A Box of Chocolates: 2020 Tour Aotearoa

A Box of Chocolates: 2020 Tour Aotearoa

Welcome to New Zealand  

Driving to LAX, flying to New Zealand and arriving the day before the start of the tour wasn't the optimal approach to an athletic event, but it was how things worked out. The 12-hour flight into Auckland was complicated by a bad case of diarrhea that was likely caused by the over consumption of far too many plates of curry while hanging out in the airport lounge.Subconsciously I knew that proper meals were not in my future so I always seem to want to make up for it beforehand.On the flight itself, the dude in the aisle seat seemed to have a bladder the size of a small pool. He just never got up! As a result, the numerous visits the restroom were inconvenient and difficult to disguise. The upset stomach also made the rental car retrieval and bike build in the parking lot of a yet to open bike shop quite “uncomfortable”. After the bike build, packing the case with personal items, changing into some "throw away clothes" and shipping the case to Wellington I was on to the 5-hour drive to Kaitaia with only the essentials and severely swollen ankles stuffed into my mountain bike shoes. Apparently, you shouldn't wear calf compression socks on a plane. You need the entire compression sock. Rookie compression sock wearer mistake.  

Once in Kaitaia it was time for last minute shopping for dinner, breakfast and riding supplies. Rental car return and then staring at my kankles occupied the eve before the start. The 3:00AM alarm would see me toss the street "throw away clothes" into the bin and don my one and only cycling kit.It was “on”.I only had what I’d be riding with and this seemed to signal the beginning of it all.


Day 1

The van and its owner for the 1.5-hour lift to the Cape was found at 4AM sleeping in his filthy dank and stinky van out in front of my hotel. After he found his wallet which was lost in the war zone inside the van, the good man got the job done. I arrived at the start with ample time to visit the lighthouse at Cape Rienga in the wee hours predawn.

After a brief speech by Paul Kennett, one of the three Kennett brothers [organizers], we rolled just prior to the official start time of 7:00AM. There was no containing the 100 riders in Wave 1 for another 3 minutes. After months if not years of anticipation we streaked southerly in the early morning light. The 2020 Tour Aotearoa was on!

After 15km we turned down the gravel road that led to and then down Te Paki stream. This is where everyone takes a sandy bath as we charge towards 90-mile Beach. It was soft sand riding, stream navigating and some dry sand jogging all the way to the Tasman Sea. Bikes sounded like shit as the sand ground through our drivetrains before we even commenced the 54-mile ride on the wide and desolate beach.

A front group of seven of us formed as we battled a light head crosswind. This would be the only time I would ride with anyone during the entire 3,000 km journey to Bluff.  

I soon noticed my non-drive side crank creating a sickening creaking / cracking noise. My shifting was also misbehaving. WTF? Ugg! I knew this BB would fail me. A fair number of miles on the bearings including the 2019 Italy Divide. Damn it! I pedaled on listening to those bearings creating a cracking and grinding noise that could melt your brain. The thought of damaging my frame's carbon BB shell even crossed my mind. The sound was that bad.That wouldn't be good. It sounded nasty but the only chance for a replacement was a full two days of riding away.

After a few hours on the beach we got to enjoy some hilly tar seal prior to the gravel cut over section to the first of the boat trips, a ferry to Rawane.  

The ferry comes at 104 miles from the start and operates on or about the hour. Steve Halligan had already separated himself from everyone and I found myself riding with Paul(?) As we approached the ferry. I noticed we were going to have to hammer the last 5kms to have any chance of catching the ferry.Missing it would mean waiting at the dock an hour. We made it by only seconds! There sat Steve greeting us with a friendly smile. Before we could finish catching our breath, we had long left the dock. Three riders made the first of several boat trips, a 2km crossing, of the 2020 Tour Aotearoa. At 7hours for 104 miles, with loaded bikes, two refuel stops, sand and hills. Not too bad.

Upon disembarking and after a brief stop at the Four Square in Rawane the three of us pedaled off.I was soon dropped on a pesky hill. As I watched the two of them disappear up the climb, I knew these boys were going to go all in.Tonight, that meant riding until the 1AM mark for the mandatory six-hour break and repeating this all the way through the country. I on the other hand was aiming for the town of Dargaville, a good feed, shower and bed. By 8:00 PM or so I arrived, exhausted but mission accomplished. It's not a race.  

172.3 miles with 9,632' followed by a 9.5-hour stop


Day 2 

Got it rolling just prior to 6:30AM to take the "Detour of the Harbor". The detour would add 100km to the other option of taking a boat across the harbor which most people do and as I had done in 2016. The detour left nothing to chance such as a broken-down boat as happened in 2018 but it came with a penalty. It was hard. Plenty of corrugated and soft gravel roads to make the progress sluggish and slow. By the time I rejoined the route north of Auckland I was also already smoked and sick of Kiwi drivers whom slow down for nothing.  

