“Unfinished business” is what I would tell people who asked me if I had done the Tour Aotearoa (TofA), a 3,013 km brevet which runs the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga in the far north, to Bluff in the deep south. In 2016 I was going to ride the inaugural TofA with my riding buddy Rickie Cotter but the legacy of a prostate infection meant it was not a good idea. I came back in 2018 and was doing really well when just after km 750 I woke up in a ditch in the Pureora Forest having somehow crashed my bike. It was a bad crash and I ended up with a helicopter ride to Waikato Hospital, 4 h of facial reconstruction surgery, and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which has led to post-concussion syndrome. Could have been worse… I could have been killed or drooling in a wheel chair!
With my brain injury having settled in to something that I can generally manage, it was time to get this done. So I trained hard to get my fitness up and was well prepared physically and mentally for this race. Promising my wife Lis that I would not overdo it, I looked forward to an adventure!
I decided that I was going to ride it as hard as I could given my TBI with a sub 12 day goal (250 km/day) for finishing. However, at the same time enjoy the experience of having nothing to do but eat, sleep and ride my bike! The TofA has a rule that we need to stop for 6h rest every 24h and that was something that I adhered to. There were times I would have preferred riding, but had to stop.
I will start at the end. Yes, I did manage to finish—I was first across the line for my wave after 12:14:13. However, I disqualified myself as I was unable to ride a few unpaved roads/trails when my brain injury acted up and stayed on adjacent paved roads. So Bevan Collins who finished 20 h after me won our wave. Totally fine with that as he had a much harder ride than I did!
One of the questions most asked is how does one prepare for something like this. The most important issue is what your objective is. If you just want to ride it for the experience and do ~100 km/day, that’s totally different to trying to race it with the goal of ~250+ km/day.
To be fast I needed to go light so had to refine my equipment (I had 18 kg including bike). I decided to take a tent rather than a bivy bag as it would give me extra protection if I had to shelter for an extended period, and also took additional spares given the remote nature of parts of the course. No cooker so food would be what I could readily eat.
I had a gravel bike which is faster than a mountain bike. One of my best choices was tyres: I used the Specialized Sawtooth. These are gravel tyres without a knobby tread so are super fast on the paved roads that dominate the route. When I looked at the people at the start they all had heavier duty tires which—except on the Manugatapu descent into Nelson—are not required.
For navigation I assembled the individual GPX files into six larger files, and put them on my Garmin 1030, a backup old Garmin 1000, and my phone as a second backup. Having the Garmin 1000 was great as when I was heading over the Haast pass in the rain my 1030 blew up and went into a diagnostic mode. This had happened on other races but this time I had planned for it! I also had the Kennett’s book on the TofA on the phone as well which was useful when planning ahead.
My bike had a Hunt front wheel with a SON dynamo, connected to a Sinewave Beacon light. The latter has a USB connection which recharged my Garmin, phone and other devices. Having your own power makes you independent of having to stop places for recharging and I just enjoy the flexibility.
For training I used Xert with a suitable build program to the race so over a 3 month period I was able to get up to ‘4 Star’ fitness. All my road rides were with a fully loaded bike and I did a few long rides of ~275 km in a day to make sure that I was tracking OK. Two or three times a week I would do Zwift races of 30-50 km for some high intensity work, or if I was time crunched and wanted to get in a quick 60-90 minute workout. As a footnote, when I finished the TofA I had eyewatering Xert fitness results that I will never repeat (see below)!
I flew to Kerikeri two days before the start and then took a shuttle up to Cape Reinga. If you have to fly to the start this really is the best way to do it. I stayed at the Taupata campground 5+ km from the cape and then rode over first thing for our 07:00 start. My cousin Hillary Scott was there with some friends also riding, but at a different pace: 56 days on an ebike supported with a sag wagon. That’s the beauty of the TofA, all of us are there with different personal goals to achieve.
The TofA starts off with a short road ride and then onto 90 mile beach (which is actually about 80 km). We had a 35 km/h headwind which made it pretty hard. There were 11 of us and I did a ‘Rickie Cotter’ and suggested we organise a pace line where each of us would lead for 1 km. We were able to hold a speed of 20 km/h that way but it was hard going and after a while it broke into two groups with 5 of us continuing on; eventually Bevan took off with another rider while Mark, Chris Shaw (who I met on Kopiko) and I continued on.
After the beach there is a road section to the Rawene Ferry where Mark, Chris and I met up again. Chris and I shared a room in Dargaville for the night and then we all met again the next day at Potou Point where one catches the ferry across the Kaipara Harbour to Helensville. Bevan cycled the route instead. Respect.
