AN ANNUAL RIDE THAT JUST KEEPS ROLLING
Never underestimate the importance of self-identity. We may have complex ideas about who we are, but these often boil down to a few key terms and concepts. For many years I’ve identified myself as a ‘cyclist’. Using these terms of self-identification is very useful, especially in social situations where we grapple to find common interest with a newly met stranger. But it goes deeper than that, and I didn’t find out how deep until four years ago.
To cut a long story short, after a particularly stupid fully rigid 90-kilometre mountain bike ride in the snow, I got an infection that moved into my joints and became reactive arthritis. Worst affected were my feet; walking and riding my bike became agony. Slumped in my beanbag in front of a Playstation, on a cocktail of drugs, I thought “is this it?” I tried to imagine myself as ‘not a cyclist’: What would I do? How fat would I get? How would my mind cope without the endorphin kick from single-track trails? Is there life without bikes? Icy cold panic gripped the very core of my being.
To cut another long story short, I got better. It was an adventure in itself that took me to ICU and eventually back to riding my bike. My arthritis is still here—I can’t ride super-technical impact-laden trails—but I can crank out 50 kilometres in the mountains behind Nelson and come home with a smile on my face.
One sunny lunchtime during my recovery I was talking to workmates about the ‘Longest Day Ride’, a one-off pre-arthritis mission I’d done with a friend of mine. We had ridden our mountain bikes from dawn to dusk on the longest day of the year. At the time of the conversation I was only just riding again and the urge to reclaim my identity as a cyclist made me blurt out, that actually, I was going to do it again.
So the idea of the Longest Day Ride continued into another year, but this time I had company. Friends who knew of the original ride were curious about giving it a crack themselves. On the 21st December 2010 a few dozen cyclists around New Zealand woke up extra early, got on their bikes, and rode until sundown.
The route, distance and difficulty of the various rides wasn’t important. What was important to me was planting a metaphorical flag in my life and proudly proclaiming “I am a cyclist!” We also managed to raise a few thousand dollars for Arthritis New Zealand, which was a nice way of giving back to an organisation that helps people like me to live their lives to the fullest.
Since then the Longest Day Ride has grown bigger each year. It’s a surprisingly fun and accessible challenge for any cyclist—simply ride from dawn to dusk on the longest day. It’s my annual celebration of being a cyclist. I hope you join me.
The rain was coming at me horizontally. I stood stationary beside the road, shielding the screen of my GPS from the incoming water. The dull screen was barely visible in the fading light as buttons were franticly pushed to plot my final route home.
Home was the place I left some time ago, around dawn. My day had been filled with many miles of gravel, dirt, concrete, and tarmac. I travelled through the desolate hills where the Riders Of Rohan once thundered in Peter Jackson’s epic, and across the barren flat lands surrounding the Otago Central Rail Trail—this is New Zealand’s version of big sky country.
I pedalled through scenery that changed little for mile after mile, until I slowly realised that it was changing at every moment. In country this vast it’s the little things that make the difference: The white noise sound of thousands of litres of water a minute being pumped through wheeled pipes, lumbering along to make marginal land into dairy farms; The pungent smell of wild thyme being carried on the breeze as you turn a bend; The rock, perched high above the valley floor that from this one angle, and only this particular angle, looks distinctly like a rabbit.
There were hours of turning my legs, which turned the pedals, which turned the wheels, which moved me through this ever changing landscape. My ride was one big loop. I don’t think the Maniototo has any small loops, so on the longest day I got to ride a big loop. It took me from Ranfurly to Alexandra, then up to the Hogburn dam, down the Ida Valley, and back to Ranfurly. It was a loop of big plains, big sky, and a few big hills—old gold country, scenery that hasn’t changed for a hundred years since the gold ran out. It was soothing to roll through it, making me feel alone, small and insignificant.
