Thursday morning’s fried chicken at the Oparau Roadhouse seems like an age ago now that it's Monday evening and I am back in Melbourne for dinner. The four days of riding deep through backcountry New Zealand with mates, was a ride-party that cleared the stresses of my busy life. Thanks to Liam (The King) and the NZ Cycling Journal crew, a few of us Aussies got to experience a huge slice of Kiwiana. So, just how much fun can you pack into a few days?
Back to Wednesday and I was in Auckland, working with Cyco Bikeshop, to introduce Curve Cycling and our Belgie Ride to NZ (a huge shout out to the crew that joined us - for those in Auckland, go get on the shop ride!). Meanwhile, my fellow Aussie Peter "Pikey" Pan, and JB the French model, were flying in to meet up for beers. Still buzzing from the shop ride and in anticipation of the two-day commute ride ahead, we grabbed a few hours sleep. I've led a cycling adventure or two at Curve, so when I apologised to Liam for my lack of preparation, the King wouldn't have a bar of it: "We got it covered cuz!" - and off we went to the Dirty Detours gravel ride in the Republic of Whangamomona.
Day 1 - Kawhia – Pio Pio. 75km - 1300vm
"Gee, this weather is SHIIIT!" a farmer declared his forecast to the roadhouse. He wasn't wrong, and yet here we were getting our bikes ready and rain gear on. Kawhia is nestled near the mid-western coast of the North Island and, as with most of NZ, its wrinkly geology meant we were going to earn our 75 shakedown ride. The wind was a monster, the sideways rain rolled in and out, and off we went. We were now in the good hands of the King - and in Liam's kingdom, everyone is treated as equals. Thankfully, the winds were with us as we quickly hit our first bit of gravel... We each had gravel bikes, two with 650b and the other two with 700c wheels, so the banter for wheel supremacy began. Aussie gravel in most cases is similar to NZ gravel, but maybe overall a little deeper, and a little slower. The pace in country NZ isn't fast, it wasn't a race, and with tailwind assistance we just cruised up an 8km gravel climb to enjoy the speccy sights. Even in the shitty weather, NZ's green grasses and ferns were almost fluorescent against dark clouds and mist.
Cruising along the ridge; more gravel, more views, more rain, more banter, more laughs. We knew that beers and warm showers awaited and it was all downhill to Pio Pio. The treasure of Pio Pio had to be the cafe, the restaurant and best of all - us Aussies were introduced to the delights of The Cosmopolitan Club (aka the Cossy), where we sampled its finest ales.
Day 2 - Pio Pio – Whangamomona, aka The Republic. 125km - 1500vm
No rain today, but instead a forecast for a 125km/h block headwind. The King just laughed off any concerns: "Bro, it's swirly in there, don't worry cuz." Yeah sure, we had a headwind, but we rolled turns at a steady pace, chatting, laughing and getting deeper into the farmland and wilderness. The backroad traffic was intense, we saw a whole two cars, maybe three farmers, and a bunch of cattle and sheep. We were under 36 hours into our trip, and we had already Gone Deep, forgetting the stresses of the city.
Lunch was in the ghost town of Ohura, once a vibrant town of thousands, now a population of 100. The town consists of deserted shops that are stuck in the 70s - many untouched since the day they closed - an old jail and few dead pubs. The local Cossy still had some life left in it, as with the town hall and one tiny church. But what was this alien vehicle we could see? A food truck? A Mexican food truck? WTAF! Here we were in the middle of nowhere eating world-class quesadillas with beers, corn chips and spicy salsa. We’d Gone Deep and it was bliss. Next stop, the Republic.
Between us and the ‘Republic of Whanga,’ lay the Forgotten World Highway. The King was good at withholding little gems like this. As the landscape changed, we went deeper into the wilderness. No more sheep or paddocks; the gradients and peaks were far too sheer - now we were rolling down alongside the Tangarakau River, in the most gorgeous of gorges.
The region is littered with tunnels, built in the early 1900s with manpower and dynamite. It was super trippy riding in the dark, towards the light, where we returned to picturesque farmland on our final stretch to the Republic of Whangamomona.
