Bobby, my ride buddy for the day, settles into his chair, takes a drink of his post-ride smoothie, eyes me impishly and says, “It’s got some texture, eh?” He’s referring to the lumpy ride we’ve just finished through West Auckland’s Waitakere mountain range.
“You mean like the rusty edge of a two-man lumber saw? Yeah, it’s got plenty of texture,” I reply. Kiwi restraint and lack of pretense characterizes so many things I’ve come to know in New Zealand, and Bobby has clearly mastered that artful understatement.
This is my first ride after landing barely 24 hours prior from a long Los Angeles to Auckland flight, and it hurt. The first post-flight ride always hurts. I’m just doing my best not to show it. Still, the last time I was in this very spot 14 months ago it seemed to hurt a whole lot more.
I’m prepared this time. I’d better be. My friend Liam has schemed an eight-day ride through remote and rarely traveled areas of NZ for a group of LA cyclists we’ve convinced to come over as beta testers for future tours. These are some of my friends, so I’ve come along as a ride leader to test the proverbial stash.
We have a couple days before the group arrives; there’s much still to be done and the past week has been a flurry of finalizing details and fielding anxious questions. It happens like this with every new tour: months earlier, riders skim the original plan for the general view, thinking they’ll get back to the particulars later. For this group, later just happens to be departure week, and that’s when the invariable mini freak-outs happen.
“Wait, we’re arriving on Super Bowl Sunday! How can we watch the game?”
“What do you mean there’s some gravel and 35,000’ of climbing?”
“What do you mean by ‘off-the-grid?’ There’ll still be wifi, right?”
“But Super Bowl Sunday? We have to watch the game.”
Liam’s been receiving a steady barrage of these texts and emails--from people he’s never met-- for the last several days, and he seems a little concerned. I chalk up the communications to pre-travel jitters, and a need to apply some control and familiarity to the unfamiliar.
As Bobby rolls off in his direction and we go ours, Liam asks, “Mate, do you think it’s going to go alright with the ‘mericans?” At this point, I tell him, it’s going to be what it’s going to be and no matter what there’ll be some texture.
Careful What You Wish For
Liam and I have been plotting this kind of tour since we met on my first (and only) trip to Auckland. He’s been scouring the country for the surprising, remote and uniquely Kiwi. On my side of the Pacific, I’ve been talking about riding in NZ with anyone who will listen. Most people, of course, want to ride here, but they imagine it’s an impossibly far away, once-in-a-lifetime experience. That perception softens, slightly, when I tell them it takes the same amount of time to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland as it does to fly to Paris.... plus Kiwi espresso is better.
One Saturday, rolling home from the local group ride, I run into my friend Matthew Barnes, a commercial photographer-turned-cycling tour operator. His company, Echelon Pro Cycling Tours, creates ride-food-wine experiences in California’s famed Napa and Sonoma valleys. He tells me he’s looking for new places to take his guests during their winter months and wants my advice. “Have you considered New Zealand,” I ask?
A phone call with Liam, an in-person coffee meeting in Los Angeles, followed by some emails and a couple more phone calls, and Matthew’s on board. He enlists some familiar faces from our LA circles, and after they confirm they’re in we quickly move from a loose and hazy vision to “oh crap, now we’ve really got to deliver!”
Liam concocts an ambitious plan that, on paper, looks complex yet doable. I know cuzzie has immense Kiwi DIY pride and a bit of an adventurous streak. He’ll make it work. Somehow.
Our LA crew--Matthew, Mike, Wynde, and Tim--emerges from immigration control at Auckland Airport: we hand each of them a flat white from Allpress Espresso, then shuttle off to a house on Piha Beach for breakfast, relaxation and summery ocean breezes. Someone asks how long the drive is, and Liam says, “It’s about 20 minutes away.” It’s not. Tired and travel weary, our guests just got their first lesson in Kiwi- (or perhaps Liam-) time. This will eventually become the kind of ongoing inside joke that bonds any team on an intense adventure together.
Before heading down Piha Road to the beach, we detour at the Arataki Visitor Center. Liam’s arranged a surprise. Dr. Ihi Heke is an internationally renowned mountain biker and public health researcher: he and his daughters have come to offer us a proper Maori greeting and blessing for our travels. The experience is a brief, but potent reminder that NZ is a place of depth, complexity and diverse historical perspectives.
After a rest day in Piha, we head back to Auckland, check the team into their hotel, and indulge in our first of many memorable meals.
In The Shadow of Taranaki
On a bright and sunny late afternoon, six of us are kitted up, pumping tyres and putting bottles on bikes to get ready for the first ride of our journey. The follow car is idling behind, waiting for Liam’s signal that it’s time to roll. We are in New Plymouth, on the North Island’s west coast four hours south of Auckland, for the ride’s official start.
Thus far, it has been a lot of travel and no riding yet for our group. They are anxious to get moving, and perhaps a little cranky. As Liam guides us away from the seaside through rolling hills with sweeping ranches, the simple mindful act of pedaling begins spinning off any residual anxiety. When we reach the lower slope of Taranaki, a volcanic cone resembling Mount Fuji, we get our first proper taste of rainforest riding. Bright sunlight punctures the vivid green fern leaves, tattooing the perfectly smooth road surface with exotic geometric shadows. This is new visual candy for our visitors, and they are entranced. After a quick water refill and few photos at Pukeiti Gardens, we make the fast, flowing descent back into New Plymouth. Less than three hours into the tour and Aotearoa is already casting a mythic spell.
A Lesson in Trust …. and Pub Socks
It’s Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national treaty day, and the streets of New Plymouth are eerily quiet. Our staff loads the vehicles while the riders get ready for a long day ahead. We had a late night followed by an early wake-up call, so everyone is simultaneously tired yet buzzing with energy. We are all ready to ride. Liam explains the day’s plan while an occasional group of city riders passes on the otherwise empty street.
We ride north, following the beach for about 10 km before turning inland onto quiet, auto-free roads flanked by large farms. The gentle rolling pastures eventually give way to more steady grades, and soon we’re back in rainforest. We turn off the tarmac onto our first dirt section of the trip--a dusty service road dried and rutted by the summer heat. The grade hits nearly 15% before leveling off along the ridgeline, ultimately turning into a fast, adrenaline-charging descent into the valley below.