You know a good ride is worth it when you’re huddled beside the road after 170 kilometres of riding, only 20 kilometres from home, and you’re trying to find a different route—just so the ride clicks over 200 kilometres. The Longest Day Ride fits my biking philosophy: I’m not a slow rider, I just like to stretch out the enjoyment a bit longer than most. The Longest Day Ride isn’t about going as hard as you can, or as far as you can—it’s about riding all day just because you can.
Mainland coast to coast
We spun out of Picton in a gloomy pre-dawn mist—John and I on our tandem and Dave on his single bike. We had a 25-kilometre warm-up ride to reach the east coast near Rarangi, the start of our longest day coast to coast ride. A couple of kilometres into the ride John began experiencing saddle discomfort and adjusting his position with disturbing frequency. Tandem riding is a great shared experience. When one rider moves this way or that, the other rider’s saddle moves in the opposite direction—that way or this. After 10 kilometres I pointed this out and an argument ensued. I considered bailing out at Blenheim, but decided to try another approach first. We pulled over and I ordered John to try the captain’s seat thinking he might find that more comfortable (and it put me in a much better position in the event of an on-bike brawl).
Dawn broke, the rain stopped and eventually the sun came out. When we reached the east coast, I walked down the beach and dipped my fingers in the sea. It was time to start this ride afresh. Fortunately, sharing the captaincy worked wonders, and John and I swapped places every hour or two throughout the day. Each time we did, we got a different shaped saddle and pair of handlebars, and a very different riding experience.
Traffic was generally scarce and the scenery throughout our journey west was stunning: braided rivers, beech and tussock-clad mountains, and narrow valleys lined with thick rainforest. We reached Murchison in time for a late lunch and, despite the usual incompatibility between tandem and single bike pace on the hills, spirits were high.
A stiff headwind began to brew as we continued westward. The Upper Buller Gorge, which I hadn’t ridden for 25 years, seemed to have become much hillier. We resorted to first gear and a glacial pace more than once, and were ready for an ice-cream break at the Inangahua dairy. When Dave asked for tap water, the owner treated us to a lecture in how important it was to share the necessities of life with our fellow man! We forged on down the valley into the headwind. I was becoming exhausted, but remained ever so grateful to be on a tandem rather than a single bike. Both John and Dave seemed to be as strong as ever. At last we cruised into Westport and through to the beach before I repeated my beach stroll and saltwater sampling ritual. Then it was off to the nearest fish and chip shop for some serious refuelling. We weren’t quite done yet.
Logistics meant that the most convenient option for returning to Picton on a Sunday (with a tandem) was a Nelson Lakes Shuttle—from Murchison. So with stomaches bulging and the sun low in the sky, we set out for a 100-kilometre warm-down. On paper, this looked a bit daunting due to the 600 metres of climbing involved. In reality, it was a pleaure. The wind, as strong as before, was behind us now as was the sun, which cast a beautiful golden tint onto the lush forest, river gravels and rock outcrops of the Buller Gorge. The nearer we got to our destination, the more energised we seemed to become. With almost 400 kilometres under our belts, we were still flying along the flats at 45 kph. This was fun!
We spun into Murchison just after dusk, a little over 16 hours since leaving Picton. Our Longest Day Ride was a huge success. Not least because John and I worked out how to enjoy riding a tandem together. We ended 2012 looking forward to the possibilities for 2013. What next we wondered?
Long hot summer
My ride was a loop of the Waikato, a 200-kilometre amble through the countryside on nicely undulating roads, avoiding as much traffic as possible and stopping at rural cafés along the way. I had successfully lured two long-term cycling friends, Megan and Michelle, along to accompany me on the Longest Day Ride.
At 5:56am we left Matangi, squinting into the haze of a typical Waikato morning, backlit by the sunrise. We had the roads to ourselves, even the farmers weren’t out of bed. As we rode up through Scotsman’s Valley, the sun spilled over the ridgeline and draped itself across foggy paddocks—the grass was glowing. The early morning haze soon retreated to the distant hills and the warm sun lifted our spirits and our cadence.
