In five months I set out to ride the length of New Zealand on the Tour Aotearoa. In a nutshell: the Tour isn’t a race, everyone is self-sufficient, the scenic route of 3000km must be followed exactly, and riders must arrive in Bluff within 30 days. Find out more here:
A journey of this length needs some planning – just being fit enough isn’t enough. There’s equipment to fettle, a body to hone, and a mind to sharpen before I roll out. Usually, when planning trips, I scribble thoughts and lists in a notebook then forget to read them and head out half-cocked. So this time I’m making the notebook electronic and posting it for all to see, which may force me to act on my own advice.
This won’t be a step-by-step guide to preparing for a big backpacking trip, as that would require me to do some step-by-step preparation. I’m not that methodical, and I don’t claim to be the Mr Miyagi of bikepacking.
Here’s scribble number one – the outline.
THREE THINGS TO GET STRAIGHT BEFORE I FIND MYSELF AT CAPE REINGA UNPREPARED:
MIND: strategy, philosophy and technique
I need to be clear what I want to achieve from the Tour and create some sort of plan to achieve it. There’s a route to memorise and logistical pinch points to plan for. I’ll need mental toughness to cope with the expected unexpected and to deal with inevitable rough times. The ability to travel light, live loose and ride long days over and over for a few weeks needs technique, nous and experience. I’d better hone that.
BODY: long days, strength and discomfort
Long days in the saddle will be unavoidable. I’ll set no speed records, but I’ll need to be physically able to ride day in day out and tolerate inevitable aches and pains. Medication and holistic remedies may be required – chafe-ease and talc at the least. Strength and flexibility, more than I have right now, are essential—I’m no lightweight roadie.
GEAR: ride, carry, live and document
The most important piece of equipment is my bike. Then between my bike and me I need to carry everything to live for three or more weeks. I’ll need bags. I plan to keep weight to a minimum, within reason. Plus, I want to document this ride, so that’s a GPS, camera, phone and notebook. I’ll need some way to charge those, notebook excepted.
I have five months to get all of that in shape. Let’s make a start.
Bike / 29.9.15
I can talk about grip tape, brakes, tyre choice and whatnot, but it would all be mere detail, overshadowed by the elephant in the garage: my decision to ride the Tour Aotearoa with a fixed gear. Two fixed gears, to be accurate. One for most of the riding and a second for climbing and rough off-road riding.
It’s not exactly a logical choice. I do realise there are derailleur and hub gear systems available, tried and tested for almost a century. Choosing one of those would be logical. Even riding single-speed with a freewheel would make some sense. I’ll try to explain why I choose to ignore these innovations. I don’t expect you to understand, I’m not sure I really do.
The appeal of long rides to me is clarity: clarity of mind, clarity of purpose. On a long day in the saddle I can blank out all detail and focus solely on riding what’s in front of me. The noise of life fades away as I fixate on climbing the next hill, on the food and drink I’m consuming to keep the pedals turning, and on my position on the virtual route map I have stored inside my head.
It’s an example of ‘flow’ – a zone of optimal experience – extended out to 12 or more hours. It’s how I keep churning out the kilometres, pushing myself to ride further, longer, or tougher. Riding is broken into smaller chunks – achievable challenges, moments, that join seamlessly into days.
My enemy is doubt: doubt that I can ride this far, doubt that everything is working as it should, doubt that I’ve missed a turn. When clarity rules doubt, riding is easy. When doubts creep in, I have a bad day.
Riding a fixed gear off-road is half-exhilarating and half-terrifying.
My fixed gear is the amplifier that turns this experience up to 11. Rider and machine become conjoined: the bike is always there, yet not there at all. It is both master and slave.
It encourages ‘flow’, a rate of progress that is ‘just right’ – neither painfully slow or unsustainably fast. Climbs are despatched quickly if the gear can be kept turning, or slowly if walking is required. Descending speed is limited by maximum leg cadence, or the brave unclipping of feet from shin-mashing pedals whirring at over 200rpm.
