Tour Aotearoa, named after the Maori word for New Zealand, is an MTB brevet running 3,000km the length of the country, from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. I took part in the 2018 edition. On a gravel bike.
There’s been an NZ government project over the last few years to build a network of long distance MTB trails, and the TA’18 route was designed to take in as many of those as possible as it made its way down the length of the country, linked by rural gravel roads, cycle paths and the least busy tarmac possible, only taking the direct way down the highways when there was no possible alternative. I chose to add another 500km to the total distance by riding up to the start from the Bay of Islands and going on from the finish to tour around the Catlins, but I’ll gloss over the unpleasantness of riding through terrible weather on both those extensions to concentrate here on the event itself.
The Tour Aotearoa brevet had been held once before, as a one-off in 2016 with 300 riders, but demand for a repeat led to this second edition. This time there were 600 places, all of which were taken several months ahead of the start. There was no entry fee, but we were required instead to make a charitable donation and to offset the carbon emissions from our travel out and back. To avoid overwhelming local infrastructure and services before the field had spread out, we were split into six waves of 100 riders each, with the waves starting on different days spread over a two week period.
We all had a limit of 30 days from our respective start dates to reach the finish at Bluff. The rules stipulated we were to ride unsupported, that is to carry all our own gear, to find our own food and places to sleep along the way and to deal with any mechanical issues that arose. To help prove we’d followed the route, and to make the faster riders pause just a second to take in their surroundings, there were 30 Photo Control Points at which we had to take a picture to upload. We also had to carry satellite trackers, not just so our positions could be seen but also so we could contact Search and Rescue in an emergency, much of the route being too remote for there to be any chance of a mobile signal.
Many entrants chose to travel light and sleep in accomodation but, largely because I’d had to spent too much on air fares and offsets to get out there, I decided I’d camp all the way I think that should be the way in an event like this anyway. If you’re not packing sleeping gear on your bike then you’re not bikepacking, or at least that’s what I told myself. Besides, waking up in a cabin or B&B is not a patch on waking up in the great outdoors. I took a tent over a bivvy bag though, in deference to the South Island’s reputation for rain and sandflies. I also carried a sleeping bag and inflatable mat, a primaloft gilet, waterproofs, a single change of riding clothes, knee warmers, tools, spares, a water filter, a little meths burner and some fuel. Whenever I found a supermarket I would cram enough food into the space remaining in my bags to last me until the next town. Fully loaded with food and water, my bike weighed approaching 30Kg. Heavier than the bikes of those room hopping, and more than a typical bivvying bikepacking set up, though still quite a bit less than a touring bike with four full panniers. That reflected my approach to riding the event. It wasn’t a race so I wasn’t race light, but I wasn’t there for a holiday and I knew I’d need to constantly be pressing on to meet the deadline.
Veterans of the 2016 event had warned beforehand that a gravel bike wouldn’t be the best suited to the route. The vast majority of the field were on 29er MTBs but I really like my bargain drop-barred Arkose and I’m stubborn, so had decided I was using that. As a result, I did struggle over a few of the MTB trails. Partly because some were far more technical than the bridleways I love riding it on back in the UK, partly because the weather was so wet on occasions and the surface so muddy, and partly because I had so much weight on and hadn’t geared down enough to allow for it all up the steep off-road climbs. But where I couldn’t ride I walked, and I made it through everything in the end, even sections more than a few MTB riders were shortcutting out.
On the less technical trails the Arkose felt more at home, the 135km long West Coast Wilderness Trail in particular was a blast and I don’t think it could have been more fun on any other bike. And there was definitely payback to be had on the 380km long section of state highway in the South Island, to which the bike was much better suited than the MTBs.
Looking back, I find it interesting to reflect on how my outlook changed during the ride. At first, I just wanted to make progress. It was a long, long way to the finish and I felt the urge to eat large chunks into the distance. People back home were watching my dot and I wanted it to move a respectable distance each day. I went with a schedule for 22 days in mind and I was pleased with how I managed to keep to it in the first few days, making kilometres on the road sections by riding late into the night when necessary, but I got frustrated by how slow going some of the MTB trails were when I hit them – my hardest days on the Tour resulted in the shortest distances.
Halfway through the North Island I started to lose that frustration. I began savouring the whole experience more and not caring so much about how few days I could complete it in, just that I finished within the time limit. I’d learnt that riding into the small hours to make up ground would feel fine at the time but that I’d end up paying for it a day or two later. Consistency seemed to work better for me, and I settled into getting up with the sun and riding for roughly 12 hours each day, going as far as that got me. As I got closer to the finish line, when I was confident I had a few days in hand, I briefly contemplated riding shorter days to string it out to the full 30 days. But I didn’t. Maintaining the cycle of waking, riding, eating, sleeping had become my purpose. I’d have felt aimless sitting around idle had I’d stopped riding early one day.
There were ups and downs on the way. Times the weather or a high speed close pass got me down, and times other riders, the incredible scenery or the kindness of strangers brought me up. Far too much to cover here, but I’ll post separate, day-by-day accounts for those who might be interested in more detail.
In all, it took me 26 days, 5 hours and 20 minutes to reach the finish. I rode with some great people along the way. Some for just an hour or two, others for a day or two. Others still I would bump into over again at café stops along the way. On the last day ten of us found ourselves all having lunch at the only café in the only town around, and decided we’d ride the remaining 70km together and finish in a bunch. On reaching the Bluff Point landmark signpost, someone produced a bottle of fizz and enough beakers to go round. It was great to end on such a high. I’d ridden along beaches, through remote rainforest, over mountain ranges and alongside lakes, seen and heard unfamiliar wildlife, and slept outside my tent under a sky unspoilt by light pollution. I’d experienced great kindnesses from complete strangers and made friends I’ll remember for life. And I’d proved to myself that, whilst I may never have the speed required to do well at ultra-racing, I did at least have the determination to get up out of my tent at first light every morning and get back on my bike, no matter how tired I was and no matter the weather. But then I said I was stubborn, didn’t I?
Tour Aotearoa Image Gallery