Bikepacking New Zealand & the Tour Aotearoa 2016
In Feb 2016, the Tour Aotearoa, a self-supported ride (‘brevet’), will follow a 3,000 KM bikepacking route from Cape Reinga at the tip of New Zealand’s North Island, to Bluff at the toe of the South Island, otherwise known as Te Waipounamu.
We first heard about the Tour Aoteoroa at Interbike. Ears perked at the thought of a top-to-bottom New Zealand route that’s mostly off-tarmac, so we started digging. Our search led us to the Kennett brothers. Paul Kennett, Simon Kennett, and Jonathan Kennett have been heavily involved in New Zealand’s mountain biking scene since 1984. Their combined resumé includes organizing the first national mountain bike race in New Zealand in 1986, the Karapoti Classic, playing a major role in several large trail building and preservation projects, and publishing books about New Zealand cycling and cyclists.
After riding the Tour Divide in 2008, Simon attempted to replicate the experience in New Zealand by creating the Kiwi Brevet. It follows a 1,100 KM route around the northern end of South Island, including as much off road riding as Simon found possible. The first annual Kiwi Brevet was held in 2010 and has proven to be wildly popular year after year. Fast forward a few years and Simon’s brother, Jonathan, had the itch to find a new off-road route across the entire length of the country. The Tour Aotearoa, which derived its name from the Māori word for New Zealand, was born.
Still in the final tweaking stages, the Tour Aotearoa is an open course route which can be ridden at any time. It will be officially launched at the Tour Aotearoa event in Feb 2016, but there are individuals who are already organizing their own trips. The route is stitched together from a wealth of cycle trails that have been built in the last five years, and some that are actually still being built.
We had the opportunity to ask Jonathan a few questions about the route, the event, and the Kiwi bikepacking scene; here’s what he had to say:
What’s your role in the Tour Aoteoroa?
I’m just organising a route and a start point, and a few other things really. The whole event is being organised by an anarchic collection of volunteers from the NZ bikepacking community. Jeff Lyall has done the blog and a bunch of useful articles. My brothers are helping with maps and organising advice (and I really borrowing Simon’s whole ‘Kiwi Brevet’ ethos and rules). There are two Facebook pages by two different guys. A logo by another guy, a T-shirt by someone else, then Jessie’s artwork [above]. Another guy is developing an awesome tracking website with ability to do several new things for bikepackers, etc, etc. There are several ‘open homes’ being volunteered for the riders and I’ve done a lot of research with riders from around the country and am sent suggestions every other week. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s cool!
How and why was the Tour Aotearoa created?
A bunch of ideas came together to create Tour Aotearoa. My brother, Simon Kennett, did the Tour Divide brevet in 2008 and had a blast. He bought the concept back to New Zealand and started organising the 1,100 km Kiwi Brevet in 2010 (we’ve got a big background in organising mountain biking races). It was much more popular than expected, so other Kiwis also started organising brevets. During this time I was working for the goverment, managing the construction of off-road cycle trails throughout the country. I kept on getting asked, “How do you ride from one end of the country to the other.” So I decided to organise a 3,000 km brevet from one end to the other, largely because I wanted to do the ride myself. When I threw out the idea on Facebook, I had 100 entries within 24 hours.
Have there been any big challenges in creating the route? If so, what are they and why?
Well, me and my brothers have been mountain biking and cycle touring since the mid 1980s, and writing biking guidebooks since 1991. We know the country like the back of our hands. All the same, working out the perfect brevet course has been a challenge, expecially getting a course that is open to the public all year round. There is millions of dollars worth of trail trail construction happening in New Zealand right now, so pinning the best course down is like aiming for a moving target and has involved a lot of research time.
How many people are registered and how many folks are you expecting to show up?
There are 300 registered riders, with another 25 people on a reserve list. We expect close to 300 will show up.
What are your favorite sections of the route?
That’s a tough question! I love The Timber Trail. It’s 80 km of remote single track riding, through magificent stands of forest. But the Bridge to Nowhere, through Whanganui National Park, is also fantastic. In the South Island my favourite trail is the 135 km West Coast Wilderness Trail, although there are several other sections that I just can’t wait to ride again as well.
How does the route break down in terms of surface percentages?
We think time is a more important reality for bikers. 27% tarmac; 22% gravel road; 31% gravel or limesand cycle trail (1-2 metres wide), 10% tarmac cycle trail, 6% dirt single track, 4% hard beach sand. There are five ferry trips on top of that.
What would you consider the best type of bike/setup for the route?
Bike choice is the big debate at the moment! Personally, I will ride a 29er hardtail. But a lot of people are setting up 29+ bikes and some will take cyclocross bikes. Surly is probably the most common bike brand, and the majority of riders will use Revelate bags.
Are there any unpredictable factors when riding New Zealand backcountry?
New Zealand weather is unpredictable. It will be a miracle if we don’t get hit by a storm or two during the event – but they usually blow through in one or two days. That said, Feb and March are the best months of the year for riding. There are two river crossings which would be dodgy after heavy rainfall. No bears, mountain lions, snakes, poisonous spiders or alligators.
What do you expect to be the fastest time for completion of the route? Any predicted favorites?
To be honest, I really don’t care. The person who comes last is as important to me as the person who comes first. I’ve set a time bracket of 10 days to 30 days. There will be no prizes, no medals, no speeches. However, everyone will have a spot tracker, and can be watched on the event website, so no doubt people like Olly Walley, who won the Tour Divide a couple of years back, will blaze the whole 3,000 km.
Is bikepacking popular in New Zealand?
Bikepacking is growing fast in New Zealand and is already much more popular than traditional cycle touring. As traffic volumes grow in New Zealand our country is becoming worse and worse for touring on traditional road touring bikes. At the same time, there is a boom in trail building, and cycle tourism, and so it’s becoming really great for those with bikepacking bikes, who can now avoid the main highways and explore the country on quiet roads and a growing network of cycling paths and trails.
Tell us a little about your forthcoming book and how bikepacking shaped the content.
We wrote Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails to guide people to the 2,600 kilometres of off-road trails that have been built in the last five years, and also included 5,000 kilometres of the safest and most enjoyable back country roads. Together, that makes a network that can be used to explore most of New Zealand by bike. The book includes maps, elevation charts, lists of businesses along the trails, etc. There are 46 separate trips, and at the end of the book we have a chapter on how to link them together to do the 3000 km Tour Aotearoa.