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A capital experience……..

CIMG8061My trail through Northland has given me a range of experiences to occupy my mind for months to come. A west coast route has taken me through Waipoua Forest, with its legendary giant Kauri trees. The biggest is Tane Mahuta, just 2 minutes walk from the road, towering over 52 metres high, with a girth of nearly 5 metres. These trees were much valued by bygone sailors, making perfect wooden masts for sailing ships, and producing the highly valued gum for making varnishes and paints.

The Save the Children volunteers of Dargaville gave me a royal welcome,

Save the Children, Dargaville

Save the Children, Dargaville

with the local press reporter waiting to take photos. As I hit the edge of town, a passing lady motorist stopped me saying she recognised me from a press article published days before I arrived. Wasn’t quite sure how to handle this local fame…….but I was delighted to be hosted by Brenda, a long-serving volunteer with the charity, in the large family house that she now occupied on her own.

As I pushed on towards Wellsford, I encountered my first stretch of flat landscape (almost fenland flat), but the advantage was quickly CIMG8090diminished by a bludgeoning headwind that almost brought me to a halt along a straight unprotected stretch. Then, when I hit the infamous SH1 (State Highway 1), life on the fast lane became a reality…..except the fast lane for me was the hard-shoulder (where it existed). It was a holiday weekend for Aucklanders, and everyone was on a mission to go somewhere……and in a great hurry.

But a quiet haven of a camp site, just outside Warkworth, provided respite from the motorized storm, meeting up once again with Ted, a fellow camper that I had encountered two days previously over 200 kms away. Ted and I had had a shared existence in education, but his latter years had been spent in Malawi teaching classics.CIMG8103

But what of the New Zealanders I have encountered? To say they are self-effacing is a serious understatement. I have been warned a multitude of times, by Kiwis themselves, that I should beware of the “ragbags” out there who will be determined to rob me of everything I own, even at a remote location like Cape Reinga. But all I have encountered, at every stage, has been friendliness and kindness, almost to a point of embarrassment. People have chased behind on the bike to thrust a $5 note in my hand for the charity. This afternoon, a car pulled up beside me at traffic lights and the driver pushed a handful of coins in my hand to buy myself a drink. The owner of the campsite last night insisted on giving me a plateful of food to tide me over till the morning. A woman, while we waited for a ferry crossing, wordlessly walked over and gave me a $20 bill. She never attempted to explain why she was giving it to me.

iew from the Flynn family home

view from the Flynn family home. Stunning!

Kiwis seriously need visitors to come and reaffirm a vision of themselves and their own country that some of them may have lost. They readily play themselves down when, on the contrary, there is an intrinsic caring integrity deeply etched in the character of the nation.

Oh yes, and what of the progress of my cycling venture? Well, as I hit the hectic outskirts of Auckland, I am almost 600 km into the 4000 km expedition, exhausted from the fatigue of constant climbing and debilitating temperatures, only to be welcomed with open arms by the Flynn Family, close friends of my brother Chris. I was whisked off to a family barbecue, a swim in the family pool with stunning views over the harbour, and a whistle-stop tour of downtown as the sun was setting. A huge thank-you to them for opening the gates of their city to me. And it needs to be said…….Auckland is a city of many surprises. Definitely worth a visit.

The countdown to NZ begins!

In the final throes of preparations for a two month cycle trip (I will also be cycling from Sydney to Melbourne as a kind of ‘dessert’ after the ‘main course’ in New Zealand), my focus has been almost entirely on the kit I take with me. After every trip, I analyse the stuff I have been carrying for several weeks, and I ruthlessly deal with the superfluous. Without camping equipment, I can cycle for months with just 5 kilos of kit (including spares and tools).  You just have CIMG6959to get very proficient at doing laundry, or live in squalor! However, on this trip, I will be taking camping equipment as well………a different ball-game altogether.