Auckland would be my next resting place. As I approached the northern suburbs on dedicated bikeways a gaggle of hipsters greeted me with high fives and congratulations. That was cool.I was hoping for a bacon hand-up.“Bacon?....Bacon?” – I asked.Nope, just some love and high fives.Must be an American thing.I soon grabbed some Indian takeaway and found my accommodation. 

139.6 miles with 9,826' followed by a 8.5-hour stop


Day 3

4:30AM would see me pedal off in a successful attempt to extract myself from Auckland and the burbs before most folks got in their cars. I reached Mount Eden predawn, hit a café near the airport and was into the countryside not long afterwards. I had memories of this section from 2016 and my failed 2018 ride to reflect upon. I knew I wanted to get well beyond the wee town of Matamata.This is where I DNF’d in the “cyclone” edition of the Tour Aotearoa in 2018.  

My stomach issues were back in full effect this afternoon. I was forced to jump off trail to do my business. However, I was prepared with toiletries to keep tidy. I carried on fueled by warm temperatures and cooled by ice packed into my sun skins and my knotted-off under-liner.I plowed forward on the rail-trail portion of the day. Yet another nature break at a proper loo trail-side and after grabbing a couple Subway foot longs and the photo checkpoint at the Lord of the Rings site, I was through Matamata and eventually onto the river trails. I'd take a twenty-minute break, laying on a picnic table near the trailhead to gather my thoughts and recover a bit. I chatted with some locals out to walk their dog. They offered me their home if I needed a shower and bed (which I did), but I declined. Once rolling again it wasn't long before I reached the recently added mandatory detour around a portion of the river trail due to some non-TA-riding knuckle heads who had entered private property and left the spicket on draining the owners supply of fresh water. It was on this detour that I'd have my first outdoor night in the bivy sack and in keeping with a horrible tradition of mine, I chose a shitty location. It was on slight slope with enough small rocks to drive you nuts. I simply could not find anywhere better to that point. The spare Subway sandwich was soggy as. It was a messy operation, but I forced it down. It was a cold and restless night and little recovery would be had.  

179.9 miles with 6,371'. 6.5-hour stoppage


Day 4

Another 4:30 AM start and yet another mandatory trailside emergency bowel movement. When would my stomach come good? - I wondered. Eventually I groveled to and around the tiny community of Mangakino. Once I realized that I had passed this wee little town I became frustrated as I didn't intend to bypass it. I was forced go off course and backtrack in order to do a very critical refueling there. I knew the next section was going to be remote, long and challenging. A bonus 10 kms to complete the refueling. It's the only section on the entire 3,000km gpx'ed route that bypasses a key town center and it's among the most critical. That should be fixed.  

The famous Timber Trail has super cool swing bridges and flowing single track. Plenty of memories from my 2016 night ride through there, but most weren't pleasant. On this day, exhausted as I was, it was epic, and it was Daytime....but it was hard going. 

On one descent I slammed through a hole hidden in the shade. A loud CRACK! erupted from my bike. Oh shit. I rolled to a stop and inspected my head tube and wheels and performed a general look over. Seemed all good. I carried on.

Soon my crackling non-drive side crank arm was accompanied with a new noise. A noise I had never heard a bike produce in my entire life. I could not figure it out. A few hours later when my Fred Bar along with my sleeping system and Garmin tore off completely, I knew that the CRACK was the initial break and the mystery noise was the aluminum further failing and ultimately tearing off.

This is a huge issue for me. An endurance cyclist knows that comfort and position are key factors to repeated long days on the bike. My comfort and position were now greatly compromised. As I pedaled into Taumaranui I even considered withdrawing. Yes, DNFing yet again. Why was I thinking this way? Stop that nonsense.  I called my mate Jeff in Wellington.He is an experienced and well-informed cyclist and bikepacker.We both began reaching out via the FB forum to see if there was a Fred Bar in NZ and when I could get it. After much back and forth a Fred Bar was located and would be taken from a bike shop deep down in the South Island from the town of Wanaka to a shop in Wellington for my pickup. Rad. Really rad.

Once in Taumaranui I rigged my aerobars, Garmin mount (thanks to four Zip Ties) and sleep system such that I could carry-on in a secure, but all be it compromising and aggressive position. I also called and booked a jet boat for 4:00 the next day.

117.3 miles with 10,056' followed by a 12-hour stop


Day 5 

This was a key day for me. Getting to and then around the Bridge to Nowhere track and onto the jet boat without issues. Logistics of scheduling the jet boat and relying on this service is something I don't deal to well with. Being forced to bivy at the boat landing after missing the pick-up time was not desired. However, if I gave myself ample time to arrive at the pick-up location it would allow me to relax and have an enjoyable ride there.

