I'd never even heard of a gravel bike before. My solo travelling experience consisted of a weekend away in Lyme Regis. How do you even bikepack!? And yet there I was, at Cape Reinga just about to ride the Tour Aotearoa. A month long, 3000km bikepacking epic down the entire length of New Zealand. The excitement and anticipation were like nothing I've felt before. A weird cocktail of looking forward to the exploration, but also wondering if I'd make it all the way. What if my body wasn't up to it? How do I repair my bike? Where do I eat? What if I don't make friends or can't find places to stay!?
A year and a half previous, a friend had introduced me to the TA as a "great way to see New Zealand". I've wanted to visit the country for almost twenty years and I'm a sucker for putting myself outside of my comfort zone so with a bit of planning, and a bit of practice (practice rigging the bike, I barely trained!) and a heap of encouragement from the YesTribe I was off. I'd never solo travelled before. The furthest I'd ever ridden was 300km. What's the worst that can happen right?
Oh and I forgot to mention. Because I don't do things by halves, I chose to hand sketch the thirty photo checkpoints along the way, carrying an A5 sketchbook and 24 pens on board. Little did I realise just how tough this would be to pull off.
The first week was more mentally demanding than physical. It had been recommended to take things slow and because I was nervous of winging it, I'd pre-booked my first week of accommodation. I had a game plan that saw me through 50-80km days instead of the 100km average we needed to achieve. The theory being that by the time I'd reach the South Island I'd "be superman". This gave my legs the space to work out what on earth I
was demanding from them and with my lack of training and time required for faff, I don't think I could have riddene further in a day if I tried. This approach also allowed plenty of time to sit for my sketches which provided a welcome break and an awesome way of properly acknowledging my surroundings. The only downside to this deliberately slow pace was that as the Tour released one hundred riders a day, I was regularly overtaken by people way WAY fitter than me! The last thing you need when you're struggling up hills, getting cooked in the North Island sun and running low on energy! Stick to the plan Tom. You'll catch up with them once your legs work out what's going on.
Then the centre of the North Island started throwing proper hills at me. My first "big day" featured a 700m climb out of Mangakino, then another 400m up the first half of the Timber Trail. I gave myself plenty of time and the bike was running fine, but I hadn't appreciated just how much food and water climbing in high temperatures requires. By the time I'd started the second climb I still had 42km to go and completely ran out of supplies. I scrambled around in my packs and desperately ate a sachet of jam from my Auckland flight. (I don't even like jam) A friend had donated two small bits of chocolate. Unsurprisingly this wasn't enough to keep me going and the hill just never stopped. I finally broke. Curled myself up into a ball like some kind of forest animal and balled my eyes out. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger though right!? I found a fresh spring just around the corner and was rewarded by some sweet downhill action! The Nicasio+ absolutely LOVED gravel trails and as a result, so did I. Whipping around corners through giant tree ferns. Pushing your limits without crashing. Bliss.
After ten days of learning the ropes (faffing) I'd gotten into a vague rhythm. I'd reluctantly accepted I should be up at dawn to get the most riding hours in. My tour luggage had been tinkered with enough to not fall apart or drop things in the middle of the road. Pies, caramel slices, flat whites and cans of L&P were essentials at every given opportunity and accommodation was booked a day in advance. This had to be done by borrowing strangers phones as my network just plain didn't work. Looking back, all my fears at the start of the trip were gone. The sketching was going well, with it making a fantastic ice breaker everywhere I went. At this rate I could probably make it to the end!
One unexpected highlight was the Bridge to Nowhere and the Kaiwhakauka track. This year's Tour had already claimed some injuries with four people being airlifted from this short section. Horror stories of long drops, dangerous wet conditions and even a death the previous year wracked the nerves the day before.
Sods law that the predicted rain turned up way earlier than planned and I woke to find the whole forest in a heavy downpour. Well. That's that then. Time for a potentially deadly adventure!
What unfolded was actually a day of entertainingly sketchy, totally over the top conditions. I came alive. Rock falls and mudslides were actively falling in front of me. At one point the track got so sticky my wheels stopped turning. A huge downhill was so slippery I may as well have been ice skating. Pushing my balance and speed right to the edge of crashing in a broken mess. The Indiana Jones theme looped in my head all day. After all the worry beforehand, the adverse conditions turned out to be one of the best days of the tour. I left by jet boat. Not a rescue helicopter. Winner.
A few days later, I made it down to Wellington, ticking off the North Island and bagging 1800km. Well past the halfway mark but I was still acutely aware that I now needed to ride an average 120km a day to make it to Bluff in under 30 days. Uh-oh!
Then something magical happened on the overnight Cook Strait ferry. I barely got any sleep, yet for some reason from the moment I hit dry land I was FULL of beans! Had it finally happened? Was I Superman as predicted!? Tom 2.0!? That afternoon the South Island tried to call me out on my new found confidence by hitting me with a heavy thunderstorm. Pushing my bike up the essentially un-rideable Maungatapu saddle through hail and lightning, I couldn't help wondering if summiting a hill was the smartest move... Sopping wet and cold to the bone, I then had to crack out the sketch book and sketch. Safe to say, with shaking hands and chattering teeth, this wasn't going to be one of my best! Thankfully I didn't get electrocuted and even this couldn't stop my new found energy. Nice try South Island. You're mine!
For the remaining ten days I felt the chase. Rather than ambling down the country enjoying my pies and cakes, I revelled in getting up as early as possible and racing the sunset. 120km. 130km. 130km with hills. 154km! Over Haast Pass. Up the Crown Range. At one point I couldn't feel my legs for two days and my bike seemed to propel me up the hills. What on earth was my body up to!? Is this what being "bike fit" feels like?
It wasn't just my body. The Nicasio+ laughed at everything I threw at it. One day I'd be climbing up seemingly endless tarmac, crunching through my gears and cringing every time in the hope I wouldn't break something. The next I'd be chucking it enthusiastically down a rocky, gnarly single track and it didn't even blink. What an absolute joy to ride. Even covered in luggage! I found myself down on the drop bars for pretty much everything which surprised me as I thought these were just for racing. I found I could actually pull up against my pedalling and it gave me even more power. Awesome!
One moment I will never forget is shortly after Cowboys Paradise on the West Coast Wilderness Trail. 23 days in, coming down some freshly groomed gravel switchbacks, I was hit by one of the most beautiful views I've seen in my life. It all sunk in. Here I was on the other side of the planet, completely on my own, having the absolute time of my life and I'd made it there through my own determination. Not to mention a whole heap of support from wonderful people. I cried my eyes out.
The South Island continued to blow my mind with increasingly impressive mountains and on day 29 I rolled in to Bluff, accompanied by some fantastic new friends and an overwhelming sense of pride. A year and a half of nerves and saying yes to things had led the most epic achievement of my life. I'd recorded the journey with 37 drawings, making me the first person on the planet to record this event with artwork. I pushed my fitness to places I didn't know even existed and embraced the unknown time and time again. I learnt that I'm way more resourceful than I thought and can problem solve like a ninja. I even rediscovered a decade old love of trail riding and can't wait to explore my local ones. Imagine how fast I'll go without all that luggage!
A special shout out to Otec Bikes who supplied my Nicasio+, WTB for some Venture tires to eat up the gravel, the enthusiasm and support of the adventure community SayYesMore and Marin for building a bike that can do pretty much everything, transport me 3000km and not break once. Legendary stuff.
- article adapted from an original write up for Marin/Otec -