New Gravel Ride: The Dirty K

The idyllic Coromandel has been a drawcard for kiwi holiday makers for many years. Heck, who wouldn’t want to visit - white sands, bushlands and laid-back vibes.

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I remember camping and exploring this area as a youngster with my family. We’d pack up the ‘83 Ford Cortina and head from Auckland to Coromandel, and then up and over the gravel road to Whangapoua. There’d always be drama with the trailer making the rear wheels of the Cortina slip, but that was part of the adventure. Unfortunately, this road and most of the other gravel roads around the peninsula have now been sealed as the area has grown in population and tourists. However, there are still plenty of rough roads to be found in the north and through the middle of the peninsula plus a few other hidden gems. These roads can feel like that secret fishing spot or the hidden surf break, something you want to share with a good crew of mates followed by a cold one.  We have ridden these back roads numerous times and have now devised a new gravel event - Dirty K.  In October this year, we want to share the Dirty K loop with you all. This event will be held alongside the renowned K2 Cycle Classic.

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The K2 has a long history of being one of the hardest one-day road races in New Zealand. We want to uphold the history that this event has, as being an honest day out, by offering another (dirty) event option for the new wave of gravel riders coming through - and to be frank, anyone that wants a tough challenge and a bloody good time.

Dirty K is a long loop of tarseal and gravel around some of the most picturesque areas of the Coromandel.  We have unashamedly stolen a concept from our Enduro mates – the finishing times aren’t based on the overall loop time, but rather four timed segments throughout the ride. We aim to have a fun and relaxed atmosphere and really want to celebrate cycling. There’ll be as much emphasis on the post-ride party as the ride. Expect good swag, great food, filthy gears and killer beers!

The course is demanding (1,400 meters of climbing in 72 kilometers) but whilst this is challenging it’s definitely achievable. For the first event we’ve linked together some of the best roads in quiet and quaint northern Coromandel. The course features a mixture of surfaces (smooth tarseal, rough chipseal, gravel and hard-packed dirt) with two main climbs, valleys, coastal sections and a few gnarly descents.

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Here’s our take  on the recent recon ride. As we drive into Coromandel early one Saturday morning the craggy mist sits in the surrounding hills. Kim says; “the mountain is calling.” We unpack the car, brew a coffee and head off around the Dirty K loop.

The first part is super scenic but keeps you honest with a few climbs to warm up the lungs and the legs. Philippa says; “There’s climbing in the bush to start and then all of a sudden it opens up to sea. The scenery will have you forgetting about your average power. The coastline is stunning, surrounded by pine forest, right in the heart of rural New Zealand, and listen, no traffic! Oh, don’t underestimate the first 30kms before the gravel.” The first part of the ride is tarseal until just after Colville (around 6.5km) “Watch out for Billy the goat in Colville!”

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With a mass start from Coromandel, you’ll be pedaling out of town and up the first climb alongside your mates keeping the pace conversational and saving your legs for the first timed segment.  The first of the four timed segments is a 2km sealed climb, which has 130 in meters gain.

In pioneering days, Colville was a busy timber milling town. Then in the 1970s it became a magnet for hippies drawn to the natural beauty and isolation of the area. Today, Colville is a quiet country town serving a local community of farmers and artists. North of Colville, the road winds along the western shoreline where the Moehau Range (Sleeping Wind) rises steeply from the sea.

As we leave the Colville Store (the last place for services on the route), well fed and caffeinated, we start to approach the looser roads of the northern tip of the Coromandel. Right away I can feel the isolation, and there’s a real sense of escapism when you’re riding up here. This is why I like this type of riding so much. Then we hit the gravel roads. Philippa says; “This road will be full of surprises. Like any good day on the mountain; from dust on crust to deep and slushy. The challenge of these sectors could change from one day to the other depending on the state of the surface.  Fresh gravel and you will be wishing you had your snorkel with you.  Washed off gravel and you will be losing a few fillings. These roads will have the tyre geeks double thinking their game plan.” The section to Waikawau Bay has one consistent climb which rises through dense bush and then we quickly descend to the other side of the peninsula. The views are stunning - blue ocean, white caps, rugged rocks and white sands they almost make you forget about the pain of the uphill grind.

