Ride diaries – Cameron Nicholls: cycling in New Zealand
We continue our ‘Ride Diaries’ series with a contribution from Cameron Nicholls who tells the story of a challenge he issued himself earlier this year: he rode the length of New Zealand in 13 days… just to see if he could.
“Reconnecting with my natural instincts on a solo ride through New Zealand”
– By Cameron Nicholls
I think you’ll agree with me when I say: even though cycling can be like an addictive drug at times, it can be hard to maintain a consistent level of drive and motivation as the years roll by.
Of course, there is that early period where it’s nearly impossible to keep you away from cycling – you’re like a newborn who’s learning to do something riveting for that very first time. However, as time goes by, your motivation fluctuates and the spark diminishes, despite your deep-rooted connection to the sport.
Personally, I’ve been cycling competitively (at amateur level) for almost 10 years. Over the course of that period my love for the sport has always been true, but maintaining my motivation to ride on a consistent basis has fluctuated.
Group rides had me hooked initially, then it was the gran fondos, and then it was competitive racing. In between those stages of my cycling maturity curve I’ve encountered many of life’s disruptions too; including getting married, having kids, changing jobs, and moving house.
Quite often, one of these life events will impact on your motivation to get on the bike. The once-mesmerising group rides, fondos or races lose their ability to get you out of bed, and old enemies such as stress and weight gain enter into our existence for another round of torment.
While you miss the bike, you know how much effort is involved in getting back into fitness again. “I’ll start again next Monday”, you keep telling yourself. All in all, your reasons have become a paradox when you contemplate the forces that brought you into cycling in the first place.
Click the link above to see Cameron’s documentary about an extraordinary ride.
The adventure that reconnected me to my love affair
When I decided to disrupt a husband and wife two-week getaway in order to cycle the length of New Zealand, naively, the term “adventure” hadn’t crossed my mind.
My wife and I had been planning this trip for quite a while but seven weeks beforehand I got the idea of riding the length of New Zealand. After leaving my corporate job behind in April, I felt a little bit more audacious than usual, so I jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, my wife is quite spontaneous so she wasn’t hard to talk into being my one-person support crew.
I would be riding from Cape Reinga to Bluff during the last two weeks of July, which meant I would be enduring New Zealand’s extreme winter conditions. In addition, I only had seven weeks to train for this huge effort of almost 2,400 kilometres. Be the more people told me how ridiculous the idea was, the more I became compelled to do it.
New Zealand is my partial motherland, thanks to my mother. She had always told me of New Zealand’s beauty, with special reference to the South Island.
Riding my road bike the length of a country that runs in my DNA would be an incredible experience and possibly the best way to see New Zealand’s raw beauty. With a two-week kid-free opening and no corporate job holding me in a seat for the seven-week lead-in I pondered whether such an opportunity would ever present itself again.
At the time of convincing myself that this was the right thing to do, my 13-year-old Kiwi cousin, Lachy, had just come out of treatment for a form of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I spoke with Lachy’s parents about using the ride as an opportunity to raise funds and awareness for young people dealing with cancer. CanTeen New Zealand was the suggested charity, given their focus on helping young people through cancer.
While I can appreciate that it’s a bit of a cliché to ride your bike for a cause, the effect of riding for a charity was much more profound than I could have ever imagined. It became a privilege and honour to represent and raise funds for their cause.
The ride would take its toll on Nicholls but, despite only a limited time to prepare and some curious incidents along the way, he finished what he set out to achieve.
‘Survival mode’ is my new cycling hook
A lot of our natural instincts as human beings have been diminished in modern day society. We live in houses, drive cars, watch TV, and get our food from supermarkets. We essentially have an unlimited supply of amenities. We’re quite comfortable.
Cycling is a mechanism for us to break out of our comfort zones.
There’s something innately satisfying about exercising in nature or even competing against others. These were two reasons why I got hooked on cycling in my late-20s.
On my New Zealand trip I discovered that cycling could push me into unprecedented emotional territory.
During my winter adventure, I made many mistakes. A lot of them came on day two of my 13-day journey from Cape Reinga to Bluff. I was like a bumbling fawn on those first few days, learning fast how to deal with riding more than 200 kilometres several days in a row, in harsh, unfamiliar conditions.
On one occasion, I found myself lost on a dark country road with no food and two dead phones in my rear pocket. All in all, I was left with an instinctual feeling I can’t recall encountering before: survival mode. I can’t remember the last time I truly feared for my safety, but I felt that way at roughly 6.00pm on this wintery Thursday evening in New Zealand.
