Words: Barbarella McCarthy
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

Auckland Rapha Cycle Club co-ordinator Liam Friary put out the call to arms (or bikes) to join him for two days of riding; it was described as being a mix of tarseal and gravel, unsupported, epic and adventurous. In short: Pack light, travel far.

We were to be joined by five riders from the Melbourne RCC and hoped to be able to show them a mix of scenery from the bucolic countryside to some atmospheric dense bush, all while travelling on roads gravelled and less travelled. To my ears it sounded perfect. The only concern in the back of my mind was that this winter in Auckland had been one of the wettest on record so the chance of rain was high. The plan was to leave from Allpress Ponsonby early Saturday morning, dine and sleep at Puhoi on Saturday night and ride to the 12.15pm Devonport ferry Sunday.

Puhoi is one of the early settlements in the North Island, settled in 1863 by immigrants from Bohemia and still showing the signs of that diverse culture, Catholic heritage and history. I can hear all you Aucklanders thinking ‘Auckland to Puhoi, that’s 41km – what is so epic about that?’ A point well made. But as those of us who have ridden with Liam know, the destination is never the indicator of what the route may be; always be prepared for the long way, the scenic way and the unexpected way to the finish point. The route was undisclosed, all we had to do was sit in and follow. My kind of ride! Prior to the designated weekend, I spent some time getting the Ritchey Swiss Cross ready; tubes and tyres checked, brakes checked, frame cleared and polished (don’t want those Australians to think we are a sloppy lot). As an adventure racer I am used to riding with a back pack with all my gear, but for this trip decided I would try a large off the saddle bag. I perused the options at Cyclewerks and settled on a Revelate Terrapin.

To the forefront of my mind was the golden rule ‘don’t eat on race day food you have never eaten before – and never use gear for the first time on race day’. A pal who was about the do the Old Ghost Road and The Heaphy had ordered a Revelate for that trip, so one night we headed for an urban ride with some hills to test the weighting and balance of our gear. The first Mt Eden summit felt peculiar with the weight off the back of the saddle but by the time we had knocked off Big King and Mt Roskill we were both used to the feel of the bags and very pleased with balance and performance. Friday I packed light as directed; fresh cycling top, spare socks, toothbrush, lipstick, silk frock for Saturday night (lighter than jeans), snacks and then surveyed the forecast. All versions I viewed said the same thing, light showers but mainly fine. Perfect.

Saturday dawned slightly overcast but with a slight hint, almost a promise, of fine day. The rendezvous was at Allpress where the Australian RCC riders meet the local riders. A nice mix of gravel and CX bikes with Revelate and Apidura bags filled with the necessities for an overnighter. Over welcome Allpress coffee and big boy’s breakfasts from Bambina, introductions were made and home-baked, culturally appropriate Anzac biscuits delivered. The call to move out came and we headed out along the cycle path towards the wild west wondering how this would get us to Puhoi. We ducked down through the lower Manukau beaches and quickly got out of the western urban bleakness and hit the bush outside of Titirangi. The descent to Paturoa Bay is one of my favourite roads, a narrow, winding, densely bush clad road and only 20 minutes from downtown Auckland.

We climbed back up to Titirangi township to head out to Puhoi. Left. Left. Left, came the call from the rear of the pack. Left takes you to Huia: oh that is how Liam is going to make Saturday a 135km epic – ride from Auckland to Puhoi via Huia. Outstanding! We dropped down to Laingholm beach and had the first stop for a snack and to give Nathan McIntosh (founder of the Dirty 130 in Wagga, Wagga, NSW, Australia) time to ride back to collect bike tools left on the side of the road when fixing our first puncture of the trip. The climb out of Laingholm was uneventful with our visitors exclaiming at how gorgeous and dense the bush was that close to the city. Exhibition Drive gave us our first taste of gravel and took us off the main roads. It was at this point that the rain started and as you will read, it rained steadily, and at times heavily through to Sunday lunchtime. Waterproof layers were donned and we rode on through the back roads and pinchy little climbs of the hidden valleys of Oratia and Swanson to the Taupaki General Store for a further refuel of Anzac biscuits, pies and chocolate milk. We then veered off the route I knew and traversed the back roads on the western side of the highway through the rolling pastural hinterland to Waimauku. I found this part of the ride illuminating, who knew that there were so many back roads that we could ride and that were so quiet and picturesque. While this was yet another beautiful scenic section, the by now steady rain quelled the enthusiasm, although it transpired it was merely an amuse bouche to what was to come later in the ride. To our credit no-one complained (at least not out loud) or tried to get in the photographer’s car, however appealing that was becoming.