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This is the second timed segment (short gravel climb) which is 1.7km long and has 113 of meters in gain.

Waikawau Bay has a deserted feel, with white sand dunes stretching to the sea and only a few surrounding houses. The road meanders through the valley floor in and around the mountains. This was a good opportunity to get up to a good rhythm whilst we tried to pick the best line to ride in.

The third segment of the ride which will be timed is 5.5km time trail across flat gravel roads with no elevation gain.

The road in and out of Waikawau Bay continues to undulate and chops and changes between seal gravel, dirt and one-way bridges, but watch out because there are a few potholes! As you head into Little Bay you can spot some of the kiwi baches nestled in the hills overlooking the bay. Man, that’s the kiwi dream right there! The BBQ might even be sizzling as the owners cheer you on from their deck with a cheeky beer in hand. But, don’t be fooled as the ride isn’t over and the beers don’t come until Corormandel township! There’s a steep climb followed by a lush tree tunnel that undulates across the ridgeline before plummeting down to Tuateawa Bay.

As the route heads towards Kennedy Bay, you have to get up and over a solid pinch before you get down into the bay. This road is all gravel and you might feel like you’re already on the final climb – trust me this isn’t it! The descent on the other side it twisty, tight and is lined with native ferns. It’s simply gorgeous and it had me hootin’ and hollering. When you finally enter Kennedy Bay, the road flattens, and you become surrounded by mountains and a few cows as you pedal along a little lane that runs through the tiny settlement.

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Kennedy Bay (also called Kennedy's Bay and Harataunga) is a locality in the north eastern Coromandel Peninsula. The Harataunga and Omoho Streams flow from the Coromandel Range past the settlement and into the bay.

 As you hit the last climb the dark bush surrounds you, the bike starts to become heavy.

This is Tokatea and it should be respected as its the steepest and longest ascent, Philippa says; “Save some energy as you need to apply effort for a long time up this climb. Expect sharp pinches of between 12-16%, it’s non-stop with a mix of gravel and tarmac.” This is by far, one of the hardest but most amazing parts of the route. The elevation rises up to 364m from the valley floor, and as you suffer you can see the road weaving above you. So, you always know there’s more to come. Kim says; “Ah, when does this end!” The sharp switchbacks, running streams and native bushland is something special. As you enter and exit each switchback the views just keep getting better. Make sure you sneak a look behind on a few occasions! This is a brutal but brilliant climb.

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This is the fourth and final segment timed segment (a long gravel climb) of the ride which is 4km and has 364 meters in gain.

 As soon as you reach the summit, the Thames coastline comes into view gain. You’ll be pleased to know the descent starts straight away. This is truly a ride of two coasts. The rapid descent is mixed terrain so and should be ridden with a little caution. This is a really great way to end the Dirty K loop. Philippa says; “It’s a thrilling descent with pockets of incredible scenery distracting you as you go down. A perfect way to end an epic day in the saddle. An opportunity to spin out the legs while working out whether to have a beer or burrito or both?!” Kim says; “Man, that final climb was tough, I was toast towards the top. The descent down was excellent and offered great views – those islands out there are incredible!

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The recovery drinks, beer, electrolyte or whatever your flavor, will be well-earned. The route opens up new areas of the Coromandel that K2 does not explore. The post-ride gathering will have you sharing stories with your new-found mates, comparing splits and having a good time. We hope to see you there on 27th October! For more images, race route and other information head to nzcyclingjournal.com and enter at arcevents.co.nz


Words: Liam & Philippa Friary

Images: Cameron Mackenzie

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