Tour Aotearoa: Prep & Overview

An epic Father-Daughter Bike Ride

The lighthouse at Cape Reinga (the northern-most point) on Day 1 - Sept 27 2018

The lighthouse at Cape Reinga (the northern-most point) on Day 1 - Sept 27 2018

In 2017, I made the goal to complete the Tour Aotearoa in October 2018. The Tour Aotearoa is a 3000km bike route created by the Kennett Brothers, which covers the length of New Zealand, starting at Cape Reinga (the northern most point of the country), and finishing at Bluff (the southern most point). This is usually completed as a race in February every second year. I chose October as I thought it would be a great ending to my initial working visa (I have since extended it). Plus I wanted to do it independently to take the pressure off of being in a competition atmosphere, as I had zero bike-packing/cycle-touring experience. Soon after I made this goal, my dad expressed interest, and decided to join me. I knew it was going to be a challenge, both physically and mentally, and it was, but the challenges were not always where I expected them to be.


 Preparation

Coming from an events-based and result-oriented work place, I knew how to plan for this trip and I knew how to train. One thing that kept me motivated and kept my plans unwavering was that I told everyone. I told friends, family and co-workers before leaving Canada, I told people I met along my travels, and I made a blog post on goal setting explaining the process and the plan with a timeline. It does put on a bit of pressure to know that other people are aware of your plans, but it’s a good kind of pressure, because it gets them excited for you and provides more encouragement and support. I find it really holds me accountable; it’s not just a secret idea that I could ditch if things got hard or scary. I was terrified of taking on something this big. I had zero experience on a touring bike, or with touring gear or on multi-day bike rides. The longest ride I had been on previously was 100km on a road bike (and that was a couple years ago).

My first step was to soak in as much information as I could about bike-packing and other people’s experiences riding the TA. Resources I used included the Official Tour Aotearoa website (which has a blog section for people to share their stories), the Kennett Brothers TA guide books (with more information on logistics and small tips), the Facebook page “Tour Aotearoa: general forum”, articles on bike packing online and talking to anyone and everyone I could.

Once I had a rough idea of what to expect, I created a 6-month training program for Dad and myself. This included a combination of lateral stability, core and single legwork, starting with a power, then strength, and then endurance as reps went up over the months and exercise variations changed. As the months went by, I had been doing my riding on the only bike I had, my older full suspension mountain bike, a Trek Slash. I needed to get on the road and do some longer rides. I started researching bikes and gear and developing a plan for my budget.  

Greymouth Bar Day 23 - Oct 19 2018

Greymouth Bar Day 23 - Oct 19 2018

 About 5 months before the Tour, I moved to Nelson and started working for Gravity Nelson as a MTB Coach & Guide. I told them what I was planning and they eagerly helped me out with advice and even sponsored me by setting me up on the perfect bike-packing bike. Gravity not only provided a bike for me to train on and use for the TA, but they also gave me connections of people to talk to, gear advice, bike set up, training ride ideas and overall support. I am so grateful for their help and to be part of the team. Gravity Nelson is the place to go to talk bikes, local trail knowledge and make the most out of your riding in Nelson.

3 months before the start date of the tour, I really dove into the longer training rides. As a mountain bike coach, I was already on my bike a few times a week, but I added in extra rides pre- or post- coaching sessions, along with 1-2 road rides a week. I planned 3 weekends of bigger mission rides such as the Queen Charlotte Track in one day, and the Old Ghost Road and Heaphy Track in 2.5 days. These got me used to my bike set up, packing and unpacking my gear, riding with gear over different terrain and just being on my bike for hours and hours on end.

 

Throughout all of this I was also constantly checking in with my dad; making sure he was doing his exercises, going on training rides, planning to bring the right gear, buying his flight tickets as well as discussing our itinerary, length of days, accommodation/camping arrangements, and overall expectations of the trip. My dad and I are very different people, we function differently, communicate differently, and plan differently. While planning this, my dad didn’t have a ton of input since he’s more an on-the-go person and action-reaction person, whereas I like to have a plan, and back up plans where possible. We did end up leaving most of our itinerary fairly open. I could only plan for the first 4-5 days since we needed to see how we felt, and what pace we were actually able to hold and go from there, but I still had a general idea. Plus we needed to keep an eye on weather and adjust accordingly.

Both my dad and I dealt with injuries during the months leading up to the ride. I had fallen during the Queen Charlotte track and injured my elbow. I had to take a couple weeks off the bike to make the swelling go down and pain dissipate, but got back into physio and training as soon as I could. My elbow has not been the same since, which is quite annoying, but doesn’t stop me from riding. I also injured my knee during the longer training mission (OGR & Heaphy) where my cleat had been set up wrong, which made my knee track and pull in an incorrect position for 250km. That stayed with me throughout the TA…but K tape was my saviour from the pain. My dad’s injury came from a fall he had hiking where he ended up with a small fracture in his foot. He also had to take a few weeks off the bike, but was driven to rest, recover and get back on as soon as possible. We checked in with each other during the ride, reminding one another to stretch, activate glutes and drink plenty of water. I carried a lacrosse ball with me to release tight muscles along the way, which helped heaps.