The hotel owners from where I slept in Taumaranui, we super helpful. I used their tools the previous night to help sort out my setup and they had a nice storage shed. The owner, Alan, did tell me he'd gotten to the jet boat landing in 6.5 hours and I had even rough calculated the same exact duration of 6.5 hours while back in Carlsbad. So why not give myself 8.5 hours? I'm tired. I don't want any stress. Things can go wrong and it wouldn't matter. So, I left about 8.5 hours before my scheduled jet boat ride. I noodled down the long gravel road. Grinding slowly up the climbs and safely navigating the descents. Chilling. Easy as. So, when I arrived at the last tiny outpost the "Blue Duck Station" just prior to noon you can imagine my absolute horror when I was told by a café employee that it would take 6.5 hours from HERE to get to the landing! I went into full panic mode. That hotel guy said 6.5 hours from Taumaranui NOT from the beginning of the track! "Now you are saying it's 6.5 hours from here?!?", I repeated. DAMMN IT!!I quickly sorted my shit out, food, water and a visit to the loo. 12:00 on the nose I left for my 4:00 boat. Stressed.

Another TA rider also set out ahead of me after he'd heard the news. He however was scheduled for a 6pm boat. Was his boat full should I miss mine? These jet boats take kayakers and casual cyclist whom are not part of the TA up and down the river. Folks whom just want to enjoy a boat ride up the river, cycle the 3km climb up to the infamous bridge, have a picnic and return.Not Tour Aotearoa “crazies” coming in via the 100kms of gravel roads and the difficult track from the Blue Duck Station. The jet boats could be full to capacity in which case I'd be forced to sleep on the ground until the next day. Panic stations. So, there I was in TT mode, XC race style and full hammer session. I'd soon catch and drop the other rider. The track is infamous for being shitty. It's really driven by the weather as much of the surface was clay. Today however was mint. I hammered the big climb wondering how my time would compare to Steve Halligan's on STRAVA. Fellow STRAVA users can imagine my horror when I noticed my GARMIN appeared to have been stopped. I freaked out, pissed as hell, as I was really feeling and going great. I was now bummed I missed recording my ride through this iconic track. Riding with anger and fear can really get me going. Without the Garmin recording I wouldn't ever know how I did. OK if I am not getting credit for the Bridge to Nowhere track effort with all the elevation gain then I'm going to record the jet boat ride. It won't make up for the lost portion, but it will account for something.  

Several "CYCLIST MUST DISMOUNT HERE" signs warned of the dangers. Last year a rider had lost their life when they fell off the edge of the track. I'd later learn that four separate helicopter rescues where carried out during the 2020 Tour Aotearoa in which riders had broken legs, ribs etc. For me the conditions were good. Riding within my capabilities and not looking anywhere but straight down the trail I’d ride everything. The exposure did not get to me as I was hyper focused on getting to the boat landing.

I made it around the entire track in a swift 2 hours 58min on my watch and with ample time to catch my boat. Very relieved. Several days later I'd check STRAVA - I would have taken the KOM from thousands of riders.Sure, there was no “real” riders whom have hammered it but you get the idea.  Oh well it's like my triple Nate Harrison ride back in San Diego when my GARMIN shat itself. I have only but my own fond[?] knowledge of it.

One other TA guy, Jason, was already there at the landing waiting. Then the other rider, herein known as "Racing Guy", arrived 25 minutes afterwards and was able to join the 4:00 boat versus his scheduled 6PM one.Jason was also giving the tour a strong tug but he’d said he only had so many days in his holiday break to get it done.As a result, I never felt as though he was racing anyone but his timeline.

The boat ride itself was quite fun and a real key moment for me in the TA in part due to the shitty events of 2016.

After a quick refuel near the boat off load the three of us carried onward with me leaving s few moments behind. A new development in that the brutal BB creaking had now spread to both cranks while my shifting continued to suck. I'd been finessing the shifts for days. This became really annoying when trying to maintain my momentum. I couldn't diagnose the shifting issue and I think highly of my bike mechanical skills. It was frustrating. One of the riders, Jason, heard my bike creaking after we disembarked the jet boat and simply said "THAT would do me in."

Crossing over the last big climb on the road into Whanganui, I passed Racer Guy whom was stopped and likely booking a hotel as this was our first area of proper phone reception in 8 or so hours. I rolled onward and soon pulled into an old hotel/pub on the side of the road. The local drunks haggled me a bit about my get-up and inquiry, but I wasn't listening. No accommodation was the outcome. As I quickly returned outside Racer Guy rode by. I got rolling and catch up to him, but I kept him at about 100 meters ahead and I think this annoyed him based on his riding speed and style. As we neared town, I didn't need him as a distraction and was happy to see him take a turn that was different from where I wanted to go. I'd soon afterwards roll into the center of Whanganui and found a hotel. Got a couple Subway foot longs after listening to the very chatty Subway manager, eventually rolled to my accommodation, got sorted and hit the hay. BTW these were my last two Subway sandwiches. There just are not enough calories in those things to fuel my body. 

112.3 mile with 6,763' followed by a 12-hour stop


Day 6

Based on prior knowledge I knew I was two days out from Wellington, the end of the North Island portion and more than half the distance. The more that I would ride today, the better and easier the ride into Wellington the following day would be.

