The Kopiko Aotearoa was a new bikepacking adventure across the North Island. The route was between the eastern and westernmost points: East Cape Lighthouse and Cape Egmont Lighthouse. Riders could go in either direction, with two waves of up to 100 riders each leaving at sunrise on February 22 and 23rd. It was an ‘invitation only’ event so not widely publicised and I was able to get entries for myself and my riding buddy Rickie Cotter who I met during the 2014 Transcontinental Race from London to Istanbul and has become part of the extended ‘family’.
I was looking forward to the ride as my post-concussion syndrome had got a lot worse in 2019 so I had skipped any races. With a promise to Lis that we would take it easy, I was looking forward to the adventure. I was not to be disappointed.
Most of the riders decided to start in the east and travel west, but we went the other direction. The prevailing winds from the west, so less chance of a headwind. It also transpired that the gradients were easier going west to east. Good call.
Another good call was using my Specialized S-Works Diverge gravel bike for the ride. I had the 2Bliss tyres which are really fast—32 on front and 42 on rear. It has a Cane Creek eeSilk suspension seat post and Specialized’s Future Shock on the front so it’s a really smoth ride. Had a 1 x 34 x 46 drive train, with an Absolute Black oval crank. 2 x 1L bottles on the front sides, and 1 x 750 mL bottle on the bottom bracket. Sleeping was a Mont Bell sleeping bag and Event bivy.
Travelled light on the clothes scene. Basically something to keep warm, something to keep dry, something to ride in, and something for after.
The logistics of the ride were a bit complicated. Some people drove to the start line and then arranged to exchange keys on the way. Since Lis had wanted to visit some places in the North Island, Rickie and I drove to New Plymouth Airport and rode our bikes the 60 km or so to the start. Lis flew in a few days later and got the car, starting her tiki tour to eventually meet up with us at the finish.
New Zealand had been in drought for a few months and of course Rickie brought with her the rain from Scotland. It started raining on our ride to the start line, and then continued for the next couple of days. I had booked an Air B&B a few kilometres from the start line and they were most welcoming. Also told us of a short cut through a stream which would cut off a big chunk of time the next morning. Was a great idea, except for the rain, and when Rickie entered she was almost up to her waist! I used the weir to cross being a bit more sensible…
The start was very disorganized. The fellow with the tracker arrived about 15 minutes before we were to start, so people who did not have their own trackers were milling about and fiddling around trying to get them to work. I helped a few. Rickie was not registering and the guy said she should wait behind. She couldn’t be bothered which was a good call because they were unable to get hers working at all in spite of several attempts. Had problems with mine too initially, blaming it on my not having turned it on. Nope. Was started 30+ minutes before the start. They really were out of their depth and hopefully learned a few lessons for next time: like post everyone their trackers before the ride starts so they can check in, and have the check in page up a few days early rather than the night before. They should look to Trackleaders.com for how do do things. End of rant.
Half a dozen of us got tired of the pfaffing about and decided it was time to start so we headed out. As it transpired, we would all be riding together on and off to the end, finishing within about 30 minutes of each other. But more on that later …
The ride took us along back roads of Taranaki, most of them paved and very quiet. It was unfortunate that the weather obscured Mt. Taranaki which is this lovely symmetrical volcano.
We stopped at the New Plymouth waterfront for a coffee and we met up with Tahia Cunningham who was an ex-Tour Divider and also met Rickie in Kirgizstan at the Silk Road Race. She was to ride with us on and off and finished ahead of us, relegating Rickie to second woman.
The route took us inland up the State Highway 43, also called the Forgotten World Highway. This is through a really remote part of the country and we were treated to amazing bush clad views. After grabbing supplies at the pub in ‘The Republic of Whangamomona’ (where Lis would be in a few days) we continued inland towards Taumaranui.
State Highway 43 is one of the last unsealed State Highway in New Zealand and with the rain it was full of water laden potholes. These are not normally an issue as many were along the centreline. However, vehicles insisted on passing us (often at moderate speed) so got splashed big time. Ho hum.
It is also the site of a very sophisticated tunnel which has been anointed the ‘Hobbit Tunnel’. Can see why … This was one of the photo checkpoints for the ride—we were given a list of places to take photos to document our journey.
The ride continued with more drenchings, both from the skies and the cars, past amazing bush until we eventually reached the thriving metropolis of Ohura. It had been a big day for my first day back bikepacking with 195 km of riding and 2500 m of climbing, but I felt really good about it and the body was holding up fine.