Force-feeding ourselves a second breakfast at Morrinsville less than two hours into the ride felt a bit strange, but it was insurance for later. Salad wraps, iceblocks, cold drinks and stretches were the order of the morning. Back in the saddle, the heat and our kilometre count steadily increased. By lunchtime we knew we were in for a beautiful, but hot, ride.
At the hottest part of the day I could smell the dry grass in adjacent paddocks. The sun beat down on our backs and heat rose up off hot bitumen. With every breath I inhaled hot dry fumes and it felt like I’d dusted my lungs with Cajun powder. There was no respite in the shade—there was no shade. We rode along to a strange crackling sound as bubbles in the hot bleeding bitumen popped under our tyres. I was sweaty and salty. My legs were brown with dust smeared around with sunscreen. I later discovered that it wasn’t dust but bitumen that had flicked up from my tyres and coated my legs.
Watching 100 kilometres click over on our computers was both an uplifting feeling of achievement and a moment of dread—we were only halfway into our day. Meg’s shoulder started to complain, Michelle’s feet swelled up, and I got the shakes. We knew what we needed, an incredibly long stop at the Pirongia pub: Speights, burger and chips, bananas, Powerade, ibuprofen, massage and multiple power naps.
Meg pulled the pin in Te Awamutu, so we dropped her off at her house. We watched our feet shrink in the cold paddling pool, then retreated indoors to the airconditioned lounge. It felt like game-over for me, too. Not even Bodhi-dog’s hot raspy tongue licking my legs was enough to make me move. But Michelle muttered something and stood up. I decoupled myself from the cool utopia, dosed up on ibuprofen to try to dull the all-over body ache, and got back onto my bike.
By now our brains were thick with the fog that comes from an all-day ride. We lacked the physical and mental strength to hold good lines through the loose gravel of the unsealed road we were following—we were virtually swimming down the road. After a lengthy deliberation at the first junction (the long way, or the hard way?) we continued on the rough road. We were relieved to find it soon smoothed out and the hard way became fast and fun.
Not long after we found ourselves in Cambridge, sitting in the gutter eating KFC. It was hardly the lowest moment of our day, we actually felt good! Dessert in Hautapu followed and was continued with lolly mixtures stuffed into our jersey pockets.
As the sun sank lower our shadows stretched out across the road and we edged closer to our goal. Fourteen hours and 31 minutes after setting off, I turned back through the gate in Matangi, but not before one extra eight-kilometre lap around the block in an attempt to make the ride a double century.
Our Longest Day Ride on a hot summer day was over. It was 190 kilometres of riding shared with friends in a memorable experience that will long outlast any pain or injury. We have stories to tell, friendships have been cemented, and we look forward to doing do it all again.
Three factors decided how my Longest Day Ride plan panned out—one was philosophical, the other two were practical: firstly, all of my adult life cycling has predominately been about spending time with friends, but for this trip no-one I knew could commit to a whole day of riding; secondly, I’m terrible at planning trips, or more exactly, making decisions; thirdly, I had only clocked up a little under 45 kilometres of riding in the preceding 30 days.
My solution was to ride with whoever could spare the time, for as much riding as they could manage. I didn’t plan all the details of the ride, I would change bikes regularly, take regular and generous meal breaks, stay close to home, and enjoy a day dedicated to riding rather than a day riding.
I was never more than 16 kilometres from home as the crow flies, but as a bike rides I wound in and out and around, rediscovering and revisiting the town I had been away from for a year. I had nowhere to get to and no particular distance to cover. I could stop at the Saturday morning market for a breakfast curry, have a leisurely lunch with my riding buddies, and when the spokes on my old steel road bike went ting-ting-ting—snapping like dry twigs—I could shrug, slacken off my brake and my pace, ride home, and change lycra for baggies and slicks for nobbly tyres.
All in all, the distance I covered was measly, the money I raised for Arthritis New Zealand was bugger all, and the adventure-hero factor was next to nothing. However, I had a great time and there’s always this year for all of that. Or maybe I’ll just stick to what I know.