I had 200 kilometres in the legs and I hadn’t seen a town for roughly 50 kilometres. The sun had disappeared behind a mountainous horizon. I had drifted off course slightly – but how far, I did not know. A very pronounced hunger flat had encroached as the sun was setting, and I was pedalling on unlit country roads with cars flying past at 100 kilometres per hour.
Only an hour before I found myself in this vulnerable predicament, a farm dog had escaped through a fence line and charged at me. I was climbing a steep hill when the dog approached. I managed to scare the mongrel away through a combination of yelling and an uncoordinated bike-jolting manoeuvre. However, I was left on a knife-edge, adding further emotional baggage to an already stressful situation, as I started to fear for my life.
While the sun had completely disappeared behind the horizon, there was still some light in the sky. I used the last few minutes of dusk to pinpoint a farm house close to the road – one that was free from dogs. I desperately needed to know where the next town was and I was hopeful of receiving some food.
I knocked on the front door.
A lady approached with caution. “Who is this random lycra man standing at my front door?”, I could see in her expression.
I quickly explained that my phone had run dry and I hadn’t seen a sign since I crossed Highway 1, hours ago. I was eager to know where on earth I was!
She explained that I was 18 kilometres away from the next town with shops, called Kaukapakapa.
“There’s a pub and a fish and chip shop,” she explained.
As I thanked her and apologised for disturbing, I quickly angled for a muesli bar, knowing that 18 kilometres was a very long way to ride with a hunger flat. She dismissed my request, indicating that her children had left home a long time ago and no muesli bars were available. Her physique suggested that she may not be familiar with cycling nor hunger flats.
‘If only she knew how I am feeling…’ I thought.
I would have taken a stale slice of bread at that point!
I’ll never forget the distance: “18 kilometres”.
To add further woes to my situation, the country roads guiding me to Kaukapakapa were exceptionally undulating. I would battle up each climb and descend down with exceptional care. Not only was I completely unfamiliar with the pitch-black country descent, some cars had made their authority known as they passed.
While the high beam setting on my Exposure Lights provided some relief to my fears, I was simply too fragile to make any use of the downhill momentum I would normally embrace, particularly during a time of energy saving needs.
My saving grace in these moments of despair was that I knew that in 18 kilometres my fears would be allayed. I could get something to eat and most likely be able to charge my phone. By now, my wife would be desperate to hear from me and I needed to understand how to get to Auckland from Kaukapakapa. Most importantly, I would find something to eat!
After making it into Kaukapakapa and then to the glorious shining lights of Auckland, an incredible feeling of elation came over me. I was back to the familiar world, despite being far from my actual home in Melbourne.
The creature comforts of lights, phone charging facilities, amenities, and a bed, would soon be mine. ‘I will never again take these creature comforts for granted’, I promised myself. I would also never ride without food or an uncharged phone for the rest of my New Zealand journey.
The adventure took on a whole new meaning when Cameron had to not only manage the distance but the cold of New Zealand winter.
The unexpected outcome
I can’t help but reflect on this epic day as a cultivating moment in my life.
The instinct of surviving is something that I have lost in life, somewhere along the way. While I don’t aim to relive those specific moments again, there is now a strong part of me that wants to take another risk. While I did not reach the dizzy heights of fearing for my life again during my New Zealand journey, I did confront many challenging days post day two. Relentless rain, hail, icy roads and even frozen water bottles on a -8 degree morning from Wanaka to Queenstown all became part of the longer story.
I would have never ridden in such conditions under normal circumstances. With back-to-back days in the saddle required to get the job done in less than two weeks, you can’t pick and choose what days you ride. In addition, spending eight hours or more on unfamiliar roads ultimately leads to situations you can’t plan for. It makes you vulnerable, heightening your senses into a survival mentality.
When I got back to Melbourne and had fully recovered from a serious bout of post-ultra-endurance fatigue, I started searching the internet for “cycling adventures”. I found a previously unknown world of ultra-endurance cycling athletes who live and breathe their next cross-country adventure.
While I don’t currently have the appetite for the extremities of what I went through over my 13-day New Zealand journey, I’m certainly keen to do something of a similar ilk in the not-too-distant future. Next time though, I would like to go completely solo and pack everything I need onto the bike. That would add an exciting new dimension and perhaps lead to deeper a level of “survival mode” – a natural instinct we all need to bring back into our lives.
– By Cameron Nicholls
Ride diaries is a new element of the RIDE Media site. There is already a collection of articles by BJ McIntosh about this journey from Greece to Austria. Cameron Nicholls is the second contributor to the series. Have you got a story you’d like to share?