Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Uneasy Rider

I want to ride my bicycle,
I want to ride my bike,
I want to ride my bicycle,
I want to ride it where I like…
Freddie Mercury

 Much has been made recently of cycling being the new golf for middle-aged men.  Instead of trundling around golf courses; whisking across the tar-sealed sections of the country in ill-advised lycra ensembles and silly hats is de rigeur.
The annual ‘around Taupo’ event is now apparently threatening to re-awaken the dormant crater with seismic vibrations caused by the sheer number of day-glo participants.

I’m not mocking, well, maybe a little.  I applaud anyone who gets out and exercises, and enjoys this magnificent country by burning calories instead of fossil fuels.  But I have to say that grimly pedalling around Taupo with squillions of other people, eyes fixed only on the road ahead and below until it’s all over sounds like hell to me.
Perhaps it’s my intrinsic anti-social nature, but I enjoy cycling as a mainly solitary activity.  No start line, no semi-Asperger’s cycle enthusiasts dispensing unsolicited advice or braying about the manful size of their time and distance – just me and the unfurling landscape - and often my i-pod.  A talking book can distract me from the pain of a seemingly-endless incline.

I haven’t been blessed with strong legs, or particularly strong anything (I’m ‘the stick who walks’, remember), but a metabolism which appears to be permanently jammed on ‘nippy’ seems to give me a certain natural baseline of fitness.
This can be useful when I suddenly decide to embark on an overnight cycle excursion to some ‘distant’ shore, with little-to-no physical preparation to speak of .

The first time I did this I cycled from Motueka to Collingwood in Nelson (or Tasman, or whatever they call this beautiful part of the country these days).  A distance of 107km, with the daunting 791m Takaka Hill in between, I threw myself into this with a heavy backpack across my shoulders and another strapped to the handle bars.  As I began to ascend the hill the bike chain fell off and I almost ended up in a ditch.
The trip, subsequent stay at my destination and reasons why the exertion didn’t kill me are maybe worth recounting another time.

The formation which gives Castlepoint its name can be seen in the distance.
The trip I’ve just completed, however, was to Castlepoint, a coastal village blessed with golden sands, spectacular rock formations, and a famous lighthouse.  The internet tells me it’s a distance of 92km from my home, so with a borrowed ‘semi-hybrid’ road bike and a backback bursting with super-compressed tent and sleeping bag, I was off.
A very atypical South-easterly wind gave me an easy first leg to Masterton, feeling as if I was flying along Highway 2.  Responsibly purchasing a pump and spare tube from a cycle shop, the owner pursed his lips alarmingly when I gave my destination.
“It’s a bit of a ride…”
I love kiwi understatement.  Warning me about the hills at the last part of the trip, he looked me up and down and conceded that “I’d probably be alright”.

Buoyed up by that generous encouragement, I turned off from SH2 towards the coast and immediately hit the easterly component of the unusual wind direction.  The southerly part had been my friend, but this literally got in my face all the way to the coast.  Not especially gusty, the worst part was the drag it gave me on what should have been triumphant high-velocity downhill stretches.
Losing cell phone coverage as the landscape changed from rolling farmland to craggy seaward ridges, my progress could only be described as ‘steady’.  I’ll be forever grateful for the loan of the bike I was on, but despite raising seat and handlebars as far as I could it was clear that this machine and I were never going to mesh in ergonomic perfection.  The backpack alternatively pressed me forward and pulled me back while the racing saddle began to feel more like a toast rack than anything ever intended to be sat on.
Lessons learned here: buy a bike which ‘fits you’ and maybe invest in panniers for overnight trips.
A failed 'selfie' none-the-less captures a definite highlight of the afternoon.
But despite this, I settled into a kind of rhythm. The sun came out and, as I’d hoped, the scenery was both secluded and beautiful - particularly my first glimpse of the Tinui Hotel.
Heartened by the mere 20k remaining between me and the coast, I downed a very welcome pint and an ill-advisedly huge lunch.  
Five minutes into the final stretch, the warning about the ‘hills’ rang true.  Thighs burning, I gasped my way to the top of a steep incline to be confronted with a sign    which read: ‘Little Saddle’   .
“I really hope there’s not a ‘Big Saddle’.” I thought.
There was. 
And it was.

After another easterly-stifled downhill glide, one final hill before my first glimpse of the sea.  I flew down the other side, and straight into the vista of waves breaking on a long golden beach, dominated by a Lighthouse perched atop a craggy promontory. 
Castlepoint, in 'oils'.
Despite the by-now beautiful day, the camping ground was distinctly off-season and I had my pick of any site, except No. 22 - the one closest to the beach .  Setting up my tent a discreet couple of spaces away, I was confident that I’d still see the glorious panorama of the beach and lighthouse from my canvas refuge. 
My final peg had just been driven in when an ugly black four-wheel drive, the logo of a certain real estate company shouting all over it, promptly trundled onto site 22 and eclipsed any chance of a view.  Of anything. To make it even worse, they then erected a tent on top of this monstrosity, poking into the sky like Snoopy’s doghouse and blocking the very last glimpse of the lighthouse.

My seaside home-from-home, before the neighbours arrived.
It was definitely time for a walk along the beach, where I consoled myself that my tent was really only for sleeping in anyway, and if there was a sudden tsunami my neighbour’s unsightly barricade probably wouldn’t even let me get wet.
After savouring the sea air, fish and chips and spectacular vistas which this coastal haven affords, I passed a cosy night in my tent, lulled to sleep by the nearby crashing surf and something approaching physical exhaustion.

The camp security lighting, and my torch, allowed me to pack my tent and sleeping bag at 5.30 the following morning, even repeating the miracle of squeezing them back inside my backpack.  Determined to be on the road as early as possible, I climbed the hill back out of Castlepoint in the darkness, probably leaving my neighbours to wonder if I’d been abducted by aliens when they climbed down from their rooftop at a more civilised hour.
Sunrise from 'Big Saddle'.
The return trip was entirely unremarkable, although the relative quietness of the early Saturday morning road enhanced the sense of solitude I had sought .  Enjoying a murky sunrise and breakfast of an apple and muesli bars from ‘Big Saddle’, I eventually made it back to Masterton for a far more substantial morning meal.

Before leaving, I visited the same bike shop as yesterday and promptly bought a cycle which fits me, properly designed for trips like this one.  Hopefully there will be many more.

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