Kitchen and bathroom scales serve much more than the purpose stated by the manufacturers. In our house, they have been used to weigh absolutely everything. I can tell you the weight in kilos and grams of just about everything I will be carrying. My bike is a given: it weighs in at a sturdy 15kg. I have ridden this bike on long journeys for nearly 20 years. It’s made of steel, it has 40mm tyres, and it’s built for rough terrain. It’s like a tank! I could opt for a much lighter alloy bike with narrower profile tyres, but I would be sacrificing comfort and stability. These two latter assets are the most vital when you are spending 8-10 hours per day awheel.

With the rest of my kit, I have a twofold focus:

1. How to beat the airlines at their game: ie. have the bike go as my check-in luggage and avoid excess charges. WithCIMG6992 Qantas, my check-in luggage is limited to 23kgs, and hand luggage is limited to 7kgs. Mmnn, a tall order you might think.

2. How not only to keep the luggage on the bike to a minimum for riding, but to fit it all into a saddlebag and barbag, with tent strapped on the back. For some reason (which I can’t rationally explain) I have an issue with taking  panniers.

To achieve both purposes, I use just two principles: a) decide what I can minimally and safely survive on, and b) find the smallest and lightest versions of everything, without compromise. Both these principles are goals that can never be finally achieved, but then that forms part of the excitement of discovery. Somebody, somewhere will have found a better solution than you to a certain issue, and it’s up to you to seek them out and find out what they know.

In the next post, I will show you how I will travel for two months (but bearing in mind that it will be summer in the Antipodes) on 8.5kgs of luggage (including 3kgs of camping equipment). Stay tuned……

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For more cycling-related topics, visit: Love Cycling

FREE COUNTRY by George Mahood

In the world of long-distance cycling, the UK E2E (Land’s End to John O’Groats) is a hoary old chestnut. For many it represents that Nirvana-like state of achievement, a bespoke Utopia that appears as the ultimate of aspirations among many would-be expedition cyclists. The route has been travelled by many and variously: by that I mean by tens of thousands using dozens of different modes of transport. People have walked, run and cycled it. Others have done it in a wheelchair, on skateboards and roller skates. The youngest little mite to cycle it was just 4 years old, and aFree Country few days after completing it he started at infant school. Amongst the craziest takes was a golfer who played the longest hole in the world: 1,100 miles in seven weeks. Of course, he hit the ball every inch of the way (wonder how many he lost?).

So to pick up another book or, as I did, download a digital version, of yet another attempt at the distance……….well, to say the least, I was a bit underwhelmed at the prospect. But………….then I started reading it. And I read it, and read it………and enjoyed it from beginning to end. I won’t spoil the story for you, simply to say that two lads (with nothing better to do) dreamed up a plan over a pint or two. That plan was to cycle the 1000 miles from south to north, but to set off with nothing more that the union flag boxer shorts that you see them wearing on the cover.

Like ancient pilgrims, they begged and borrowed everything they would need to complete the journey: clothes, bikes, food, accommodation, cycle maintenance. I was astonished how much free beer they drank en route (several nights almost to the point of drunkenness) and amazed at the apparent credulity of the people who helped them out. It just so happened they were honest, upright citizens, but what if they had been gun/dagger toting layabouts?

Even if you are a non-cyclist, read it. I guarantee you will enjoy it. You can get a digital download for £1.99 from Amazon.

Tenerife: the enjoyment of pain?

Focus Cayo Carbon

Is it madness, stupidity or both that entices a seemingly sane human being to spend a week pedalling the contours of Tenerife? Now, those of you who have been to Tenerife probably remember the nice cosy things about the island: warmth, sunshine, pleasant sea temperatures, good food and wine, nice drive to the top of the

Relief model of Tenerife

volcano El Teide…….. To appreciate the sinister side, however, you really need to scale the top of El Teide (the highest mountain on Spanish territory) on a pair of wheels.