Lunch was at the Kaukapakapa Pub. Oh my, what a treat. A true New Zealand lunch of shandies, ham and cheese toasted sandwiches and coffee. We sat and dripped and recounted early tales of glory and hardship. Bikes were checked and we headed off for the last leg to Puhoi via Waitoki and Wainui which was all gravel. At this stage the rain changed from steady to heavy to torrential in the space of 30 minutes. It was raining with a vengeance. Hard rain. A merciless torrent of rain. At one stage it was so hard that it felt like my face was being exfoliated. The benefit was that we were riding in splendid isolation; we had the roads completely to ourselves. Another positive was that the rain and the mist that inhabited the hollows turned this part of the ride into a truly atmospheric, epic, spooky ride; I was expecting the Taniwha or Tahurangi (mythical forest folk) to drop out of the bush and accost us. Instead the odd farmer passed in a ute and looked at us with disbelief. We also had the first of a number of sections of the countryside dressed in autumnal colours to break the monotony of the North Island bush palate of fifty shades of green. The heavy rain continued and created a number of problems; the roads became gravel streams and picking a line became increasingly hard; drive trains were starting to sound more than crunchy and we were becoming increasingly filthy and covered in grit. It was during the last 15 kilometres to Puhoi that things became interesting. The rain turned from merely torrential to full-blown storm rain and created running rivers on the roads and made the climbs challenging with wheel spins in the gravel and the descents plain terrifying. Thankfully everyone made it through this section intact and upright.

We rolled into the Puhoi Pub, wet, cold, elated and dirtier than I think I have ever been on a ride that didn’t involve a mountain bike, singletrack and an off. Fine dirt and grit covered every part of our bodies and our bikes. My first thought was that I would never get clean. We parked the bikes, unclipped the packs and headed inside for showers, clean bodies and dry clothes (the Revelate had kept my clothes dry). To compound the epic nature of the outing, the hotel had run out of hot water. We took over the bar, laid out our sodden shoes in front of the fire and proceeded to unwind and view the extraordinary photos taken by Cameron Mackenzie while the bikes languished outside. After warming up and supping some reviving ales, an old fashioned roast dinner was served. It was a delicious (although rather quiet meal); by this stage most of us were tired and contemplating our beds.

The route we had taken was trying in the best of conditions, but in the weather that we had endured, it had tested us all and our bikes. Xabier summed up the day and brought the house down with his almost, but not quite, perfect English by stating that ‘he had never had such a moist ride’. We woke Sunday morning after a good sleep (well those of us who hadn’t colonised the bar) to the sound of rain. Couldn’t be as bad as yesterday though, could it?

After quick survey of our bikes in the dark, chains and running gear treated and tyres checked, we were ready to move. Advice from the leader was that the route home was around 75kms, with the time imperative being the need to get the 12.15pm Devonport ferry so our visitors could make the required 3pm check in for their flight to Melbourne. Rather than pick a direct route to ensure those transport deadlines were met, a decision was made to head rural and spank out the pace. Full gas. For those of you who now Puhoi, the only way out is to hit a big mean hill, always hard and particularly so with cold, tired legs. At the top of the hill there was no reprieve waiting. The next two hours were more of the same; gorgeous pastureland, curious cattle, perplexed Ute drivers, steep taxing gravel climbs, nerve stretching descents and of course, rain.

After a couple of stops for fuel and to gather the mob after gear failure, we finally hit the tarseal for the trip south to Devonport. ‘Right, right, right’, came the call from the back and we found ourselves heading west again over rolling terrain and pinch climbs through Dairy Flat. A quick turn right and we were around the back of Albany and on the home stretch. I will admit that the ride through this northern suburban sprawl was my least favourite part of the ride; although it was ameliorated by the welcome views of the glorious Hauraki Gulf Islands of Rakino, Tiritiri Matangi, Rangitoto and Motutapu. Completion was within sight, and (to crib from Nate King’s wonderful piece on the Escape from LA), although I was tired, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to finish the ride. The trip reinforced the pervasive belief that riding is about just that – the ride. The destination, the Devonport ferry, felt like it was simply a by-product of the trip. After a quick drop down through the lower beaches to Narrow Neck and a full throttle sprint to Devonport we made the 12.15 ferry. While on the boat, the sun made its first appearance of the weekend. Oh, how we laughed… Cityside, we had time for a quick stop at The Store, Allpress coffee, pastries and posh pies, farewells and home.

Lasting impressions: how fortunate we are to live in Auckland and be able, with a little forethought and planning, to ride on roads that are not full of cars, that take us within 20 minutes to the bush-clad slopes and within a couple of hours to the pastoral splendour of the hinterland. How fortunate we are to want to experience adventures like these with like-minded people. Thank you Liam and the RCC for arranging such a stellar outing.