At the start of the TA I booked a "Flexi Fare" ticket on the Bluebridge ferry across the Cook Straight and to the South Island.  Today I would change my boarding date/time for the third time. Accepting my pace and ridding without recovery was not my plan for 2020. My first booking was entirely too optimistic, and I'd been tweaking it since. Now with the Fred Bar set for pickup at the bike shop I was able to reschedule to a noontime sailing two days away.

Unfortunately, this morning was met with cold rain. It took me a bit to get going and the rain was meant to lighten up as the day progressed. A visit to a second cafe' for a second long black was necessary...and lucky I did. Turns out a few folks were keen on the TA and we enjoyed a chat. Afterwards one gentleman wanted to have a look at my bike. "Lift it up" I offered. So he picked it up commented on its weight and sat it down. That's when a heard a "clonk". WTF? Rear wheel problem for sure. Well it turned out to be my freaking skewer. Loose as hell.Falling out loose. Four-plus full turns to tight!!! How in the hell did that happen?! Who knows but in less than 30 seconds I fixed my bottom bracket AND the crappy shifting! After five full on days of my bike sounding like it was cracking to pieces my BB was as quiet as a mouse and my shifting was spot on. The five days of riding with the loose skewer and the resulting misaligned wheel did take a huge toll on my rear brake pads. They were so unevenly worn out, but I was too tired to change them. I decided I'd favor the front brakes for a while until I had the energy to change them.

I'd finally get rolling, rolling straight into a cold rainstorm. I soon got soaked and very cold. I was hoping the pub in Ashurst that I had left a VM with back in the morning did in fact save me a room for that night. No luck, when I finally I got there, and they delivered the bad news. I ordered some food, restocked at the Four Square and eventually got going again. Surely Palmerston North a much bigger town 20kms further on, a city to some, would have vacancy. No luck. How is that possible? Palmy North?!? Who the hell goes there?

The rain had stopped but it was still cold and threatening. I just had to keep moving. I must try and cross the Rimutuka Range and get down the other side to find a patch of grass in a park or something.

The early slopes over the Rimutukas have a really steep pitch in them. Night had long since fallen and I ground my way up the hill, paperboy-ing. Near the top of this section a "Hey Cliff!" Came from nowhere. A guy named Roeland, a yet to start TA rider in a later wave, offered me access to his guest house for the night. Bed, shower and laundry machine - HELL YEAH! We chatted quite a bit and drank an alcohol-free beer as he'd also gone on the wagon in preparations for his TA. A huge savior for sure.

129.2. miles with 7,815' followed by a 7.5hour stop  


Day 7

Leaving just before 5:00AM meant the traffic would be light as I groveled over the remainder of the Rimutaka pass. It was.

The first half of this day is not my favorite. It's a mix of exposed [to wind] country roads and soft gravel roads, but light winds kept my spirits up and I worked my way to Martinborough. When I eventually arrived, I was beyond stoked. I declared "I AM SO HAPPY TO BE HERE!" to a woman walking her dog. She smiled and waved. I just could not contain myself.I was ahead of my arrival time from 2016, familiar with the area, knew which cafe I'd hit, we're the Four Square was and what laid ahead - mostly off-road tracks and paths all the way to Wellington.  

After the refueling I jammed it over the Rimutuka Incline, down the Hutt Valley and I was way ahead of schedule. John and Carolyn were going to put me up for the night and I was getting excited to see them.

As I wound my way through the Petone waterfront I hear yet another "Hey Cliff!". There is this guy, Rich, holding out the Fred Bar he'd brought up from Wanaka! No need to go the bike shop first thing in the AM. AWESOME! We chatted a bit, learned we had some mates in common and decided to sort out payment later. It was then I realized I could change my ferry to the South Island to the morning versus the tomorrow afternoon one I had scheduled. At least I hoped. I called Bluebridge and it was done. 8AM sailing and a cabin for a nap!

Jumping on to a passing e-bike along the motorway made the battle with the headwind easy and soon I was at John and Carolyn's. I got sorted. Replaced the rear pads, which was a bit overdue, and gave my bike a once over. I decided to hold onto the Fred Bar until "later". I had ridden a few days without it after all.  I nearly left it there in Wellington. You know, it's bulky and it has mass. Why carry it? Very glad I didn't I leave it behind I'd later realize. 

John and Carolyn are great hosts. Carolyn had picked up four instant Uncle Ben's rice packs and some Pics Peanut Butter slugs (like gels, but better). After catching up over a 0.0% beer and eating like a pig I was off to bed. I also got to launder my kit!

156.8 miles with 6,795 followed by a 16.5-hour stop.  


Day 8  

I rolled downhill to the ferry just prior to 6:00AM to be the first to check in. I was to meet Jonty at the McDonald's at 6:15. He’d pinged Jeff Lyall as well and I was grateful to catch-up with both of them over a warm breakie. It's nice to chat with fellow cyclist whom understand your situation and are willing to both encourage and hassle you in the same sentence.

Soon afterwards I was onboard and napping away as the Bluebridge ferry made its way across the Cook Straight.