El Teide 3718m

I mean, how do you explain to normal human beings that some cyclists love to feel gut-wrenching pain? And for it to go on continuously for 4 or 5 hours at a time? To experience ascents that take you into ever-thinning oxygen levels, but the effort required to continue climbing remains the same? Then, when you are looking forward to the 30 mile downhill from 10,000 ft, your whole body freezes with the inactivity of the descent and the wind-chill, and your hands seize up applying the brakes to prevent yourself going into a head-spin over the side of the mountain? When you get to the bottom of the mountain, you are so chilled to the bone (even though it’s 25C at the bottom) that you struggle to dismount from the bike. You go into the nearest café and order a glass of very hot milk spiked with a large shot of brandy. And when you have thawed out……….. well, of course, as to be expected in a masochist, you begin planning your next ascent from a different side of the mountain ;0) Does this make any sense to anyone?

During the quiet week before Christmas, when prices were cheap and the numbers of tourist low, I ‘snuck in’ a week before the onset of the festivities. But instead of laboriously packing one of my own bikes, I decided to hire one from a dealer on the island, which actually cost about the same as freight prices for sports equipment. I had ordered an aluminium-framed road bike (for 90 euros) but ‘sadly’ they had to upgrade me to full carbon for the same price. I said to the German dealer: “What a pain!” and he replied “Are you complaining?”. I said “No, it’s just British humour”, to which he retorted “And my reply was just German humour!”

Above the clouds

(game, set and match to him……..). If you ever hire a bike on Tenerife, I would highly recommend Bike Point in Playa de las Americas.

My week consisted of 6 full days on the bike, nearly 400 miles and over 40,000 feet of climbing. There are very few flat areas on the island, so be warned. Of the 36 hours I spent on the bike, I reckon at least 30 were spent ascending, sometimes continuously for 4-5 hours. Your overall average speed will be low (mine was only 11mph). But whether it is for base training for the coming racing season or simply for the pleasure of scaling the heights, Tenerife is a great place for getting a good dose of ‘winter pain’!

The ubiquitous Red Bull cans

Above Los Gigantes cliffs

Rancho Canario stew: delicious!

The past catches up with me!

The bimonthly Cycle Magazine landed on our doormat last week. This is the principal publication of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), the largest national organisation in the country representing the interests of cyclists like me. For me, the magazine is compulsive reading; not a magazine that I dip into like a buffet spread, but one that has multiple a la carte dishes that I ‘eat’ my way through methodically, looking forward to the ‘desert and coffee’ at the end. With pen in hand, I underline, circle and make margin notes against things that I need to re-visit when the leisurely read from cover-to-cover is over. Some of the items need some kind of immediate action (eg. the transfer of dates to the diary), others need investigating further (eg product reviews), and others simply merit a second read (especially the well written articles on adventurous expeditions around the world). It took me the best part of a week to meander through the 84 pages until I got to the last section entitled Travellers’ Tales, a section where readers can submit a short, pithy account of some major cycling experience they have recently enjoyed. In this edition, the section was dedicated to the famous and well-travelled LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats), a 1000 mile route that will challenge even the most experienced cyclist.

The first article described the experience of a blind ‘stoker’ riding on the back of a tandem captained by a sighted rider. The second was written by a couple of newly-weds who decided to spend their honeymoon riding from north to south. The third, entitled End to End at 80, was an astonishing account of 80 year old Clive Williams, who had not only completed the distance, but had done so in only two weeks, averaging about 70 miles per day. Then, as I began reading the last account, entitled Riding into retirement, I suddenly had a feeling of deja vu. I read the first few lines, looked at the two small photos, looked for the credits………………. and you could have knocked me over with a feather! I was actually reading about my own End to End ride completed back in July 2008, just a few days after my retirement from teaching. This was an article I had submitted over three years ago, and it was only now seeing the light of day! Is this an example of ‘good things happening to those who wait’?