I had booked a room for us at the Ohura Bed & Breakfast, which was run by Michelle who also ran the local food cart. We all filled up with food and several of the others grabbed the empty rooms in the B&B so it was a full house. While I was there one of the locals said his mum gave great massages so I also scored a sports massage which was the icing on the cake! A good ride, hot food, a shower, clean clothes, a comfortable bed, and a sports massage. Such luxury!
The next morning we had an early start—thanks in part to Tahia clomping around the B&B in her cycling shoes . We were treated to a paved road up towards Taumaranui and Nick grabbed this photo of me after one of the early climbs. Eventually we turned onto a gravel road which ran parallel to the main trunk line and which eventually took us to the start of the ‘Timber Trail’ which is one of the epic New Zealand cycle trails, with 82 km of single track.
This was a very historical area and the trail followed a railway line put in for harvesting the forests. As an engineer I am often in awe of what they were able to achieve in earlier years with simple tools, but vision and hard work. One example was the Ongarue Spiral where the trains ascended a great distance in a corkscrew spiral pattern, with a small tunnel as well.
The ride went through amazing areas of regenerated bush and is extremely popular—probably because of the gentle grades and its non-technical nature. There was a steady stream of cyclists coming in the opposite direction, unfortunately most of them ‘Weekend Warriors’ who had no idea of trail courtesy—like sounding a warning when approaching, particularly around blind corners! I had to be very vigilant all the time, and even then almost had a few collisions with oblivious cyclists.
This had an unexpected effect: a major triggering of my post-concussion syndrome. The best way of describing it is that my brain is like a bucket and the bucket became completely full, so I was unable to process information. This meant in a practical sense that my perception was about 1+ second behind what I was actually seeing, so while I thought I was at a certain point on the trail in reality I was some 5-10 m further along. Not ideal when on single track!
So we had frequent stops for me to try and ‘reset’ my brain. Basically keeping my eyes closed to eliminate visual stimulation. Rickie was very patient—she is such a great riding buddy. It was really tough but eventually we made it to the end of the Timber Trail and I was very grateful to be back on roads, even if they were pretty rough in places and some serious gradients.
Two years ago I had been in this same area and had my crash. I was in the Tour Aotearoa (in fourth place!) and woke up in a ditch with my face split open from below the nose to the chin, a broken helmet, and covered in blood. After a helicopter ride to Waikato Hospital and 4 h of facial reconstruction surgery, my lasting legacy is my post-concussion syndrome and a goatee to cover the 33 stitches on my face. The episode itself is a complete blank, but on this day I passed the spot where it happened and saw that the pavement was broken (the stick in the photo below points to the spot). I must have been distracted and lost it. Bugger.
Probably because my brain was already overloaded I didn’t respond emotionally to this, but at least now part of the puzzle is complete. We continued on past the Centre of the North Island and eventually made our way out to the road across one final narrow swing bridge. We were treated to a lovely evening run towards our second night’s accommodation, but this was interrupted by a section of riding along the ‘Waikato River Trail’.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I was in the wrong head space, but I found the riding to be unnecessarily windy, with short, sharp hills, and no redeeming features. I was told that Tahia said to the effect “… I am too old to ride the Waikato trail again”, and I have to agree. Anyway, we continued on and eventually made it to our B&B where I had booked another night. They had a hot dinner waiting for us and coupled with the hot bath was a nice way to end a day which took too heavy a mental toll.
Ultra endurance bike racing is about 90% mental. Yes, you have to be fit to ride your bike 11 hours. But beyond that, you need to have the mental stamina to manage the ride and that deserted me today. So one more limitation to be aware of as I manage my post-concussion syndrome.
In spite of the good night’s rest, my head was still very messed up in the morning—but we got on our bikes and rode off along the Waikato River in the lovely morning light. After yesterday’s deluge it was a real treat to have blue skies and a still morning.
We popped out on the road and were pleased to meet Peter Maindonald from Rotorua who had come down to say hello. I first met Peter at the 2013 Tour Divide where for 3+ weeks we kept on bumping into each other along the trail. Peter is a masochist who returned in 2017—where he got a top 10 finish—which is where Rickie met him. After we finished the Kopiko we went to Rotorua where Peter introduced Rickie to some of the trails. She had a hoot.
Today was mainly on pavement and my gravel bike had a definite advantage over Rickie’s mountain bike. The Kopiko route really is meant for gravel bikes! We enjoyed rolling along with the river views, and the gentle terrain. Great route choices. My head was not good for much of the day and then around 15:00 like a switch I felt better. Probably all the easy road riding gave the brain time to reset.
