Which of the Armed Forces has the best legs?
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Tour of New Zealand

I’d heard great things about New Zealand’s south island; the mind-blowing mountain vistas making the perfect backdrop for some of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. I was keen to experience ‘Middle Earth’ firsthand and what better way to see it then on a bike!

New Zealand is one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit but never got around to. I have felt that it is almost too close to home, and ended up travelling further afield instead. However when I was presented with the opportunity to compete in the Tour of New Zealand, the hardest choice was not whether I could make it, but simply which island I wanted to traverse.

The tour has the peculiar format of two pelotons starting at opposite ends of the country and riding towards each other till they meet in the middle. After seven tough days of cycling, the two pelotons collide and merge for an all-out criterium in the grounds of the Parliament in Wellington to decide the champions of the Tour of New Zealand.

It’s a unique event where riders can join for a single day, a couple of days or the whole eight days. It sounds like a logistical nightmare but somehow it all comes together and runs as smooth as silk. It is left up to individual riders to organise their own accommodation, support and teams or you can join an organised tour group. I joined the team from Adventure South Tours for the second half of this Tour at the southern town of Bluff and with the rest of the southern contingent was heading to Picton in the north. Simultaneously the northerners were racing from Cape Reinga to Wellington.

Spectacular gorges and glacial rivers are par for the course.

Set right on the banks of Lake Wakatipu with mountains all around, Queenstown is quite a small town with a permanent population of only 30,000. It has a cosy, ski village appeal that has tourists from New Zealand and abroad falling in love with the place, dreaming of making the move to the region. Perhaps it’s because the local people of Queenstown are so friendly and welcoming. The natural beauty of surrounding landscape is mesmerising which might explain why the locals spend so much time out in it, experiencing and enjoying their surrounds. Road bikes , mountain bikes, watercraft, aircraft —you name it, they’re happening in Queenstown. The place really does an infectious active outdoor culture and even if you previously thought those things weren’t for you, you may well be swayed.

For those who’d like some guidance to get started on their own outdoor adventuring lifestyle there is plenty of help available. I took part in the Tour with a group organised by Adventure South Tours. Bas was our team director, mechanic, driver and tour guide. On my arrival, Bas pulled me aside for a personal chat to discuss the requirements of joining his team. An ex-mechanic at the Tour de France, Bas had spent some time around professional cycling teams and that is exactly how he treated his Tour of New Zealand team.

In a very European type of way, he laid down the rules for joining his team. Blunt and straight to the point, he stressed the importance of eating well and regularly, arriving early and leaving on time. It was a little taste of being part of a pro tour team.

I remember coming out of our meeting thinking, ‘this tour is serious and Bas runs a tight ship. I’d better be on my best behaviour’.  So to help digest, Shannon (my guide from Tourism New Zealand) and I decided to go down to the pub for a beer. 

Having ridden around the world several times, Bas really does know how things work on tour and he made our part in the Tour so much easier. Each day, he’d be up long before we were, tweaking our bikes and preparing for the day’s ride.  We’d wake to a perfectly tuned bike, information about the day’s route and often a joke or two from the big Dutchman.  Bas would have us at the bus by 7:30am, loading extra food, drinks and clothing into the bus for later in the stage.

He’d then see us off at the start line and follow in the bus to assist with any mechanical issues before moving ahead to prepare a food station for lunch.

It must be said, this event is not run at a leisurely pace and I found it a refreshing change to some other public stage events which can tend to be quite tame. Having said that, this event is not out of reach for your average weekend warrior. The motivation lies in the event being timed; bringing a competitive element into the equation really does get people excited, especially cyclists! And with a reasonable contingent of Aussies in the mix with a mob of Kiwis, legendary rivalries of past sporting greats were easily acquired by amateur cyclists from either side of the ditch and the pace was always going to on!

As a photographer, part of the challenge was to restrain myself from stopping every couple of kilometres to take a photo of the beautiful countryside. With 10kg of camera equipment on my back, I quickly learned that catching back up to the peloton each time sucks every last bit of energy out of you.

Most days we would pull into the finish line at about midday where Bas would be waiting to whisk us away for a hearty lunch. He knew all the good spots and was really flexible with our afternoon itinerary. Comparing data, analysing the climbs, boasting about being involved in breakaways, and claiming superiority over our cross-ditch rivals was high on the agenda during the bus trips.

The Aussie-Kiwi banter wasn’t confined to the bus either. It would continue through lunch and into the night as we joined up with the rest of the peloton at the awards presentation after each stage. As we got closer to the end the Aussie-Kiwi sledging almost became encouragement. A motivation to keep pushing so as not to be outdone by a Kiwi and vice versa New Zealanders in general just love it when an Aussie shows up with a ‘G’day mate’. They see it as a chance to practise their entire repertoire of bad Aussie jokes.

Amongst the niggling there were many stories of camaraderie where someone would help out a fellow rider if they were struggling, whether it was a push up a hill, sharing food or just general encouragement. Someone even donated their bike to help out ‘Frenchie’, a Kiwi (go figure) from the Air Force team, who had come to grief on a slippery decent and snapped his bike into three pieces. Sustaining barely a scratch himself, he continued on racing. The resounding vibe was that everyone was in it together.

Which of the Armed Forces has the best legs?

The roads we travelled don’t favour a cyclist; they are quite dead and don’t offer any assistance, so it was important to use the other riders in the peloton; if you fell behind, you knew you’d be in for a long day. When the eyes weren’t firmly fixed on the wheel in front, it was all too easy to be distracted by the scenic beauty we were passing. New Zealand is truly breathtaking. The lakes are as blue, the mountains as spectacular and the colours as vivid as you could imagine.

The relatively high pace on the road means afternoons are free to check out these stunning sights and experience the local activities. While feeling quite remote on some of the backcountry roads, you are actually never too far from the fun New Zealand has become famous for. Jet boating, white water rafting, bungee jumping and wine tours were just a few things on offer but by far the most welcome for the peloton were the natural springs in Hanmer. The whole peloton descended on the springs like a swarm of bees after five hard days in the saddle and stayed there til the 10pm close.

Cycling events seem to go hand in hand with days of national celebration and remembrance. The Tour de France always includes Bastille Day, Tour Down Under has Australia Day. It seemed fitting that a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis should be riding across the country on our shared day of national remembrance, ANZAC day, working side by side, helping each other on the tour’s longest and hardest day. Attending the dawn service in Hanmer Springs was a poignant moment for the group; Aussies and Kiwis pausing to share the commemoration together.

Simon Yarrell, organiser of the Tour is very hands-on and seems to know everybody by name. Even more impressive is that he finds time to ride the event too. He and his support team have instilled a sense of belonging that permeates the disparate group of riders on tour. The New Zealand way is to be free-flowing and relaxed—a stark contrast to Australian events these days which are increasingly restricted by local government road closures, politics and legalities.

It was refreshing to be involved in such an organic event and all the more enjoyable to share the experience with great tour staff, and see this spectacular land at the speed of bike. Check out the Tour of New Zealand online www.tourofnewzealand.co.nz slated for April in 2014. It’s not far from home, but don’t let that stop you; this is one cycling event that should be a contender for your bucket list.  

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Which of the Armed Forces has the best legs?

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