From Helensville it was to Mount Eden which I reached around 21:00. After eating my take away dinner admiring the night lights of Auckland I decided to press on to Miranda which was ‘only’ 110 km. I had booked a room at the campground so had a place to stay. I figured I’d get there about 2-20:30. The route took us through the Hunua range and I saw Chris Shaw behind me catching up. I figured he would bivy at Hunua where there was a great place and he did. Bevan was taking the coastal route and I saw he stopped a few hours short of Miranda some time after midnight. I got to Miranda at 02:40 and enjoyed a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
From Miranda it’s along the south of the firth of Thames on the Hauraki Rail Trail which is probably the most boring and tedious part of the ride. Flat, pretty straight, through farm country… Bevan caught up with me south of Thames and then stopped for some photos before passing me while I stopped for lunch in Paeroa. We then end up on the Waikato River Trail to Mangakino.
Simon Waterhouse published this comment on the Facebook page for the TofA: “They say a bad day on a bike is still better than a good day in the office. Whoever said that clearly has never ridden the Waikato River Trail into Mangakino.” Tahi Cunningham—one of the top female ultra endurance cyclists commented to me on the Kapiko “Life is too short to ride the Waikato River Trail again”. This is the singularly worst designed trail I have ever ridden with no redeeming features. It requires intense concentration and since my brain injury was acting up I was not able to ride it. Bevan found the approach to Mangakino so tough he ended up stopping and camping next to the trail. I met Chris Shaw in Mangakino about 22:00 and decided to ride with him on the section out of Mangakino. BIG MISTAKE. By the end of the trail my brain was in such a bad state that I could not formulate a sentance, and could not work out how to get my bike over the style. Chris kindly helped me over and I pitched my tent right there while he rode on. I never caught up with him again.
The next morning I discovered a toilet 100 m from where I stopped which would have been ideal for bivying! I was still fragile but felt much better which was good as this was going to be a hard day on the Timber Trail. To get there one first travels to the centre of the North Island is the Pureroa forest, which is just before where I had my crash in 2018. You cross a narrow bridge—how anyone on an ebike could do this is beyond me—and then follow some knarly 4WD tracks up to the Pureroa forest roads, which are pretty shocking. Rode past where I had my crash remembering my wife’s warnings not to do it again…
The Timber Trail is incredibly popular. When I was on the Kopiko rode it on a weekend which was really difficult as not only did I need to concentrate on the trail, but there were hordes of riders. Not easy with a TBI! This time the trail was almost empty and it was much more pleasant to ride. I stopped at the Timber Trail Lodge for lunch and then continued on. I reached Taumaranui about 21:30 and was able to resupply and get a good night’s rest in a motel.
I left Taumaranui just after 05:00 for what would be a hard day. The goal was to make the 16:00 jet boat from the Bridge to Nowhere. This would allow me to get to Whanganui by about 21:00 where I would resupply and then press on to Huntersville. I would then be in a good position for connecting with the afternoon ferry which was essential if I wanted a sub 12 day finish.
The first part of the ride was on unpaved roads through farmland to Whakahoro where I had a great breakfast. Was slowed down by a rural traffic jam—sheep on the road—but I didn’t mind. They told me at the Cafe that Chris Shaw had left before the opened and was trying for the 1:30 boat.
From Whakahoro you have the Kaiwhakauka track, a grade 4 ride along a trail with many patches of relatively undisturbed native forest. The Kaiwhakauka track meets up with the Mangapurua Track at the Mangapurua Trig then follows the same route to the landing to meet the pre-arranged boat transfer to Pipiriki. At the start of the Kaiwhakauka track there was a note to the effect to take care as 5 people had been helicoptered out injured, and one killed here. Seriously. I’m an above average cyclist and I found it difficult, even though I walked a number of sections. It is beyond me how this forms part of the TofA route where there are few riders capable of Grade 4 tracks, even without loaded bikes.
We pass the memorial to the families who tried farming in the area—returned servicemen from WW I—and then descended to the Bridge to Nowhere which is a bridge constructed in the valley before it was abandoned. This was also a dangerous ride along bluffs with lots of rock fall.
I arrived at 15:30 and was toasted so I stripped off and went for a skinny dip in the river—apologising to the two canoeists in advance for the strip show. The boat arrived on time only for him to tell me that we would have to wait for 2h or so as a group of four had not left Taumaranui until 08:00. So much for my plans for the ferry. I wouldn’t have minded waiting 2 h for people who had left early and found it difficult, but to have a sleep in and then expect others to wait for you is not on. End of rant. The ride to Pipiriki was great and after hoovering up dinner enjoyed the easy ride down to Whanganui which I reached at 23:00.
