It’s been a long trip; you’ve almost completely circled the largest lake in New Zealand, the looming volcano Tongariro has been left behind and you now have 130 kilometres in your legs. The past 30 k’s have been flat and your destination, the town of Taupo is in sight. You take a sweeping right which turns you away from the shore and the only way forward now is the leg burning ascent of Hatepe Hill. This is the killer, the one that can break your soul as you grind up and over the crest.
Every ascent, however, is followed by a descent; you enjoy going down Hatepe Hill and the road flattens again. Taupo is virtually upon you and there you can join the thousands of other cyclists who have conquered the lake. Only 10 kilometres to the finish and it looks like it should be downhill the rest of the way. Airport Hill is tiny and looks uninspiring, but it feels as though you are moving backwards; it seemed like only moments ago that you wouldn’t even raise your eyebrow at such a tiny obstacle, but now within sight of the finish, it’s sucking your lifeblood away.
The Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is no ride in the park, but each year it draws in thousands of cyclists who participate in the biggest cycling event in New Zealand. The population of the town of Taupo, on the northern shores of the 616 sq. km lake, doubles in size once a year as 10,000 cyclists and 12,500 supporters are drawn in to “face the challenge”. Lake Taupo is conveniently located smack in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand and boasts a host of activities from exclusive accommodation and sports such as sailing, golf and fly fishing through to budget camping and campervans with thrill seeking jet boating, skydiving and bungy jumping.
It isn’t all fun and games, and you would be forgiven if you felt a little nervous while in the area; steam rises from the ground, bubbling hot springs splutter releasing a soft sulphuric scent and at the far end of the lake three volcanoes sit quietly, patiently building the pressure, ready to explode. This is a volatile patch of earth. Two weeks before I arrived the snow capped Mount Tongariro erupted. The locals called it “a hiccup” as a new crevice opened to shoot gases into the sky. The famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing (walking track) was closed because of it, though it was still business as usual in town.
Everybody is crazy about cycling and, with occasional exceptions, the choice of bike is the mountain bike. Road cyclists are a minority group in Taupo except during the annual Cycle Challenge and Iron Man events. Taupo benefits from a dedicated group of trail builders who have been forming trails through forested areas for years and now, with the New Zealand federal government investing $50 million into cycling trails across the country, Bike Taupo is directing $2 million of that into sustainable local mountain bike trails.
Just like Australia, New Zealand is a car dominated society and, except during special events on closed courses or with controlled traffic, it is easy to feel vulnerable on the road. The popularity of mountain biking has a positive rub-off effect for road cyclists, more people are cycling and other road users become more aware and more tolerant of cyclists. With good road surfaces and great views, it is easy to imagine the “loop around Lake Taupo” as a popular ride for locals and visitors all year round.
When I arrived in New Zealand to preview the road and MTB courses, the All Blacks had just beaten the Wallabies in Rugby. The day after the defeat I visited Te Puia in Rotorua, a geothermal reserve of hot springs run by a Maori family. There was cultural ceremony and I couldn’t resist joining in on the Haka along with a number of other Aussie lads. This reflects well on the rivalry between the two nations: of course I was kindly reminded of the quality of Kiwi rugby during my entire time in New Zealand, though always with a smile and twinkle of the eye that says “Hello friend”.
Last year about 350 Aussies made it across to Taupo to ride in the Cycle Challenge. The interest in the mountain biking events is growing, though for most participants it’s still about the road. Audax cyclists focus on the solo 160km or take it further with the 320, 640 or even 1280km endurance events. It’s no surprise that groups of friends from cycling clubs, bunch-rides or from work will make the trip over together, and if the cycle challenge is the ‘work’ part of the trip, the rest of the week is a holiday. Considering the exchange rate, Aussies get a pretty good deal.
To date, around 100 Aussies have registered for this year’s challenge and it makes sense to get in early to ensure you have good flights and accommodation.
BNA has been given a special tour of the challenge route, so keep watching as we give you a first hand look at the ride profile (via video), an overview of the main cycling events, and a close look at mountain biking and other activities along with recommendations for Taupo and Rotorua.
2012 Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Facts
The main events are on Saturday 24th November 2012. Festivities and some events kick off a week earlier.
Entries are now open on the official website: www.cyclechallenge.com
The town of Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Auckland and Rotorua, as well as offering a regional service from Auckland to Taupo.
For cyclists, Rotorua is the most convenient airport with about 1 hour drive to Taupo. Some shuttles between Rotorua and Taupo are available. Alternatively, hire cars are available from the airport.
Early booking is essential. Taupo features accommodation to suit various budgets from simple motels and private houses through to premium and luxury accommodation such as the Taupo Hilton and exclusive Acacia Cliffs Lodge.
It is best to come fully equipped. There are six bike stores in Taupo that sell spares and can do repairs such as Top Gear Cycles on Tamamutu St and Phoenix Cyclery on Waikato Street.
Taupo is a small town that is geared towards visitors and you will have easy access to daily essentials all the way through to boutique items.
The town has a reputation for fine food and you you will enjoy excellent the local produce.
There is no shortage of activities to fill your day:
Adventure sports such as sky diving, bungy or jet boating
Active sports like mountain biking, kayaking
Relaxing sports such as fishing or golfing one of the world class golf courses
Scenic activities such as visiting Tongariro national park or geothermal areas, even taking a scenic flight or yacht trip
Wellness activities in hot spas or baths
Map of the 2012 Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Road Course