Overview

90 Mile Beach - Day 1 - Sept 27 2018

90 Mile Beach - Day 1 - Sept 27 2018

The Tour Aotearoa took us 33 of days of riding and 2 rest days.

One rest day was in Nelson, where Gravity had a look over our bikes from the already completed 1700km of riding and got them ready for the next 1300km of the South Island. The other rest day was in Invercargil - we actually planned on only having the one rest in Nelson, but upon arriving in Invercargil, the weather and wind was against us so we opted to stay inside until the winds settled so we could ride to Bluff for satisfactory pictures the next day. We averaged about 90km per day although we tried to organise it as 3 long days, 1 short day. Our long days varied between 95-115km and our short days were between 55-75km. Our two longest day were 145km each on the South end of the North island as we were a little behind schedule.

Most days, we woke around 6:30/7am, and got riding by 8:30/9am. Every morning we would do some stretching, squats, and pushups right before hopping on the bikes. Breakfasts usually consisted of oatmeal, chia pudding, toast and fruit. Our lunches were pitas or tortillas, avocado, Vegemite, and vegan cheese. Hummus, crackers and veggies were also a popular lunch. We always had a bag of trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate, liquorice. Cookies were a big motivation factor for me as well. Dinners were simple (soup, pasta, couscous and veg) unless we ate out where we usually went for thai, or burgers and chips. I carried my MSR camp stove with me during the North Island, but only ended up using it twice as most campsites had a kitchen unit with cookers, or we were in hostels with a full kitchen. I ditched the stove in Nelson to save weight and the hassle of packing it up every morning. I kept our little pot as it fit perfectly in my frame bag and was a nice way to keep leftover or lunch from being squished during the day.

We would arrive at our campsite/accommodation between 4-6pm. We camped most of the first two weeks as we lucked out with the sunny weather. We didn’t bring a tent so for our camping, we set up a tarp under our sleeping pads, and a tarp overhead. This was lightweight for packing, and tolerable for sleeping, but we were always covered by a layer of dampness in the morning. We both ended up using our bivvy sacks for extra warmth. The one night I thought I was tough enough to sleep without the bivvy, I regretted it. We were very exposed to the elements with this kind of camping which was humbling, but came with a certain level of discomfort (for the summer months, this would have been totally fine but October in NZ is just coming out of winter). Our luck had run out as we were finishing up the North Island. The storms came with cold, wet weather and we stuck to the comfort of camp ground cabins, hostels and motels. The nights tarp camping made us so grateful for a real bed, real pillow and dry, warm blankets, and the comfort of not feeling the breeze or rain touch our cheeks in the night.

Our camping set up at Rawene Holiday Park on the morning of Day 3 - Sept 29 2018

Our camping set up at Rawene Holiday Park on the morning of Day 3 - Sept 29 2018

Bike choice and set up was vital to our experience riding for 33 days. I had a Santa Cruz Highball (hardtail 29er) which was super light with more of a “bike-packing” set up. I carried my gear in a handlebar bag, a seat post bag, a small frame bag, and a top tube bag. I also had a small riding pack which mostly had water and the guide books in it. I loved my set up - the bike handled all conditions excellently and kept me a happy rider. (I will do a blog post with more details of my gear and set up soon). My dad had more of a “cycle-touring” set up on his heavier Kona 27.5 hardtail. He had panniers over his rear wheel and a handlebar bag attached to his aerobars. Although quick on the road with his skinnier tyres, he struggled on the looser terrain (gravel and sand) and hills to due the weight of his set up.

This was such a special and unique adventure to share with my dad, but it did not come without frustration. 33 days is a long time to spend with someone. The slightly different paces of riding meant we had some alone time on our bikes during the day but we still had to communicate to organise plans, accomodation and food. I don’t think there was a day that sarcastic comments were not made to each other. I tried to be as patient as I could as I understood the value and preciousness of sharing time with someone you care about, but man, I wanted to rip my hair out sometimes. I’m sure my dad felt the same way. I had hoped this trip would connect us better, help us understand each other better, improve our communication and relationship with each other. And maybe it did, but the results were not immediate. This made me really sad for a long time, which is part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finally write about this epic bike ride. This was a huge and brutal reminder to see the bigger pictures, yet still honour my emotions, but not let them control me.

I love my dad, and I’m so grateful we are both healthy enough and fit enough and tough enough to complete riding 3000km together through beautiful New Zealand.

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Skye Irwin1 Comment