Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Tour Aotearoa 2018

Cape Reinga - Te Rerenga Wairua
Leaping place of the spirits
Image:  Paul Nicholls
On February the 28th 2018, the last group of riders set off in the Tour Aotearoa, leaving from Cape Reinga, at the tip of the North Island of New Zealand.

1 hour and 10 minutes later, Wellington massage therapist Pat Hogan reached Bluff, 3000 kilometres away at the bottom of New Zealand, finishing the journey that he started 14 days earlier on February the 14th at the Cape.

The Tour organiser, Jonathan Kennett had opened it up to 600 riders this year, in 6 x 100 person waves, starting on the 10th of February and staggering the start waves through until the 28th. This would spread the load over the country and make sure that the smaller towns were not over-whelmed with hungry riders looking for a bed. It also made it easier for the Ferries to cope with a more manageable stream of riders.

The Tour Aotearoa is not your typical bikepacking event. It’s not a race, it’s more like an adventure, a journey.

90-mile beach. Photo by Paul Nicholls
A bit of pre-camping before the start. Photo by Paul Nicholls.
 It’s like a cross between the Coast to Coast Multisport event and the Camino de Santiago. It encourages self sufficiency and resilience. It must be completed between 10 and 30 days, unsupported, with 6 hours a day minimum rest from riding, for recovery. Riders must follow, and not deviate from an established course that takes in some of New Zealand’s great rides. The Waikato River Trail, the Pureora Timber trail and the Big River Waiuta trails on the west coast of the South Island. Deviation from this path can only be for safety reasons outlined in the course notes, or in cases of civil emergency or local road closings, as happened during Cyclone Gita this year.

Not all plain sailing on the Kaipara Harbour with wild weather causing havoc at times. Image Paul Nicholls.
New Zealand has a very changeable weather system, the literal translation of Aotearoa is “The land of the long white cloud”. After coming off the hottest summer in recorded history this year's Tour Aotearoa was suddenly hammered with rough weather as a series of tropical cyclones swept through.

Some challenging terrain to be negotiated

Not originally a river. Photo: Helen Kettles
Rider resolve was being tested. Ferries were being cancelled, roads were being washed out and closed. Conditions were becoming difficult as cars and heavy traffic were re-routed onto the previously quiet Tour Aotearoa route, causing challenges for some of the riders who were not expecting to mix it up with other road users.

A burgeoning community has grown up around the Tour Aotearoa with many remote accommodation options popping up and sharing their details on the official Facebook site. A Mangakino businessman speculated that the 2016 TA injected $15,000 into the local economy, and he was expecting double that in 2018.

In Ongarue the bowling club was opened for the first time in 20 years where showers and mattresses were set up for riders, as well as a food caravan. In Arapuni the Rhubarb Cafe extended its hours to cope with hungry riders. In Pahiatua a couple of "rest tents" were erected for riders and in Reefton there were welcome banners. All around the country, in the rural areas that the TA passed though, people were getting involved. The upcoming tour was enough to convince a man to open the cafe he had been thinking about at Donnellys Crossing.

Spectators and family members watched as their loved ones navigated the country by keeping an eye on their “Spot-trackers”. The Spot trackers are the thing that has probably done more to promote this kind of an event than anything.

Watching the progress of your friend or family member from the comfort of your computer or cell phone as they battle the elements and terrain can be very addictive.

You might liken it to Reality TV where the actors are your friends, and assuming there are fresh batteries in their trackers you can see where they have stopped to eat during the day or are sleeping at night.
This knowledge of where your people are is a double edged sword as now the concerned family members can get worried if their rider's spot tracker seems to stop in one place longer for what they deem an acceptable period!

Despite the emphasis on resilience in adventure biking, social media has now become a big part of the tool-set with which some people arm themselves. In earlier times, if you suffered a catastrophic failure then your only option was to keep on walking until the nearest farm house where you could usually rely on a friendly farmer to help you out. Nowadays the request also goes out to social media where completely random people will offer a loan of replacement parts or just advice on where is the closest bike shop.

Within hours of a rear hub failure, a rider has found an after hours mechanic on Facebook, and a rescue mission has been launched to extract another rider deep from the boon-docks by friendly DOC staff. Two other riders were reunited with their bikes after they were stolen from their accommodation one night, all with the power of Social Media.

Like it or loath it, Social Media is here to stay. In the grand-daddy of all "bikepacking" events, the Tour Divide, the trackers are used by other riders to see how close their fellow competitors are, to see if they can afford to stop for a sleep or a leisurely meal. But the Tour Divide is a race and the Tour Aotearoa is not, its a Dirt Brevet with cut-off times. Organiser Jonathan Kennett makes sure everyone knows. If you finish inside 10 days, you are disqualified.

Maybe the emphasis on the Tour Aotearoa not being a race is part of the popularity of this event. One guy came to New Zealand to go walking, and a week later had brought a $1000 mountainbike and entered. He finished in 28 days, but it was hard. Some people seem to have an idea that its a groomed cycle-way like those in Europe. It's not. It's a mixture of all terrains including beautiful rugged trails where you will have no choice but to push your bike up stream beds, you are riding in the wilderness.

400 of the 525 starters this year were from New Zealand, at an average age of around 50 years old. The overseas riders averaged 40 years old. By comparison, the American Tour Divide pulls in 163 riders in total from all countries.

A large number of the riders in this year’s Tour Aotearoa were women. Typically an event of this length would attract 9% to 11% women at most. It is estimated that around 22% of the riders this year were of the fairer sex.

Helen and Anne-Marie, two intrepid adventurers in their first ever Bikepacking experience.
Maybe it was the example set by trail blazer Anja Mcdonald’s ride in the 2016 event. Anja finished 3rd across the line in her wave in a bit over 10 days. This year her husband Tristan Rawlence was trying to beat her time, but for every elite level rider doing the TA there are 100 riders who just want to experience the outdoors and meet a new challenge.

Several riders over the age of 70 were out there this year mixing it up, and for a large number of people this was their first exposure to any kind of a Bikepacking. This brings big challenges for some of these riders lacking experience in the outdoors and missing bike maintenance skills. Fortunately New Zealand is a small country dotted with towns, many of which have good bike shops en route. 56 riders reported that they didn't actually camp out once, so there is always that option.

With an 87% finishing rate, its obvious that organiser Jonathan Kennett and his helpers must be doing something right. The next official running of the Tour Aotearoa is scheduled for 2020, but the TA is not just an event, its a pathway, and riders are doing it whenever they can make it, at their own pace and with their own rules.

Luke Garten sums up the vibe pretty well in this podcast
For more details on the Tour Aotearoa, follow the link.



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