We were entering into the geothermal area and stopped at a camp ground/hot springs for a well deserved lunch. Then it was on to another check point at Waiotapu Springs. These are not the sort of springs one thinks of in most countries … it was boiling mud!
After crossing Rainbow Mountain—not much of a mountain compared to what we have in the South Island—we were on the pavement for the long and gentle downward run to Murapara. With my gravel bike and fast tyres I left Rickie behind: the only time I can do so as she is such a strong rider! We grabbed some food in town and then continued to head east into the hills.
Rickie had developed an annoying—and potentially catastrophic—bike problem. Her left crank kept coming loose. This necessitated many road side stops to retighten the bolts, which lasted for varying lengths of time. Then I got the bright idea of removing the small shim which solved the problem for the remainder of the ride. Yes, it does have a function, but this was better than having the crank fall off!
We continued on until it began to get dark and then looked for a place to sleep. The best option was a cow paddock next to the road so we rolled out our bivy bags and made ourselves comfortable. Only three vehicles drove by so it was not exactly a busy road. We were treated to a clear night with an array of stars. And yes, of course I stepped in one of the (fresh) cow pats. It was inevitable …
I was back into race mode mentally for Day 4 which was good as it was quite a demanding ride into the mountains and Lake Waikaremoana.
After an early morning brew up for Rickie, we hit the road and continued eastward. The weather was excellent and the hills not to difficult. We were treated to an escort of horses up the road. We have no idea if they were owned by anyone as they seemed quite happy to head up the road in front of us to the top of the hill, turning off to a side road. We had a great resupply at an excellent convenience store run by the local Iwi.
We met Brian Alder from Golden Bay who was heading westbound shortly afterwards. He told us that they had also had miserable weather for their start—even worse than ours! So no more grizzling on our part about being hard done by. By now the road was unsealed and he told us of some of the tough sections ahead.
The weather turned nasty again and we reached Lake Waikaremoana in the rain. The road followed the hill above the lake and the views were great—even on a poor day. It is an incredible area and one that I will be visiting again. There was a campground at the lake and we stopped at the shop for some food and to warm up a bit.
Rickie is a bad influence on me and she introduced me to a new culinary extravaganza: a processed cheese slice and potato chip sandwich. Take one slice of processed cheese, put it between two chips, and you have a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates. With the added touch of salt. Seriously, the worst thing about bikepacking is the nutrition—if you can even call it that. You are generally forced to rely on ‘petrol station’ food which can be slim pickings, especially if you are towards the back of the pack in a ride!
We began to meet other riders we knew. It is a fairly small community who do these bikepacking adventures so the same names surface at the same events. I had hoped to meet Ollie Whalley from Nelson but he had blasted past us when we were off route fixing Rickie’s bike. Scott Emmens gave us a thumbs up. I last bumped into him in Hokitika. He was with his wife who I thanked for some custom work she did for me on a shirt from Scott’s firm Ground Effect.
Later it was Rob Dawson who is also from Golden Bay. Rob, Rickie and I are working on a documentary film for the Grenzsteintrophy which is a bikepacking adventure in Germany. Rob has aspirations of reaching the Lake Waikaremoana campground that evening but it had taken us about 5 h of downhill riding to get to where he was and I gently told him that a better option was to aim for a lodge by the dam. I didn’t tell him of the horrible soft pavement he was going to be going through over the next kilometres Rob took this photo of me.
The following day we met Jonathan Kennett and his wife Bronnie. Jonathan was the organizer of the ride, and is one of the key drivers for many of the cycling initiatives in New Zealand along with his brothers. Lis and I had enjoyed their company when they stayed with us in Golden Bay when they were doing a working bee at the Project Rameka carbon sink they’ve established. They were the ‘Lantern Rouge’ of the westbound riders on their tandem.
The destination for the day was Tiniroto and I arrived at the pub around 19:00. The plan was to sleep at the community centre which was open for cyclists, and had hot showers. I went straight in and ordered a meal. My request for something vegetarian was met with a horrified look by the server, but she returned with the cook who offered me a vegetarian hamburger. Great. I also ordered a full serving of chips as I knew Rickie would eventually arrive and help herself. Other riders came in as well so eventually there was a wait—which is why I went for food first rather than a shower. Although there were only six other riders in the tavern, noise, while not loud, was enough to set off my post-concussion syndrome again. So Rickie and I ate outside which was peaceful and good for my head.
