Winter Solstice: Shortest Day – Longest Ride. Pt. 1
When it comes to almost any type of hard challenge, you quickly develop two minds. One is the mind that knows; the other is the mind that chooses not to know. The balancing act between the two keeps you more than occupied. Something is always popping up: the climb is too steep; the distance too long; the wind gusts too strong; an issue with the bike; or – I’m just feeling plain exhausted. You get the picture. Most - if not all - of these issues are out of your control, and you just have to do your best to ignore them whilst also being aware of your mind’s current state – that’s not something you can just dismiss. Sometimes, when you think about the enormity of a challenge in its entirety, you end up overwhelmed.
My alarm sounded just after 4am, and I reluctantly peeled back the duvet covers. Half asleep, I brewed a much-needed strong black coffee then sat amidst the silence of the early morning. The moon and stars were still out, and a faint streetlight glimmered somewhere up in the hills. This is a special and spiritual time of day. There’s also just something good about being up and ahead of the day. However, it didn’t distract from the fact there was still a large challenge ahead of me and the group I’d pulled together.
It happened to be the shortest day of the year in our antipodean country: the Winter Solstice. The challenge we were undertaking was apt: shortest day – longest ride. A challenge like this isn’t anything new within cycling circles - riders are always searching for new challenges to take on. But, it was the first time our group had done this particular challenge and I wanted to give it some flavor by involving a train, a border crossing, some mixed terrain and beautiful landscapes. The group I pulled together consisted of Bob, Xabier and Andrew, with Jeremey to document proceedings.
Time always seems to evaporate quickly in the morning. Before I knew it, I was rushing to get out the door to meet the group at 5:40am at Britomart Train Station. As I rode, I shared the city with street sweepers, delivery trucks, newspaper drops and the odd person running or walking their dog. The movement of people at this time in the morning always intrigues me. The early morning feels like a world only a few participate in – enjoying the calm of the dawn before the storm of the day. In good time, I entered the train station and was the only patron inside the large historic building. It felt eerie, but the security guards made me feel at ease and it wasn’t long before the rest of the group showed up.
On the platform, we waited for the train with a few other construction workers. The train we were catching was due south – well, as far south we could get on that line. We’d get to Papakura then swap trains in order to get to Pukekohe, which is the end of the Auckland train line. There, we would start our ride. Banter bounced back and forth between us all and there was a sense of anticipation for what the day might bring. It was still pitch black outside and felt like the middle of the night.
At Papakura we grabbed a quick espresso and jumped on our next train. The sun slowly rose, and its rays shone through the windows of the train carriage as we reached Pukekohe. Stepping off the train, we were greeted by brisk temperatures, but the morning looked clear as we crossed the bridge over the train tracks. This was going to be a beautiful but brutal day in the saddle, covering 145kms with 2000m plus of climbing across mixed terrain. The edges of the city sprawl slowly drifted into the background as the roads and landscapes ahead of us turned rural.
We crossed the Taukau bridge just past the border between Auckland and Waikato. This felt like a true divide between town and country, and there was a collective sense of escapism. It wasn’t long before we had rough terrain under our wheels. With services few and far between, we made sure to be well-stocked for the journey and stopped for a brief snack. Hills, single-lane gravel farm roads, rolling green hills and limestone rocks filled the next few hours. I think we encountered one farmer on a quad bike and that was it. To think we were only a few hours (by train) from our country’s largest city and there wasn’t anyone around! After a while, the day’s efforts were starting to show…
Morale was high but the relentless terrain didn’t stop. The question of stopping for lunch was raised. The group needed sustenance before we could tackle the second leg of the ride. Thankfully, we still had a large amount of climbing in our legs and pretty much the only place we could stop at en route was within a stone’s throw. For some reason, we attacked each other - maybe because we wanted everyone to feel on the same page, or perhaps because we were hungry; either way we quickly rolled into our smoko stop. Nikau Caves Café greeted us and took orders; coffee, omelette, pizza and soups were served not long after. The sun ducked behind the clouds as we sat at the lunch table. This was a reminder that we were still in the depths of winter as it became cold rather quickly. We filled our stomachs with delicious country fare and nattered about the afternoon’s route and our plan to get back to the train station.
Words: Liam Friary
Images: Jeremy Hooper