11:30AM I rolled on to the pier in Picton and was again back on very familiar roads and tracks. Similar to 2016 I knew how the first few days on the South Island could roll. I stopped early in the day in 2016's first day on the South Island but today I really wanted to go much further.  

I reloaded at the Four Square in Havelock which included some Vaseline and fresh rags for bike maintenance. Then later down the tr sealed, but very busy road, a section I don't particularly like, I decided to celebrate the fact of it being over with by grabbing a Coke and some chippies at the Pelorus Bridge cafe'. Problem was the queue was moving so slowly I finished both by the time it came time to pay. I got a wee chuckle for this accomplishment between the two gals working the register. Efficient use of my time I say.

Next up was the major obstacle of the day, the Mangatapu Pass which is a 4-wheel track that gets steep, loose and chunky. With an unloaded bike it's tough to clear. I'm exhausted and laden. I’d walk much of the upper portions. The loose rocks were sharp and risking a cut sidewall seemed ignorant. The same approach applied to the descent. Safely and wisely was my approach. STRAVA would confirm I'd taken it super easy, 35 minutes slower up to the top than my ~90-minute best.

Once in Nelson it was cruisey riding to Richmond were, unlike in 2016 were I stopped for the night, I'd refuel and press on. In 2016 I stopped in the late afternoon, which is very early by bike packing standards. This was likely due to the efforts I'd already done on the North Island. 2016's decision to stop in Richmond had left me with a hard 300 kms to Reefton. I wanted to shorten the ride to Reefton this time down. Into the night I rolled.  

Spooner’s Tunnel at over 1 mile in length was pretty cool as were the cruisey bike paths that followed afterwards however, the sleeping monster loomed heavy. Around 10:30PM and shortly after the tiny and sleeping town of Tapawara I was keen to find a spot to bivy. Amongst the tall hops grove was my decision. Before I'd find my exact spot, I witnessed the massively impressive satellite train streak across the night sky. The nighttime sky in New Zealand is incredible. Seeing this high-tech man-made creation against the clear Milky Way behind it was surreal. But yet again a bad choice for bivying as the ground was lumpy enough to make sleeping a chore.   

Waking numerous times in the night as I struggled to get warm and comfortable. My bivy was lined with condensation and my sleeping bag was becoming moist and clammy.I opted to pack up, and just after the bare minimum 6-hour required stop-time I was rolling once again. That night sucked but since I rode further than in 2016, I knew I didn't have to sell-the-farm and time trial to get to Reefton before the shops closed. Another good accommodation and refueling in Reefton would allow me to get sorted and rested.

101.3 miles with 6,883' followed by a 6.5-hour stop 


Day 9

It was a sincere struggle to get going this morning, at 4:30AM, in the dark and cold morning air. The hops hedges hadn't been kind to me. Rough nights like this always led to sluggish mornings. My effort across the day would also suffer but I soldiered on knowing that if I kept my forward progress, I'd stroll into Reefton with ample time to reload at the Four Square, which closed at 7PM, and sort my damp kit out for the following day. 

A relatively non-eventful day filled with some longer climbs and the not so much fun tar seal towards Springs Junction was finished by the grind over the pass westward to Reefton. A couple more Cokes and packs of peanut M&Ms became my routine during refueling stops. Looking at the time, I was still ahead of schedule and the light winds allowed it to stay that way. I reached Reefton and soon I was able to rinse my kit in the sink of my accommodation and was able to dry it along with my puffy and sleeping bag in the late afternoon sun. I hit the Four Square for supplies and diner provisions.

I contemplated heavily on the next day. It was the Big River section. A section I lobbied for inclusion in the TA back in 2015 when the final draft course was being completed by the Kennett Brothers. Ironically the contemplation was on whether to ride it or take the detour around. The detour was a foul weather/touring bike/I'm-not-a-mountain-biker kind of option. I fit none of these categories.  

130.8 miles with 7,251' followed by a 13-hour stop  


Day 10

Continuing my contemplations from yesterday.... Rationalizing, I did however take the “Harbor Detour” several days ago in Northland which added the 100kms of solid riding, while I had never detoured Big River. I'd in fact ridden Big River a few times even as recently as less than one year ago and I knew I'd merely be walking a lot of the descent. I wanted to take the detour. Not to avoid the climb, as I actually like that climb, but rather to avoid walking. Walking during this TA has served to really aggravate my right knee which I badly injured years ago. If I go via Big River and completely jack my knee up, I'd be devastated.

So, to give some time back to my forward progress as a "good faith" gesture to the racers about me, a self-induced penalty if you will, I opted to wait for the local bakery to open in the morning, enjoy a coffee & muffin and wee moment of reflection. Later, with a bit of disappointment, I rolled this detour. My knee thanked me.