Whangamomona. We'd been practising the name for days. Our mate Mia, a Maori local, had us singing Phung-a-mo-mo-na whereas a few of the farmers simply said, "just call it Whanga." Regardless, we were keen to get there and know more about the Republic.
Whanga, is a one-pub town. During a brief period, while stuck in a battle between two shires, they just went off and announced themselves as republic. It stuck. The Whanga Pub was quickly declared as Parliament and while the first and current presidents are human, they've also had a presidential pig and a sheep... Some of the farm vehicles and local characters look straight out of Mad Max - the lawlessness of the Republic is real, but maybe it's because there's no one around. This place is wholesome.
Day 3 - Dirty Detours - 90km - 1300vm
The vibe that NZ Cycling Journal had created around the town hall was awesome. Brothers Beer set up a pop-up bar, the locals chucked bacon and lamb on the barbie, and we got to talk bikes and drink beer with the 70 or so riders that descended on Whanga. They came from all over: Auckland, Wellington, Cambridge, New Plymouth and even Christchurch. The Kiwis were all riding a nice array of mainly gravel bikes, a couple braved it with their road bikes, and a few MTBs also joined along. A gravel bike was the pick and it was especially humbling for me to see a couple of Curve bikes on course too. Liam clanged the pots to set us off, as we rolled out in a groupetto straight into the Whanga Saddle climb. A few of the more competitive spirits mistakenly thought this was a race, but today wasn't about racing - today was about enjoying the ride amongst some stunning scenery. There were a few timed sections on course, which made for some competitive fun, but did we need it? I wasn't there for a fast time, I was there to soak it all in.
The gravel roads dove into farmed valleys, which turned into lush, green rainforest. Some gravel was freshly laid and super technical, which made for interesting ascending and descending. About 60 clicks deep, our lunch stop delivered in spades; the local mums of this tiny town put on a classic spread of savoury and sweet goodies. All food donations went back to the school community - a total of about ten kids. The roll home was all smiles and bliss, the pace dropped to a gentle cruise and while we had a sprint for the finish line, the day had only just begun. It was now over to the Dirty Detours crew, and the locals of Whanga, to treat us to some local traditions.
Day 4 - Recovery Ride
We woke a little slowly the next morning - I think most of New Zealand did, they were all licking their wounds after losing the rugby semi-final, but that's a whole other story. After yesterday's ride, the town had treated us to a show: the Brothers Beer was flowing, the sun was shining, we spun yarns with our new Kiwi mates. Through the morning’s beer haze I recalled myself, Pikey and JB standing on the back of a ute in a ‘Shear, Pie, Beer’ competition, stirring up the Kiwis and showing them how good us Aussies are at everything (especially sculling beer). Today, in our slow state, the King had a ‘recovery ride’ lined up for us - but it wasn't really, it was another one of his hidden gems. On this trip we got to meet farmer Allen, who has lived in Makahu for the last 30 years. He greeted us as we were refilling our water in the beautiful school grounds. Before we knew it, we all had a beer in-hand and were sharing stories, listening to his open and forward-thinking views on farming. What a top bloke, in the middle of nowhere. We rolled out on a recce of what might be next year’s course... and oh boy… I won't spoil it for you. I'll see you there next year with some more Aussies in tow.
Dirty Detours is the King's brain child ... It's his way of adventuring by bike, and we totally get it! While some of us love road racing, others like MTBing and some just like the camaraderie or lattes of cycling, what brings us together is the love of riding and travel.
At Curve, we believe the world is a better place when riding bikes - and Liam and Dirty Detours get that. So when Dirty Detours set a course somewhere, Liam is not only taking you to a winding road less travelled, but also immersing you in its surrounds and its community.
In Whangamomona, the locals were part of the event, not just silent volunteers. We were welcomed to the event village (the town hall) with beers, 70s couches and a stamp in our Republic of Whanga passports. "Time to chill cuz". As mentioned, the post-race activities were a hoot. A bizarre sheep shearing comp, and dancing to the local band, kept us in a community vibe far, far away from the city. Our four days riding with the King felt like a two week escape.
As we ride and seek out such places, time slows and we gain a wonderful opportunity to connect with what'saround us. Dirty Detours doesn't want you to race through their events, they want you to experience something real and forget the damn rat race.
Words: Adam Lana
Images: Cameron Mackenzie