The fixed gear has a silent, metronomic rotation that focusses mind and body on the task of riding. Press harder or spin faster. Every climb and descent, headwind or tailwind become concentrated moments of passage. There is absolute focus on the riding immediately ahead.
I have none of the self-doubt I get when riding with gears: that awful feeling of going backwards uphill, desperately searching for the extra gear beyond the block; or the overconfidence of smashing the big dog too far and for too long, only to pay dearly later in the day. The fixed gear removes decisions about pace. We travel at it’s speed, not mine.
Riding fixed is a solitary pursuit. It has a unique rhythm of progress. At times it is possible to enjoy company, but riders with freewheels and multi-geared machines will eventually need to assume a quite different pace. We meet, we ride and share experiences, we part ways.
After many years and many thousands of kilometres riding a fixed gear, I know I have many easy days and very few bad days. Riding fixed on the road is peaceful and calming. Riding fixed off-road is half-exhilarating and half-terrifying. The Tour Aotearoa offers a mix of both. Peaceful, calm, exhilarating and terrifying in one long ride. I’m expecting the Tour Aotearoa experience to hit 10 across the board. Why wouldn’t I take it one louder?
Sleep / 28.10.15
Apart from riding, of which there will be a fair bit, sleep is likely to be the next biggest time-sink during the Tour Aotearoa. I have thought about how I will approach sleep for the 20 or so nights I aim to be out there. But like all of my plans for the Tour, it will evolve and adapt as needed.
There’s something special about sleeping outside under the stars. It takes a while to feel comfortable with it – to get over mild panic that comes from fear of exposure. But the rewards are solitude, a connection with the world, and satisfaction of really breaking away from life – doing something most people wouldn’t understand. I don’t do nearly as much of it as I should. The Tour Aotearoa is an opportunity, not just to bivvy during the Tour, but as an excuse to leave family and a warm bed to sleep outside in the months leading up to the tour. So for the Tour, my main sleeping tool will be a bivvy bag.
Not familiar with the bivvy? Here’s a great summary from the master of micro adventures, Alastair Humphreys: What is a bivvy?
Aside from the sleeping under the stars thing, I don’t want to artificially constrain my days to rides between accommodation. I want to be able to ride as long (or as short) as my head and body allow, which means being able to stop and call it a day just about anywhere. There will be plenty of other riders on the Tour route looking for a bed, and summer tourists will be lingering – in many parts of New Zealand there’s only so many beds to go around. Those are little niggles that turn into major worries during long and tiring days in the saddle. Those are worries that I really don’t need.
My bivvy equipment consists of:
Alpkit Hunka XL bivvy bag. Waterproof, mildly breathable, and with a drawstring hood.
Ajungilak Kompact Spring sleeping bag. Synthetic fill is heavier and bulkier than down, but more tolerant to damp and abuse.
Thermarest Neoair X-Lite mat. Thick, luxurious, full length.
Exped air UL pillow. More comfortable than a repurposed dry bag or pair of shoes.
Braun BC002 travel alarm. Totally unnecessary, but the rising crescendo alarm wakes me with a smile each morning.
Earplugs. Don’t leave home for an overnight trip without them.
Petzl Tikka head torch. To see with.
Sleeping under the stars is lovely, sleeping under the rain isn’t so much fun.
I don’t plan to stubbornly sleep outside every night of the Tour, I won’t turn down a comfortable bed if one appears at the right time. The right time might be during bad weather (sleeping under the stars is lovely, sleeping under the rain isn’t so much fun), on days when my head or body is weary, when I need to plug in electronic devices to charge, or when I pass somewhere that just looks like a nice place to stay.