Left early the next morning and I was treated to incredible scenery on the ride to Huntersville—along with a monster headwind which had me struggling to do 18 km/h. All part of the adventure! The day was one of lovely scenery, lots of winds, and many ups and downs as we headed towards the Manawatu River valley near Palmerston North. Since I had DQ’d myself I decided to ride the closed Manawatu Gorge to see the road closure. Had to laugh—was a lot safer that the ride to the Bridge to Nowhere! When I came out the other side at 21:30 in the dark there was young woman standing by the side of the road in distress. Her car had broken down. God’s timing is always what it should be so I told her to get in the car and stay safe while I cycled down to a nearby campground to get some help. I was successful and then stayed with her for 15+ minutes while the car ran just to make sure she was OK. Meant a later night for me but that was OK.
After staying at Pahiheatua I was off before 06:00 for Wellington. The wind was with me and it was a delightful ride through the Wairarapa, with a great lunch in Maryborough. Then it was over the Rimutaka Incline to Wellington. This is a former railway line which is now a cycle trail. The entire ride into Wellington was a delight along the Hutt River Valley Trail. They are fortunate to have such cycling infrastructure. I had missed the afternoon ferry and so was catching the 02:00 one. As it was 19:00 when I was in the Hutt I found a laundry and washed my clothes while I had dinner at an adjacent Indian restaurant. From there it was to the ferry. I napped on the floor of the terminal and then found a corner of the floor on the ferry where I got into my sleeping bag and woke up again in Picton.
It was 07:00 when I left the ferry and was surprised to see that Chris Shaw was still in Picton. His knee was bothering him so he had taken extra time to rest. I headed out towards Havelock and enjoyed the incredible beauty of an early morning ride through the Charlotte Sounds.
After some refreshments in Havelock it was on to Pelorus and then the Manungatapu Track. This was one section which had me very worried as I had been on it before and remembered it as very tough. My memory was correct and it was a hard ride and then push to the top. I was ‘chicked’ by a grey haired woman pushing her bike and was super impressed. Then she told me that it had a ‘self drive’ mode. Abominations. This was followed by a harrowing descent on the other side with about 5 crashes. It’s just nasty. I saw later posts from riders who had broken wheels, themselves, etc. on this section. On the other hand Brian Alder said he just loved the descent. He’s a much better mountain biker than I am! At least I can blame my TBI…
I was met at the bottom by my riding buddy Wouter de Maat from Golden Bay who rode with me to Nelson where we grabbed some food. We had hoped that Ollie Whalley—who won the inaugural TofA—would join us, but he was stuck in a meeting he could not get out of. Shame! We rode to Richmond where I had booked my bike into Village Cycles due to a skipping of the chain and to tighten the head set which was loose after Maungatapu. They spent 2+ h trying to fix it, staying after hours. Great people. From there I rode to Tapawera where I spent the night. It was great being on ‘home turf’ riding routes that are so familiar to me. I was rewarded with a spectacular Tasman sunset.
The next day was to be the first of three big days if I was to hope to get a sub 12 day finish: 296 km from Tapawera to Greymouth. The early morning ride up Tadmore Valley was a delight and then we headed over to Lake Rototai. I had two wasp stings on the way—a local hazard—one of which bothered me for the next week. Fortunately I didn’t need my epipen as my allergy was not triggered. From there is was over to Murchison and then the Maruia Saddle and up to Springs Junction. Everything at Springs Junction was closed and I could not find a tap so I begged some water from a motorist. From there to Reefton which I reached at 21:00. Got to Greymouth about 01:00. I took the road as the ‘Big River’ trail had a slip on it—however Brian Alder and Bevan Collins managed to do the trail so it was not as impassable as DOC implied.
Greymouth is the start of the ‘West Coast Wilderness Trail’ which runs to Hokitika and then Ross. My goal was 266 km to Fox which was going to be tough as it is into the mountains. The Wilderness Trail was a delight to ride. The North Island trail builders and maintainers need to visit the South Island and learn how to build and maintain trails. With the exception of the Rimutakak and Hutt River Valley trails, not a single trail in the North Island was as well designed or maintained as the South Island trails. These are what cycling should be like, not risking life and limb on poorly designed or poorly maintained tracks. End of rant #2.
