Words: Bryan Yates
Images: Sean Wakely

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.

Kiwi Time

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.

Our unflappable ride manager Helen arranged our lunch stop next to a one-room church in Matau, a farming community with a tiny, three-building town. We linger over sandwiches, pastries and coffee whilst replaying the experience of riding dirt. Some loved it, others merely tolerated it. Wynde, whose tires are a tad narrow and gearing a little too hard, is still energized by her first time on gravel.

Liam strikes a conversation with Jack, a local farmer who motor paces us for a few miles riding his four-wheeler. Our leisurely lunch break made everyone’s legs a bit stale, so the draft is much appreciated. We climb out of the mountain valley, passing through hand-carved rock tunnels just barely wide enough to fit our SAG wagon, and then connect to area’s historic–and rarely traveled–Forgotten Highway.

We stop for the night at the Whangamomona Hotel (pronounced Fung-guh-mom-ah-nuh). With a bar and restaurant on the first floor and sleeping quarters on the second, this is the heart of social activity for most farmers within 40 kilometers. As we enter, Liam reminds us to remove our shoes and says,”hope you brought your pub socks.” Hungry and tired, the group settles in for some post-ride beers and chips.

Liam and I take the bikes out back to give them a quick wash. Once we finish, I ask him where we should stow the bikes. He looks at me with a laugh and says, “Bro, look at where you are. We have no cell service or wifi. Ain’t nobody gonna take the bikes.” Because I’ve lived the last 25 years in Los Angeles, Liam knows this is a level of trust I’m going to have to dig deep to find.

With no digital access to the outside world, the group relaxes in the pub waiting for darkness to fall, while the owners, Vicki and Richard, lavish us with homemade comfort food, warm kindness and lots of laughs.

After a long night’s sleep of pure quiet, punctuated only by a nocturnal rainstorm, the group wakes refreshed. Our unlocked bikes, to my cynical surprise, are exactly where we left them. We pedal off into the rain, leaving behind historic Whangamomona and our totally humble, completely memorable and thoroughly Kiwi lodgings.

On a normal ride, rain might dampen spirits. Knowing that we must carry onward along the Forgotten Highway, however, everyone just takes the weather in stride. In fact, we seem to steal energy from it–especially when we hit the gravel sections through the Tangarakau Gorge. This tackier, damp soil gives our crew newfound confidence to hammer along. Misty clouds drape across the pointy mountains that surround us and our laughter echoes off the steep rock walls. This feels like the depths of Middle Earth–lush, vibrant, green and remote. The sun peeks through just as we return to tarmac for a descent into acres upon acres of sheep farming country.

Knowing the team would be soaked from the rain and mud, Helen has arranged a stop at a working sheep station in the heart of nowhere. We warm ourselves on fresh coffee and some of Vicki’s pastries from the hotel, while enjoying an impromptu sheep shearing and herding demonstration. The rest of the day features more riding, more climbing and a lot more smiling. We finish in Tamaranui, load the gear into our vehicles and shuttle to Ohakune to bunk down for the night in an alpine lodge at North Island’s only ski town.

Mount Doom, Mini Mount Doom and the Fellowship of the (Chain)Ring

Our next two days of riding are rough! There’s a lot of climbing ahead of us before we reach Napier on the east coast. Straight out of our Ohakune accommodations, Liam sends us up-and-back on Mount Ruapehu, NZ’s only hors categorie climb. It’s a 16-km ascent that pitches up to a slow-grinding 17% in places. Mike is significantly undergeared for this. When I try to give him a gentle push, he feebly tells me to go ahead and “just leave me to die here on Mount Doom.”

The descent from Ruapehu is so fast and twisty that Mike cooks the braking surface off one of his carbon rims. Liam somehow manages to find him a $15 front wheel in Ohakune and they catch up to us at our first planned stop. In spite of the painfully epic climb and destroying an expensive wheel, Mike is miles of smiles from the experience. Electrified, and perhaps a little punch drunk, by the accomplishment of riding Mount Doom, Mike declares it is the hardest climb he’s ever done. “Freaking harder than Baldy,” he says, referring to the HC climb in Los Angeles that’s a regular feature in Tour of California.

There are many more hours of riding ahead for the day. On a remote stretch of dirt, Liam flats, and hard! He counts ten punctures in the tube. We end our day, dusty and dirty, at a roadside motel in Taihepe, followed by a leisurely dinner and the heavy sleep of the the truly exhausted.

Rousing ourselves early for another day of riding is no easy feat. Everything feels stiff and heavy. We have to get moving, though: today is our final day across the Central Plateau that sits in the middle of North Island, and it will be our biggest day yet. We need to cover 130 kilometers with 2,400 meters of ceaselessly undulating climbs over the Gentle Annie Highway, named for a 1.5 km climb that averages 12%. At the start of the day, Liam warns us about Gentle Annie, “She’s steep, and not really that gentle.”

Matthew’s electronic shifting breaks first thing in the morning, and he is stuck riding with three gears for the day. In spite of this, he carries on cheerfully. It’s hard to do otherwise given this scenery. Our route is filled with huge and expansive landscapes dotted by the occasional sheep station, smooth roads that wind and twist over long rolling climbs, and tiny farming communities tucked along rapidly flowing rivers. Even without the distortion of sunnies, all the colours appear in saturated jewel-toned greens and blues.

For Mike, the Gentle Annie turns into another 40-rpm slog. He wrestles his bike over her steep grade one painful pedal stroke after another. At lunch, wedged between some colourfully choice words, he dubs it “Mini Mount Doom.”

We end the ride surrounded by vineyards at a gorgeous Hawke’s Bay winery. Our hosts have put out a selection of wines, local cheese and salumi along with carefully prepared small bites. It’s taken us four days of hard-earned adventure to get to this moment, and everything tastes brighter, bolder and bigger for our effort. Despite our collective fatigue, the whole crew is buzzing with gratitude. Matthew says, “I’ve ridden all over Europe, all the major routes and climbs, and what you have here in New Zealand is better.”

Steamed Mussels and a Team Trial

We have saved Auckland, NZ’s largest city, for the end of the trip. Liam has some favourite restaurants that exemplify the best of the Kiwi culinary scene, including a stop for southern barbeque at Brothers Beer. For Matthew, who is originally from Nashville, Brothers aces the test.

Liam also planned a couple more rides for the team, including a long one out the iconic Coromandel Peninsula. This well known and well traveled cycling route is long, flat, coastal and very different to the backroads we’ve been riding for the past week. In spite of its popularity and proximity to the metropolis, it feels sparse and quiet. We see perhaps 20 cars for the entire 140 km ride. In the town of Coromandel, we stop at a pub that serves the best bowl of freshly harvested mussels I have ever tasted.

Just to keep things memorable, Liam sneaks in one last adventure. From Coromandel, we need to do a 5 km team time trial to catch the last ferryboat back to Auckland. It’s a proper dig to cover the distance in 20 minutes. As we round the bend and catch first site of our boat, the captain blows his horn; he sees us and is letting us know it’s really time to hustle. We make it with 30 seconds to spare, load our bikes on the ferry and settle in for the two-hour trip back past the countless tiny islands that dot Auckland Harbour.

Liam smiles with relief. In spite of his usual optimism, he’s a little surprised we made it. His body language relaxes a hair and he says, “It’s got texture.”