Having peaked at the forecast I knew the West Coast was a day away from being hammered by a rainstorm with up to 3"+/hour rainfall intensities. The timing could not have been worse. The next town was Greymouth and a good opportunity to get a real rain jacket and a few bits to get me through it. A gentleman greeted me as I crested a we hill just before town. He handed me a mint as I streaked by, hopped in his car and led me straight to a well-stocked bike shop. Very good thing I got the jacket then I'd soon learn. The “Mint Guy” was performing video interviews and I agreed to do one as I prepped my gear outside the bike shop. After all the standard questions you could expect in a situation like this such as "How has it been?" and "What gear are you using?" something caught my eye. The LENTZ IS MORE sticker on my frame. A fucking sticker. I told him my mate was killed. I choked up. I couldn't speak. A God damned fucking sticker. I don't want this sticker. I struggled. The interview ended. I carried on. 

After Greymouth, the West Coast Wilderness Trail would dominate the day. A mint day, the calm before the storm, on a very epic track. Everything rolled well and I found myself in Hokatika early in the evening. I could have ridden a lot more, but I opted for a solid recovery and full mental preparations for the pending rainstorm across the West Coast. Three days left. I wanted to attack it hard, trim the fat from my 2016 effort and get this sucker done.

The West Coast road had been closed earlier this year already due to slips and road failures caused by heavy rains. If this storm caused similar damage I could be screwed. I really wanted to get beyond the areas of potential damage and not get trapped. There was an Inland Detour developed to address such a circumstance, but I simply could not wait here to see what would happen. Once committed however I'd long pass the turn off for the Inland Detour and I'd effectively be trapped. Only then would a massive backtracking to the Inland Detour, if even possible, would allow me to continue or simply being stuck deep down the West Coast - forced to wait out the roading repairs.

110.6 miles with 4,173' followed by a 10-hour stop 


Day 11

In 2016 I had ridden from here, Hokatika, to Paringa Lake Lodge, a small lodge in the middle of nowhere.  This time as I prepared to leave Hokatika, I was preparing to do whatever it took to go beyond Paringa Lake and make it to the outpost of Haast, the last stop on the TA's West Coast journey at nearly 300km away. This meant largely getting past all the previously damaged roads and bridges that were still being repaired. I even dreamed of possibly getting over Haast Pass as well, an additional 50kms. One can dream foolish dreams.

Leaving Hokatika at 2:45 AM was challenging. I was struggling to focus and keep my eyes open. The plan was to get coffee and grub along the way keeping my ballast with just enough to get to the next town. This was particularly the case from Franz Joseph Glacier to Fox Glacier. There are three hard cracker climbs between the two points, and I didn't want any extra weight to haul up the hills.

Once I'd reached Fox Glacier I had to load up. Part of the reason I had to stop at Paringa Lake Lodge in 2016 was that I didn't bring enough food. I wasn't going to let that happen again.  

The server weather forecast came to fruition and would have me battling heavy winds and cold rains as I limped into Haast. I was absolutely soaked to the core and freezing. The foolish dream of crossing Haast Pass was confirmed, and I was beyond relieved to find accommodation, food and a warm shower.

173.7 miles with 7,976' followed by a 36-hour stop 


Day 12

As the 36-hour stoppage noted above would suggest I took today off. The rain was cold and heavy, the skies were grey, low and stormy and the wind was howling. If I had made the Pass this would all be behind me. Had I not stopped early as in Hokatika, this would be behind me. Sticking to my "Safety and Finish" goals as well as "You are not going to race it again." philosophy kept me grounded. Plus, now I could smell the finish line. I knew I was only two days out. That's it. Two big days and I got it in the bag. I'd nearly made the finish in 2016 from even further away, only stopping short at Winton due to what would have been a late evening finish without transportation out of Bluff or any accommodation. The only goal I set now was to finish during daylight hours two days from now.

0 miles with 0'


Day 13

Rolling just after 4AM I had the jump on my 2016 effort in time, distance and recovery. It also afforded me the chance to climb Haast Pass in the quite early morning without traffic and nor pace. I nearly made it over the top without a single car coming by. I was 200 meters short.  The rainstorm had passed and only left wet roads and a few felled trees across the road. It also left the streams, rivers and waterfalls rushing at capacity. It was a magical sunrise yielding epic vistas and visuals to what had only been till then sounds of raging waters.  

Road would be much of the theme for the first half of the day and I made great time as a result. I made Wanaka ahead of my conservative schedule. After settling up at Outdoor Sports for the Fred Bar and reloading provisions at the New World I set off for the much hated drag up to and over the busy Crown Range Pass. All up the winds were light and the vehicles were not all that douchey even though they, by in large, didn't slow down a bit. Once at the top, mid-day I couldn't help but punch the air with relief and elation. The day was now trending away from cars and onto cruisey tracks all the way to Queenstown. The finish was nearing. I could feel it. I knew it.  

A brief stop in Arrowtown to refuel and a quick call to Colleen. I was really feeling excited. Feeling the accomplishment. It was not far away now. I wanted to share this moment with her. Colleen had been great all throughout this adventure. Though she may not have realized it her voice and encouragement were welcome and often very much needed.