There were a lot of people out enjoying the fine weather and trail. I bypassed ‘Cowboy Paradise’ which some people find hard to cope with—to me it is just reflects one aspect of the unique West Coast—and had a great ride to Hokitika which I reached mid-afternoon. After enjoying two ice creams I headed onto Ross and then further south. The riding was good but slow as I hit the mountains. I reached Franz Joseph Glacier about 23:30 and had a brief rest before heading onto Fox Glacier. A mere 20 km away. Unfortunately I did not check the terrain profile as there where three MASSIVE climbs on the way. Good thing it was dark and I couldn’t see how long they were! I hit my hotel at 02:00 quite stonkered. Joy of joy, there was a spa bath so I hopped in and hoovered up some cheese and chips, washing my clothes as well. Hard day.
I woke to a cold and morning with light rain. I had been blessed with weather to date so it was only fair that it would be poor at some point. This was to be the third big day with a 280 km push to Wanaka. This woudl set me up to catch a late boat from Queenstown across to Walter Peak. If I missed this a sub 12 day finish was off the table.
Covid and the loss of foreign tourists has hit this part of NZ hard with most places closed. I had breakfast at the one cafe open and then hit the road. The mountains were stunningly beautiful and I did the side track to see Fox Glacier. From there it was on the road towards Haast Pass and then Wanaka. It was a lovely if wet ride on a good road with little climbing. However, the cumulative fatigue of the last few days—indeed all the riding to date—was evident.
I stopped in Haast Village for some food at 15:00 and to try and dry out a bit—it was poring with rain. After I got on my bike and was along the road who should come up but my lovely wife Lis! She was heading to Wanaka and from there Invercargill to collect me at the finish. She got the photo below of one drowned cyclist during a break in the storm.
As the day progressed it was clear that I did not have the ability to make the 280 km to Wanaka in a time that would allow me to make the afternoon boat to Water Peak so my sub 12 day finish was off the table. That was OK, I’d rather set myself a stretch goal and not make it than not try. I kept on going and crossed Haast pass in the evening light. About 21:00 in the dark a car stopped and asked ‘Are you on the Tour Aotearoa’ ? It was a dot watcher heading to Wanaka. He figured I had to be on the TofA as who else would be riding in the dark over mountains in the rain. Got that right! I had done just under 200 km when I got to the ‘Blue Pools’ about 22:00. Rather than reach Wanaka at 02:00 I decided to bivy in the disabled toilet which at least got me out of the rain. On the Tour Divide we call these a ‘Montana Hilton’ and they are nice respite after a wet day’s riding. Unfortunately I had a hole in my air mattress so it was a cold 6 h sleep on a concrete pad. But better than the rain outside.
I left about 04:30 for Wanaka. The rain had stopped but it was very cold. One think I really like about night riding is the absence of traffic—not that there is much is the South Island—and I didn’t see a single vehicle for the first 2+ hours riding. I got to Lake Hawea about 7:15 but the hot chocolate I had fantasized about was not to be as the cafe and shop were still closed. So it was on to Wanaka along this lovely river trail in the early morning fog. Life is good (if cold) and such a privilege to see such beauty.
I got to Wanaka about 08:30 and went to a cafe for some well deserved breakfast. Lis joined me and about 10:00 I headed off for Queenstown over the Cardona range.
This is the highest paved road in NZ at over 1000 m and there is a long, but steady, climb to the top where you are rewarded with a magnificent view of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. I’m glad that there are no tourist buses these days as with them it would not have been a fun ride. The descent was a blast and then we were rewarded with a ride along the ‘Twin Rivers’ trail from Arrowtown to Queenstown. Yet another well built and well maintained trail. It was 16:00 when I got to Queenstown and I could have got a water taxi across the lake. But with the need to stop for 6 h even with that I would not have been able to get a sub 12 day finish. So I had decided to be slack and spend the night in Queenstown.
Arriving at 07:30 I learned there was a new schedule and the boat to Walter Peak now left at 09:00. At least this allowed me time for an extra breakfast. The morning sail across the lake was stunning and there were a few other cyclists riding the route. After disembarking I headed south, relishing the amazing views as we traversed the lake. Then we turned inland for the final major climb of the TofA, up Von Mountain. It was nothing compared to many of the others to date, just a long grind, and before too long I was at the top in the rolling tussock. The gravel road was good and made for fast riding with a favourable wind at my back. There were a number of supported groups riding the other way, as well as a few stock trucks, but otherwise I had the road to myself.
Unfortunately the road deteriorated into a chunky gravel road which really addled my head. Eventually we turned off onto the ‘Around the Mountains’ cycle trail which was yet another brilliant cycle trail. I flew along the well maintained surface, meeting a number of riders doing the ‘Sounds2Sounds’ brevet travelling in the opposite direction. I got to Mossburn just after 14:00 for a late lunch. The cafe was less than helpful saying the kitchen had just closed and they would not help a very hungry cyclist. Just pickings from the cabinets. Should have gone to the general store next door …
It was only some 130 km to the finish so I decided that I would see how fast I could ride it without blowing up. Averaged 25.3 km/h and there was nothing left in the tank when I reached the finish at 21:13 for a finish time of 12:14:13. Lis was there and got the requisite photos before driving us to Invercargill for a well earned hot bath.
