The wild country up the Whanganui River is the sort of territory where you almost expect to hear ancient Maori chants or at least an echo of a Ken Mair haka. The isolated, rugged bush country is probably the nearest we have to hillbilly country – stunning but foreboding.
A few chords on the banjo would have completed the picture, but there was no chance of that as our bunch of cyclists had its own music – heavy metal coming out of the tiny, tinny speakers in Jim Webster's back pockets. Jim and his wife, Linda, from Cambridge, and Edwin Kets – who had travelled from the Netherlands for the inaugural Tour of New Zealand – were riding as the Powered by Stroopies team.
They were among the 80 riders who set out five days earlier, and had already covered nearly 500 kilometres since they started at Cape Reinga the previous weekend.
I was keen to be a part of the ride, but wary of going all the way, so I drove up from Wellington to National Park on the Wednesday with the bike, associated cycling gear and food packed into the back of a huge six-berth campervan supplied by tour sponsor Britz.
It was almost as high and wide as a bus and at least twice the length of my car, so I was a bit nervous when I stepped up into its cab, but found the diesel-powered automatic Mercedes surprisingly easy to drive and easy to live in, although both involved a steep learning curve.
Manoeuvring and parking a vehicle this size needs care – I almost collected a shop awning when I pulled in for a coffee at Taihape – and I had to watch the instruction DVD twice to work out how to locate all the switches, taps and hoses that power and plumb this house on wheels – its fridge, stove, kitchen sink and dinky combined bathroom, toilet, shower.
After getting to National Park, I backed the campervan into an alley beside the Pukenui Lodge, where the Tour of New Zealand organisers were staying. Setting up the bed was easy and the duvet kept me snug on a frosty night before I got up to ride the sixth stage of the tour – the 120km ride from National Park to Whanganui, the first of three days.
The sun had come up over Mt Ruapehu, but it was cold as we lined up under the start banner on the side of the road at 8am. The slow riders went first to get a head start and every few minutes small packs of roughly matched riders set off, with the fastest held until last.
I was put in with a mixed group of 10 other solo riders and as we set off we formed into a tight line – cruising at about 35kmh as we draughted along behind each other.
I warmed up quickly enough – or at least my legs did – but the air was still so chilly I had trouble moving my jaw to talk as I eased past the rider ahead of me. Then from behind there was a shout of "rider down" – a cyclist had hit the road after her front wheel touched the back of another bike. We were told later she had to be taken to hospital to get her elbow stitched up.
As there were support vans behind us we could only assume they would pick up the pieces. We pressed on, passing slower riders as we approached Raetihi before turning onto the rollercoaster back road taking us to the river at Pipiriki.
A group of riders in the Arrows team joined our pack before the Air Force team wooshed past – a five-man peloton pedalling in unison, flying by as fast as they could to prevent others latching on to take advantage of their slipstream.
I hung on to our group – my speedo topped out at 62kmh on one downhill – before I was dropped by the bunch. Resigned to a patch of solo riding, I eased off and enjoyed the scenery for about 10km before the Powered by Stroopies trio caught me. I latched on and stayed with them as Jim's cellphone-powered stereo belted out AC/DC.
Ultimately the music or the hills – I'm not a brave descender – defeated me and I was on my own on the last few kilometres into Pipiriki – a tiny cluster of houses and a closed cafe. The two-hour ride from National Park had been a blast.
The ride had to be interrupted at Pipiriki so we could be driven over the next 18km of gravel road past Jerusalem to Ranana for a restart. It was a chance to chat with the Stroopies and sample one of their stash of stroopwafels (syrup waffles), meet the Air Force team and hook up with solo-riding veterans like myself who formed a loose band for the next two days.
The strongest rider in our group was GNS scientist Martin Grundwell of Lower Hutt, proudly equipped with his new $13,000 bike – just like Cadel Evans' Tour de France machine.
Fellow Huttite Dian Bell, a champion triathlete who was leading the women's individual section, and her brother, Craig Stockwell, were in the same bunch as we lined up outside the Ranana marae at midday for the second leg into Whanganui. I was able to stay with the group for the first 30km as the road rolled down beside the river.
But there was no hanging on as we began the climb up "Gentle Annie" at Aramoana. I grovelled to the top on my own, sped down the other side and then battled the final 15km into Whanganui.
Riders assembled for that day's prizegiving at the Red Dog pub before driving south to prepare for stage seven – 74km from Pahiatua to Masterton on route 52 via Alfredtown.
This time I managed to team up with Dian Bell, before we were caught by a larger group, including Jim and his mobile sound system.
The rest of the stage was a repeat performance – with about 15km to go the Air Force team again bombed past in tight formation and I was ultimately blown by the pack on a hill before the last stretch into Masterton.
The eighth and last stage was a criterium – a series of multi-lap sprints on a closed circuit starting on Parliament's forecourt racing down to the bottom gate, up Molesworth St and back in through the top gate.
For most of us – including the even more obviously uncompetitive team from Hong Kong who rode the South Island tour on sturdy and heavy touring bikes – it was a fun way to end the tour, but for others there was more at stake.
Dian, who had won the North Island tour, had to beat her South Island counterpart to secure the overall women's prize and she did it with style. Dan Underwood, a Tokyo-based Kiwi, won the individual men's title while the Air Force team were no match for a better drilled Christchurch Boy's High team.
The Tour of New Zealand is a challenging but rewarding event which deserves to be part of the country's cycling calendar.
- © Fairfax NZ News