So why not a tent? A Macpac Microlight is my usual travelling accommodation. It is more comfortable than a bag and more weather resistant. But it is also heavier, bulkier and doesn’t just plonk down anywhere like a bag. Plus, sleeping under nylon isn’t sleeping under the stars. As Alastair Humphreys so brilliantly says: “In a tent you are basically in a rubbish version of indoors.”
All-up the gear weighs just on two kilograms including the large Revelate Designs Sweet Roll bag it fits into. The sleeping bag stays inside the bivvy bag and stuffs straight into the Sweet Roll. The mat and other bits pack into the end. The Sweet Roll is cinched down to fit between my dirt-drop bars. It’ll hang on my bars untouched until I settle down for the night. On the nights I sleep in luxury, I can unpack it all to air and dry.
In the next week, when I get a fine night, I’ll head out to a local spot to test it all. I’ll report how it goes.
Fix / 11.12.15
I’d just descended Ridgeline Extension at Makara Peak, when I heard the distinctive ‘pssssstttttttt’ of escaping air and felt the rear of my bike squirm and sag.
Punctures are annoying at the best of times. They are more annoying when you think the sealant in your tubeless tyres should be racing to the hole to stop the air leak. They are even more annoying when they are slow enough to tease you into the pump-ride-pump-ride fallacy. And they are more annoying still when you are just too far from home to walk, but not far enough away to make repair the only option. As punctures go, this was almost the perfect storm – a real storm would have made the situation complete.
Fortunately, I was on my single speed, a bike that needs almost no maintenance (hence the dried-out tyre sealant). I carry the small selection of tools and spares I need on the frame: a multitool of allen keys, a tube and a pump. So when the time came to suck it up and fix the puncture, I was prepared. To remove the punctured rear wheel, I needed an 8mm allen key for the bolt-up hub. So I simply pulled out my 8mm allen key and…
There was nothing for it except to pump-ride-pump-ride all the way home.
Except there wasn’t an 8mm allen key on my tool. For years (literally) I’ve carried the tool around, safe in the knowledge I could adjust all bolts on this bike. But a simple rear wheel puncture stumped me. There was nothing for it except to pump-ride-pump-ride all the way home.
In a round about way, I’ve explained why I’ve taken a bit of time to think through my tools and spares for the Tour Aotearoa. On such a long ride, I want to be able to fix all but the most serious problems, at least temporarily enough to get to the next bike shop. It’s not just a practical thing, it’s mental health – reducing unnecessary stress and worry.
Coping with mechanical problems starts with minimising mechanical problems in the first place. By the start of the ride, everything important on my bike will be serviced or new and ridden-in.
My bike is simple and I know it well: I know what could fail and I know what tools are needed to tighten, adjust and repair it. Essentially it’s nothing more than a pair of wheels, a fixed wheel drivetrain, mechanical disc brakes, and the usual bolted-on parts that may come loose. I’ll take the following:
Tools. The ease of using full size tools offsets the extra weight over a multitool. The Leatherman Skeletool provides a knife, pliers, screwdrivers and a bottle opener. Rock N Roll, toothbrush (not shown) and a rag cleans and lubes the chain.
Spares. A few replacement bolts and cleats. Two sets of brake pads. A chain trimmed to length – I’m paranoid about snapping a chain.
Tyres. A Lezyne high volume pump. Two tubes. Tyre levers. Various patches and boots. Tyres are tubeless and sealed.
Fix-anythings. Cable ties, duct tape, baling wire and velcro straps (not shown).
A washbag moonlighting as a tool-roll holds everything except the tubes, pump, lube and rag. It all lives in the bottom of my frame bag. The 4mm and 5mm allen keys slide into their own pocket on the outside of my frame bag. These are my low-tech gear shifter used to loosen and tighten my dropouts, so I need easy access to them.
Of course, this won’t cope with every possible failure – far from it. But between the duct tape, baling wire and actual designed-for-the-job spares, I should get to a bike shop to enable a real repair, or a bar to drown my sorrows.