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A very Kiwi tour

There’s nothing quite like an adventure to bring out the best in people. And that’s exactly what Rod Oram is seeing as he bikes down the country from Cape Reinga to Bluff on the third Tour Aotearoa.

Three quintessentially Kiwi characteristics have been particularly evident in these first two weeks of my month long journey down the length of New Zealand.

The first is simplicity, yet sophistication. An event involving 1,200 cyclists over many weeks is immensely complicated. But the organisers - Jonathan, Paul and Simon Kennett, long time bike advocates, route finders and publishers of cycling guides and books - have brought a simple sophistication to the enterprise through a clear division of labour. They are responsible for devising the route and managing the entries; while they leave each cyclist to organise themselves on the road.

The brothers put a huge effort into creating the best route and documenting it in detail in their Tour guide book. This includes useful information on campsites, shops and other amenities along the way. They also produce route files for cycle computers, and give frequent updates on the Tour’s Facebook page as road conditions or other factors change.

They don’t charge an entry fee. They ask only for proof of a rider’s small donation to a cycling organisation, such as a cycling club that helps build and maintain local tracks; and they ask riders to offset the carbon emissions they generate from their travel to the start and from the finish. For that, they offer sample calculations for people in New Zealand and those coming from abroad, and suggest they use the offsetting services of EKOS, a highly respected Wellington company.

They have also kept the rules of the Tour very simple. It is a brevet, to borrow a European term for such long distance cycling events. You must ride the 3,000km in no less than 10 days and no more than 30. Yes, there really are some people riding 300km a day, much of it on gravel back roads and cycle tracks not tarmac. Hence, the second rule is you must not ride more than 18 hours a day.

We have all paid a modest sum to rent a GPS tracker / personal emergency locator beacon from MAProgress. It is a small NZ company that has grown with the Tour and now offers its services to many similar events overseas. For all the sophistication of the technology, it’s reliable - yes, rescue helicopters have come quickly to the aid of a few seriously injured riders - and also rewarding for family and friends to track riders via MAProgress’ website.

As for our responsibilities as riders, it’s quite complicated getting just yourself down the country. In the months before we start, we have lots of decisions to make about bike, camping and other equipment; about training; and about logistics. On the road, we have to make many more decisions each day to ensure we cope with the changing state of our bodies and our bikes, the road and the weather.

This brings in the second Kiwi characteristic, creative co-operation. It seems every rider is keen to share their knowledge and to learn from others. The Tour is a very effective grapevine for passing on, either in person or via social media, up to the minute news and tips on, for example, track conditions and good places to stay.

Time and again on the road over the past two weeks I’ve seen people going out of their way to help others. Indeed, I’ve been the beneficiary with, for example, help fixing two problematic punctures.

Importantly, local riders are also being very hospitable and inclusive to overseas riders. No doubt they will return home full of stories about how welcoming Kiwis are. That’s the best advertising our tourism industry could ever have.

Improvisation and creativity take other forms too. Eric, a rider from Hawke’s Bay, is one of my favourites on that score. He hadn’t ridden a bike for 20 years. Yet six months ago he decided to ride the Tour. He spent $600 on a used bike, bought a tent from the Warehouse and assembled the rest of his kit. On the road, he is constantly picking up tips from others. He also went to his daughter’s class and got all the students interested in the Tour. Now each of them is using the live GPS tracking to keep tabs on three riders, and using the daily data for their statistics syllabus.

The third characteristic is generosity. Here’s just one example. Lucas, a professional ultra long distance bike racer from Switzerland, told me about his experience when I was chatting to him in Pahiatua on Sunday. He had his highly prized bike and all his gear stolen last week while on the Tour. All he had left was his wallet.

Swiss rider Lucas with his borrowed bike. Photo: Rod Oram

He said Lance Pilbrow, who he thinks is a mountain bike racer and journalist, heard of his plight and lent him an absolute top of the line Surly, with all the bags, camping gear, riding clothes and other kit he needed to complete the Tour. “You Kiwis are very generous,” he said.

Above all, its people and their local communities down the country which are often helpful and encouraging to us in small ways, such as offering roadside water and refreshments. Here’s one such experience I’ve had. On my third day on the Tour, which turned into a very hot afternoon and the gravel back road to Dargaville seemed interminable, a Good Samaritan had set up a refreshment stand for cyclists at his family’s farm gate.

Jonathan was offering orange coloured watermelon, which one of his cousins grows. It was deliciously refreshing, with the rock melon he also offered a distant second…plus of course litres of iced water. Later we learned from other cyclists his brother and sister were also helping out after we’d passed by.

Communities play a much bigger role, though. They are the absolute backbone and heart of the rapidly developing network of local bike tracks. They build and maintain the tracks, often with crucial co-operation from local landowners; and locals start up accommodation, bike service and other services for cyclists.

This is a lot harder than it might sound. When the idea for a national cycleway came out of the Key government’s Jobs Summit in 2009 the Otago Rail Trail was the only example of such a thriving community enterprise in the country.

Post-summit, the government was offering some financial help to encourage other communities to follow suit. With all due respect to the civil servants involved, it was a struggle for both sides. I was involved in helping some communities through that process as a trustee of the Akina Foundation.

Over the years since, though, a great body of experience has developed among communities. This is delivering ever better cycling adventures to riders from home and abroad. Currently the New Zealand Cycle Trail lists 22 great rides at nzcycletrail.com

These, like the Tour Aotearoa, are community enterprises generating real recreational, economic and social value across the country, particularly in rural New Zealand. They are very authentically Kiwi in their simplicity, sophistication, creativity, co-operation and generosity.

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