Words: Paige Paterson
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

That feeling of having no limitations. Any route, any terrain, any distance, any time. The pure novelty of a gravel adventure on a Sunday. Picture me: nil off-road experience, virgin cross-bike outing, facing torrential downpours in the forecast—and as keen as a kid attending the first day of school.

The idea sparked on our WhatsApp group. With the planning complete, ride leader Liam kept the description brief. Having recently traded my track bike for a 2018 Cannondale CAADX gravel bike, I was eager for my first outing. But this ride sounded like nothing I had experienced before…naturally, I put my name forward to attend.

Rendezvous point: the Auckland ferry terminal, Sunday 0645, 11 partakers. Bonding was immediate; it was clear not everyone responded to their early morning alarm, leading to a sense of mutual admiration for those onboard. Kitted up in lycra whilst at the mercy of the first downpour, we were in this together. Rolling off the dawn ferry onto Waiheke Island, I was clueless as to what lay ahead. And it didn’t take long before we were off-piste, worlds apart from the fixed gear and black line of the velodrome, riding single-file and blundering our way through a muddied DOC track to the top of a mound. Instant adrenaline pump. Total madness.

I quickly found out that off-road terrain is like no other. We wound our way to the top of the hill, before a sharp descent onto a rocky beach. Three km in, I realized ride leader Liam wasn’t kidding about the 1500 metres of climbing ahead. Overlooking nearby islands, there was feeling of gratification in the air. Just a 35-minute ferry ride and we all felt like kids that had escaped reality for the day. We were in awe of our surroundings and excited with anticipation for what was to come.

Known for its vineyards and fine dining, Waiheke Island was sure to please our bunch. We toured through vineyards, greeted the locals, ascended hills and stopped to appreciate the picturesque views. Many of the group were frequents to Waiheke, but only few had conquered the island on two wheels. “Are there even 80 km worth of roads to ride?” one asked via WhatsApp. Scenic in nature, the route was exposed to the Hauraki Gulf’s climate. Off-road terrain, hills, rain and the addition of blustery winds made for a challenging day out. And of course, in the spirit of the island, we went where the wind took us—exploring and letting our creative juices flow.

As we egged each other on to conquer epic territory—loose rocks, stairs, s-bends, sandy beaches and even oyster beds—banter certainly played a large part in the day. The chat was persistent, and memories enduring. Unlike your usual road ride, we were pursuing adventure, something different, something new, in contrast to pure speed, fitness and endurance. Of course, you suffer; but it’s a different type of suffering. The terrain bites when you expect it least and your legs feel heavy early on with the resistance of wider tyres and rough ground. But that’s the beauty of gravel riding, what makes it so much fun: there is absolutely no intuitiveness—you respond to the territory you embark on. Dodge pot holes, avoid loose gravel, stay upright, focus on the surface, even pressure on the pedals, follow the tyre marks, wait…where’s the bunch!?!?

At the 60 km mark, we paused at the top of a climb having just ascended 150 metres in six minutes. We were all on our last legs and the decision was made to cease riding at the next café en route to the ferry terminal. We stumbled upon Timbuktu Nomadic Deli in Ostend. The intention was a quick recharge, as the ferry was departing in 45 minutes. But when ride leader Liam mentioned the ferry was “just around the corner,” I went ahead and ordered a lasagne from the cabinet. The food was divine, coffee was good and morale still high.

However, things took a sudden turn. Relaxation was short lived, and within minutes we were gunning it to catch the 2 pm ferry. I adopted an upright position on the bike hoping gravity would help keep the lasagne down, but along with the new knobbly tyres my speed was lacking. I chased down a wheel to sit on and spent the next 6.9 km handlebar-munching and egg-beating. We arrived with two minutes to spare. Note to self: Never trust the ride leader.

Banter continued onto the ferry and into the evening via our WhatsApp group. Photos were shared, stories were told, and it was clear that everyone involved was eager for more. The route had taken us to parts of the country we would have never otherwise seen. Off the beaten track, I was astounded that I’d never even travelled on roads somewhat similar to these in my entire life, opening up a whole new chapter what New Zealand has to offer: untouched and unspoiled. It’s as pure as it gets. Given the rarity, we simply didn’t know what we were going to discover around each corner.

Which brings me to the beauty of a cyclocross bike. You feel somewhat invincible, with fat tyres, disc brakes, small gears, yet with drop bars and an aero set-up. Some would call it the “Bike of New Zealand”—perfect for any out-of-the-ordinary route!

These rides are still a foreign concept to me as a gravel rookie, but chapter one of the untouched, unspoiled New Zealand intrigues me and leaves me wanting more. The fact that these gravel roads are sitting right on our doorstep, ready to be explored, has me restless thinking of all the adventures to be had. Considering joining the gravel movement yourself? Don’t think twice.