Riding With a Traumatic Brain Injury
As mentioned at the start, a ‘souvenir’ of my last TofA ride was a TBI and post-concussion syndrome. TBIs are something that once you have recovered to a point one just has to manage them, and by and large I did that really well on the TofA—the Mangakino Waikato River Trail meltdown not withstanding. Everyone is different and with me the best analogy I can give is a bucket which gets filled with water through visual or audible stimulation. The key is not to have the bucket completely filled as if that happens I fall over a cliff.
Intense concentration is a real challenge and that is probably one reason why I hated the North Island trails so much. Their poor design and poor maintenance meant that you had to watch yourself very carefully and it was mentally exhausting. By comparison, the brilliant South Island trails were nowhere near as taxing and you could focus on enjoying the ride, not surviving it. In the same way, I love night riding. Not only is there little traffic and the associated noise, but the visual feedback is limited to the field of view of your light head of you and it is just so peaceful. Were it not for the 6 h rest rule I would have done a lot more night riding.
Several times I got ‘addled’ by the bouncing of bad unpaved roads and/or over stimulation, so I judged some days by the amount of pain relief I needed. But by and large I eschewed that since I didn’t want to be on them continuously. Pain is something that most ultra endurance riders learn to put up with, and so I avoid pain relief as much as possible.
My ride would definitely have been faster had I not the TBI to contend with, and I would have ridden 100% of the course, but it went really well and shows that you can do these sorts of things with at TBI as long as you manage it.
Some Closing Thoughts
A few semi-random thoughts…
The total distance I rode was 2798 km which worked out to be an average of 224 km/day, with my longest day 296 km.
The bike kit worked well. Only one major issue: the rear rotor fell off just after Miranda! Since it was centrelock I needed a special tool and it was only when I got to Masterton that there was a bike shop to help. Until then there was frequent hand tightenings. Headset was loosened by hitting a big pothole at speed. I had a faulty speedlink connector which made a drivetrain noise–and was very hard to diagnose. Grit got into the bottom bracket, otherwise the bike was fine. No punctures.
I didn’t use chamois creme but ‘Reskin Bike Extreme’ silicon patches. These are magic and along with my Pactimo Stratos 12 h bibs are the perfect combination for ultra endurance riding. No blisters or other effects in the nether regions.
Food plays an important aspect to these adventures. You burn some 6000 calories a day when riding 10-12 hours. I always try and put on a bit of weight before the race and probably dropped about 5 kg in spite of eating all that I could. Being vegetarian is tough, particularly in rural NZ. High calorie easy to swallow food dominates—like custard and ice cream—so one’s eating habits are shocking. Lis is particularly appalled at a delicacy that my friend Rickie Cotter introduced me to: a chip and cheese sandwich. Take a slice of cheese and put between some crisps. Yummy. Below is my having lunch outside of the Murchison 4 Square. Note the empty half litre custard container…
One of the funniest challenges was explaining at restaurants that I did actually want all the food that I was ordering. At Huntersville the fellow just could not understand that I wanted two orders of scrambled eggs so I told him that I was ordering for two people and he then got it. I ate them both (as well as the two milkshakes). At the Timber Trail Lodge I ordered two pizzas, two chips and two drinks. The woman told me that one pizza would suffice. She was wrong but I wasn’t going to wait once I had proved that … In Wellington the Indian restaurant said that I had ordered too much food. Also wrong…
Thanks to my former Tour Divide riding buddies Nathan Mawkes and Peter Maindonald for seeking me out and visiting during the ride. Was fantastic catching up with you again. Was also a surprise to meet my next door neighbour Steve and his partner Teresa at the Timber Trail Lodge. They were up cycling it for a few days. NZ really is a small place…
A big shout out to those I rode with at different stages, especially Chris Shaw who was such excellent riding company. Had his knee not given in he would have been first across the line in 11+ days. Hope he recovers and can deal with his ‘unfinished business’ on the TofA.
Kudos to the Kennett brothers who did an amazing job of creating a route which gives an incredible experience of the wonderous country that we live in. I would pinch myself each day at the incredible beauty of the country, and the neat people that we would meet.
Finally, thanks to my long suffering wife Lis for her support and collecting one tired cyclist at the finish line. She gave me 3 days off then we went off cycle touring to celebrate her 60th birthday. With her e-bike and my tired legs it was an evenly matched trip