The last small hurdle, if you will, was getting across the lake to Walter Peak Station. One last damn boat ride. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and I was reasonably certain that there was little chance that I'd find my way across and I'd be forced to spend the night and wait for the AM sailings After dodging hundreds of tourist and locals out enjoying the late Saturday afternoon sunshine I rolled up to an tourist "Activity" kiosk on the crowded waterfront. "Can we help you?" the gal proclaimed. "Yes, is there any way to get to Walter Peak Station this afternoon?". "There sure is!" she replied. I threw my hands into the air with relief and excitement. Upon learning of what I was up to and what I was trying to accomplish the staff working the kiosk got all stoked for me. However, it would prove difficult as it turned out. But after a few phone conversations, one with me begging for permission, I was able to join the “Dinner Cruise” to Walter Peak Station. Yes, a dinner cruise! Once we would arrive on the other side of the lake at Walter Peak Station there was to be a massive 4-star buffet. "Hell yes I'm willing to pay for the dinner!" - I told the gal on the other end of the phone. The gal worked for the Earnslaw steam vessel and couldn't get it outta her head that a cyclist whom intends on doing the Around the Mountains cycle trail would be interested in the dinner cruise.

It sailed at 6pm so I had some time to gather food and drink for the following day as I would be in the middle of nowhere for the first few hours of my day. I also got a nice Merino wool T-shirt from the MACPAC store to change into for diner. I'd also pull my Ice Breaker Merino long undies on over my bibs. I didn't want to look too outta place amongst a hundred non-Tour Aotearoa riders that had dressed up for the occasion.

The diner was off the charts and I managed to eat three bulging plates of real food. I was stuffed. Proper real food! OMG that was good. Before others had finished their dinner and drinks I snuck off and onto my bike to get a few kilometers in before night fell.  

Again, the more I moved forward the less I had to do on my last day. I desperately wanted to finish up in daytime. Exhausted, I just kept moving forward. It was slow going and the temperatures were falling.  

One of the concerns with allowing me to join the dinner cruise in the first place was that I was planning on cycling the Around the Mountains cycle trail. The operators of the Earnslaw steam vessel are informed that cyclist aren't meant to free camp along its route and therefore allowing me to cross the lake with my intentions meant I had to promise them that I'd either camp at the site near Walter Peak Station or cycle the 50k to another designated campsite. No worries for me but they didn't understand who they were dealing with. They get countless weekend warriors on hired mountain bikes getting in over their head and doing stupid shit like starting campfires in unsafe locations and leaving random evidence of camping across the landscape. So, it took some convincing back in Queenstown to get the ticket to join the dinner cruise but now that I was across the lake, I was free to fly. Now It's all on me to get to the finish tomorrow before sunset. 

This was actually my third time on this segment. I had ridden through here during the 2014 Great Southern Brevet and the 2016 Tour Aotearoa so I was pleasantly surprised to find these recently installed 3-sided shelter kiosks about every 15km. Purposely built as part of the Around the Mountains cycle trail for cyclist traveling the route. I didn't make the campsite at 50km because after I had reached the second kiosk, I was just exhausted. It would be my home for the night. I was smoked.

173.4 miles with 10,910' followed by a 9.5 hours stopp 


Day 14 

Bivying the night well into the Around the Mountains cycle trail meant I'd set up my final effort to the finish quite well. In 2016 I was having a cooked breakfast and warm coffee in Queenstown at 8AM. Back then I was riding with a few mates [long story] and we had already ridden two hours in the wee hours of the morning into town from our bivy site in Arrowtown. Now however I was across the lake, up the major climb and stuffing M&Ms down my pie hole at dawn. Keep this thing upright and rolling and I'd have my daytime finish long before Day 14 comes to an end. "Stay on your bike Danny!"


My best bivy of the TA, which isn't saying much and by no means all that restful as it got cold. The early miles were tough. The gravel in this section was heavy, loose and not enjoyable. My fingers were freezing and numb.I’d vigorously rub them on my thighs and breath on my knuckles for nearly an hour.After a slow few hours I was pleased to reach Mossburn to refuel and eventually get onto some tar seal. I settled into time trial mode and made great progress. After a few more hours I rolled into Winton, where we stayed in the Pub back in 2016. I saw two TAers coming towards me on the edge of town and back onto the course. Here the town center required a bit of an out and back to reach.It was a necessary refuel for me, and apparently for the other two as well.  

The two riders did not acknowledge me. No wave. No knod. This kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Sure, they may not of noticed my bright yellow sun skins but that didn't matter to me. I was going to crush them to the finish. It's not a race, but now I got something to focus on. The end was calling and putting the hammer down seemed like the thing to do anyway. Empty the already very empty tank.

After a flash refueling, I was on the case, the catch and the drop. Individual time trialing with everything I had left. Everything. Bluff was on the horizon and it came slowly. Finally, once I had reached town emotions flooded my head. I thought of my wife, my life, Kevin and this incredible adventure. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I couldn't contain bursts of weeping. I had done it! I had cycled the length of New Zealand, again! I had made good of what had gone wrong in 2018. A very lucky and happy man!!!! I had proven a lot to myself. After nine of these style of events in New Zealand, Italy Divide and a few in the USA, I truly know my limits. I'm proud of who I am. I had suffered, smiled, cried, laughed, freaked-out, chilled, enjoyed, hated but persevered through it all. This ride was truly a box of chocolates.A box in which you must eat every single freaking chocolate, even the nasty ones.

