchurch has adapted and remains strong. The Christchurch Boys High School Team were setting a good example of this, having taken the team victory for each stage of the Tour of New Zealand so far.
Our time in Christchurch was short, limited to packing bikes for the flight to Hamilton in the North Island. We boarded a medium sized Air New Zealand plane which took us and our bikes comfortably to the North. Checking into the Hamilton Airport Motel, the manager personally welcomed us and then put on an outstanding meal of lamb, a real highlight and a lovely way to close this chapter before we were to join the Tour of New Zealand in the North Island.
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 fullscreen HD version here
Coming Shortly, Part 2: The 2012 Tour of New Zealand: North to South
More details about this event at www.tourofnewzealand.co.nz
Photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 15, 16 © Newell Grenfell
Photos 2, 8, 11, 13, 14, 18 © Bicycles Network Australia
Photos 6, 12, 17 © Tourism New Zealand