We stayed the night at the Community Centre with about 10 other cyclists. Rickie and I slept outside on the deck which was a good call. Another cold night, but we had far less interruptions than those indoors. We were supposed to have left $20 at the tavern so I gave it to one of the riders who planned on a morning coffee and promised to turn it in. Amazing facility so we must not abuse the hospitality.
Day 5 ended up being the big ride day of the race: 251 km with 3543 metres of climbing. Didn’t plan to do that, but my head was recovered and the body was now adapted to the race so just let things run.
We had an early start and were treated to a fog shrouded morning. Brilliant quiet riding along excellent roads. Was an absolute delight. It amazes me how many back roads and out of the way places there are in a small country like New Zealand, and I’m grateful that I can do adventures like these which allow me to experience them. This was a whole new part of the country for me—must return again and explore further.
The ride was well supported, with some people putting out food and water for the passing riders. Such a treat! We got to the town of Matawai in the late afternoon where we met Chris—who had left the day after us and was also heading east, along with Amanada, who had been with us the first night. We had some food together and then headed on towards Motu and the coast.
As it was a paved road with a downgrade, I got ahead of Rickie and waited for her at the Motu Community Centre which was another place supporting riders. I had asked for my wife Lis to courier a part here for Rickie’s crank. It unfortunately didn’t arrive—but neither did Rickie! Somehow she missed the turn to the house and kept riding with Chris towards the coast. So Amanda and I rode together trying to catch up to them. I think Rickie just wanted to have a faster Chris to ride with!
The Motu Road was a steep gravel road dropping down to the coast. It was the original route between Gisborne and Opotoki. Glad I was doing it in this direction! I dropped Andrea and continued down to the coast where I met up with Rickie and Chris. It was 18:00 but a lovely evening so we decided to keep riding, even though we had already done some 200 km that day.
The coast was lovely and we were treated to a brilliant sunset to the rear. We kept riding and eventually reached Te Kaha about 22:30. The hotel was closed but they kindly opened and gave us a room, and then asked if we wanted food from the store. YES! Watch out for hungry cyclists. We gave Chris is his own room as he was leaving before us and were lucky not only to have a nice bed for the night, but we were able to wash our clothes as the room had a laundry! Finishing well fed and clean will be such a novelty as tomorrow would be our last day.
We had been going back and forth with Tahia, Mara, Paul, Barryn and Nick for most of the ride and they had all arrived in Te Kaha before we did. As the ride had a mandatory 6 h rest period, we knew they would finish ahead of us. So Rickie and I had a leisurely start to the day, content with our seventh and eight positions (Craig—another Tour Divider) had crushed the ride in 4:10:44.
The scenery was amazing along the coast, and it is a place which rivals Golden Bay for beauty. Something I didn’t think was possible! Here is a sampling.
It was our last day riding together and we savoured the company. This photo I took of Rickie reminded me of when we first met in France during the 2014 Transcontinental Race, where she gave me a similar pose.
I really enjoy Rickie’s company and we were both sad to think that the ride was soon to be over. So we hatched a plan to ride down to Gisborne after we finished. It was only another 200 or so km. However, Lis was NOT impressed with the plan so we agreed to end today. I screwed up the instructions but we eventually met.
The paved road eventually ended and we were on the final 10+ km to the finish line. When who rides up from behind but Nick! He said that he and the others had been having coffee in the last town when they saw Rickie and I pass them, so hopped on their bikes. Rickie agreed it was time to “put on our race face” so we put the hammer down and took off. Yes, we are too competitive for our own good.
We got to the base of the lighthouse and Rickie said “grab your bike” and so we moved as quickly as we could up the 900 or so steps to the top. She is half my age and showed it—I found it really hard going. There were several older people heading down who thought we were very mad, and they were right! But we made it, securing third and fourth places in 5:6:30 with 1046 km of riding. So we averaged about 200 km/day.
Not five minutes later Marta arrived carrying her bike—without bike packing bags—and then the three guys arrived without bikes. But had instead carried up beers which everyone enjoyed (I had gummy bears as I don’t drink). Was great fun to sit with them after a hard race, reflecting that we were all together on the first night of the race. Only Tahia was missing: she finished earlier in the day (and Craig even earlier!).
After a brief respite we headed down—not much easier than up—and waited for Lis who collected us. We headed back to the nice hotel in Te Kaha and then had some adventures in Rotorua, Tauranga and Auckland before dropping Rickie off for her flight home to Scotland.
Thanks to Jonathan Kennett and the team who created the Kopiko. It is a great adventure which I’d highly recommend.