Total time: 13 days, 8 hours (2016 total time: 11 days, 20 hours)


My kit for the 2020 Tour Aotearoa:

BIKE AND BAGS:

  • TREK Procaliber 29er hardtail
  • DT SWISS MT1200 carbon wheelset
  • FOX 120 mm fork
  • Bontrager 2.0 X1 tubeless tires, with STANS sealant
  • SRAM XX1 EAGLE 38X10/50
  • SHIMANO XT brakes and XTR pedals
  • Stealth frame bag
  • Apidura fuel tank
  • Relavate feed bag
  • Apidura bottle bags
  • Sea to Summit Event compression bag
  • Alpkit feed bad (mounted to seat tube)

SLEEPING SYSTEM:

  • Marmot Plasma 40d sleeping bag
  • Thermarest X Air mat
  • Ice Breaker Merino wool long underwear
  • Cocoon air pillow
  • MACPAC bivy sack

CLOTHING: 

  • Coureur team kit by ELIEL cycling, one kit
  • MACPAC puffy w hood
  • MACPAC lightweight rain jacket
  • Shower Pass hooded rain jacket
  • Bontrager sun skins
  • Kiwi cycling socks, one pair
  • Pearl Izumi short finger gel gloves
  • 100% shades with transition lenses
  • Lazer Z1 helmet
  • ELIEL under-liner
  • GIRO Teraundo shoes w Bontrager insoles
  • Two reflective ankle straps

MISCELLANEOUS GEAR:

  • NITERIDER Micro 850 light, 2 each
  • Bontrager flare tail and front lights
  • Ass Savor mini seat fender
  • Stealth small handlebar bag 
  • 8,000 & 10,000 milliampere battery packs
  • Essential cords, micro and type C
  • Blackburn MTB mini pump
  • Dyno plug with spares
  • One spare tube and patch kit
  • Presta to Shaffer converter
  • Zip ties
  • Duck tape, a couple rubber bands and a knife 
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush, dental pick
  • A single strand of floss, ear plugs
  • Spare 12 speed link
  • Multi-tool
  • Shower cap and a plastic bag
  • Spare spokes, nipples and spoke tool
  • Lube and rag, Rock n Roll YELLOW for much of it
  • Spare shifter cable
  • Emergency gel 
  • Sunscreen
  • Spare seat clamp w/ bolt
  • Spare derailure hanger and custom 20mm wrench 
  • Chamois Butter
  • Sea Summit 27g backpack
  • Toilet paper
  • Three water bottles

RANDOM FACTS: 

  • Pre ride a trained weight of 184lbs, finish 173lbs
  • Zero flats
  • No saddle sores 
  • After the finish, it took some effort to clean all the cow shit from my gear
  • 3$ USD can get you two loads of laundry done and folded for you in Invercargill
  • Two bee stings (one good one, bleeding, in my forehead)
  • One day I got a few sun blisters from not applying sunscreen 
  • Four numb fingers, two each hand
  • Never used my backup NITERIDER light
  • Never used my backup 8,000-ma battery pack
  • Brought along a second pair of socks which I wasn't using so I tossed them as I needed all my packing capacity
  • Having the Sea to Summit backpack was essential
  • Had 20psi too much in my fork for the duration, limiting the travel to 2" maximum
  • Brain capacity and functionality compromised, (See previous observation on my fork as an example)
  • Only a couple very minor navigating errors
  • No crashes
  • Peanut M&Ms and SNICKERS eaten, countless 
  • Numerous Cokes, Powerades, long blacks and plenty of water 
  • Total weight of bike 38-44lbs depending on water and food quantities onboard
  • 148.2 miles was my daily average miles
  • 10 hours was my daily average stoppage time
  • The last few M&Ms in the packet never ever want to come out without a fight 
  • Wouldn't change much
  • Zero equipment failures
  • Carrying ample toilet paper is essential

5 Responses

Bill K
Bill K

May 11, 2020

Only you Clifford. Once again living vicariously thru you!

Jody
Jody

May 11, 2020

Bravo Mate!! What a way to start my day, cup of coffee and reading your ultimate accomplishment. Purely motivating.

Burt Reiff
Burt Reiff

May 11, 2020

I read every word. You are amazing. Will you do it again?

Cliff
Cliff

May 11, 2020

Thank you @puregravel.com It is hard to capture the “ride” when writing a story….I hope this encourages others.

Oli Brooke-White
Oli Brooke-White

May 11, 2020

What a wonderful achievement Cliff, outstanding effort! So pleased to see you knock the bastard off again after your tough 2018 attempt. Really proud of you, mate.

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A peloton of riders at SBT GRVL