The Waikaremoana Epic was dreamed up as an (in)saner replacement for the 1000 km East Coast loop that normally ran over Easter. As it turned out it was neither with only two of the five riders completing the route as marked.
“Ambitious but rubbish?”
A fair question of our dear leader, president of Kiwi Randonneurs, Phil Hendry would find out.
On paper the ride sounded so appealing - a ride that took in the very best of the North Islands back roads, Waikaremoana (allegedly a state highway) traversing the Te Urewera forest over to Poverty Bay, the iconic Tiniroto Road, the Motu Coach Road and of course the Rotorua Lakes.
Glossing over that half of the route was on rough metalled roads and that the odd mountain range was involved having road passes that would climb higher than Arthur's Pass was inconsequential.
I mean how hard can it be to knock of three 200’s?
Day 1 Rotorua to Tuai 203km
The weather was perfect when we all met at Government Gardens in Rotorua in the early dawn. Chris, Janet, Dave, John and I. I had hoped for a larger turnout, however as it turned out, the smaller number made it easier to support when it was needed. This was a tough course that would test us all.
We all had different steeds for the task at hand, ranging from touring bikes with wide tires to the popular gravel grinder to mountain bikes. Each machine had their advantages and disadvantages, and all were up to the job, but what about the riders?
The departure out of Rotorua was on Te Ara Ahi cycle path soon split us into groups as we headed south. The first stop for the day was Murupara which was halfway in terms of distance but really only a third of the ride in terms of effort. My poor cue sheets had Janet take a wrong turn at Tuminui, but she quickly acquired directions from a trucker who had her back on track. We'd catch up with Janet again at Murupara.
The ride was stunning as we passed Lake Okaro on our way towards Rerewhakaaitu shimmering like a mirror in the stillness of the morning.
Leaving the lake behind the route tracked towards Murupara via Ngamotu road through the Kaiagaroa Forrest. Soon enough the road changed from pine trees to the dairy farms around Murupara and Galatea. Breakfast was not far away.
On the course, we knew at another breed of endurance cyclists were hard at it. A group of bikepackers were riding a very similar course, and the faster randonneurs caught up to them twice on the first day. Lead by the legendary Peter Maindonald, these bikepackers are a tough. While we would stop and sleep in a proper bed at Tuai at the end of day one, they rode a further two hours in the dark to their halt at Frasertown some 40km further on to sleep rough and were long gone by the time we got out of our beds the next day.
We did not know what to expect food-wise at Murupara, after all its a little service town in the middle of nowhere. Expecting to have to raid all the pies and whatever we could scrounge from a dairy or service station, we were pleasantly surprised to find a coffee shop! Real coffee! and hot food! Second breakfast was in order, knowing that this was the last place to get food until we arrived at our destination that night.
Leaving Murupara, the real ride begun with the next 100km either going up or down (mainly up) on metal roads. The sign said it all. Pity the fools.
The ride suddenly became very real. The easy hills of the past 100km were replaced by relentless series of ascents that never quit, each getting higher than the other, and at the same time recklessly losing the height gained as we crested each watershed topping out at 736 meters before Ruatahuna, then to 936 meters before the lake.
Ruatahuna eventually came and Chris my riding buddy was running very low on water. Keen to replenish we came across a local kid, no more than 8 years old.
“do you know where we can get some water?” Chris asked
“from the shop” the local kid replied
“where is the shop?” Chris asked
“there is no shop” the kid replied.
Yoda had spoken, we backtracked to a local Marae and replenished our water supply from a spigot. At that very moment, Karla in the support vehicle sailed by with 20 litres of bottled water on board...
The ride was epic, and scenery sublime. This is a ride that must be on your bucket list, just maybe not all at once.
Soon enough we all made our halt in Tuai and soaked in the scenery, started the fire and enjoyed a glass of wine and each others company.
Riders arrived during the night. Some where rescued by Karla my long suffering and amazing partner who drove the support vehicle keeping everyone safe.
Day 2 Tuai to Matawai 211 km
Day two had been built up. Justifiably. Its scenery was peerless, but it was longer than day one, but had more sealed road. We all set off in staggered groups (or was that we staggered off in groups?). Only three riders would actually complete this section.
Leaving our halt in Tuai, its generally down hill to the Tiniroto road, except for the uphill and the 15 km of gravel. The easy bits were still tough. #Kiwiflat.
The Tiniroto road is a 100km ribbon of sealed perfection to Gisborne, so long as you love hills. Its going up or down. That’s it. The scenery is quintessential New Zealand back country and the lumpiness of it can be forgiven for that.
Soon enough we found ourselves at the Tiniroto pub ordering burgers while waiting for the Joesph Parker boxing match to conclude. Service only occurred between rounds! (evidently we were not the main event). The burger was great and the scenery even better. It was a nice break and prepared us for the ride on wards towards Matawai.
Between the Tiniroto Tavern was the Gentle Annie climb, Patutahi - the last place to obtain food and pies, the beautiful Rere Falls and from there our destination, 60 km of metal roads, generally up climbing to Matawai at 500 metres.
There was a hunting event on, which was the reason why the pub was open during a holiday. All day long we would see utes trundling towards the pub with a deer in the back. The pub is halfway up the Gentle Annie climb, and with full bellies Chris and I resumed our ride, eventually getting to the top of the Gentle Annie that afforded magnificent views of Gisborne and Poverty Bay.
The famed Ruatoria pies were less than an hours ride away now across the flat plain. Chris and I put the hammer down, concerned that bikepacking rabble might arrive first and eat them all. We needn't of been concerned. The bikepackers turned inland soon after the Tiniroto pub.
In no time we arrived at the dairy attached to the pub in Patutahi and four pies where quickly heated up and consumed along with chocolate milk, coke and all the other crap we stuff in our bodies when they are doing it tough!?!
Loaded up on fat, sugar and salt, we pressed on to Rere Falls. The road to the falls is sealed and quite easy. A pleasant ride. However as the day wore on into the evening, thoughts of a coffee at the Eastwood Arboretum evaporated and we would have to make do with a spell at the Rere school instead to drink the last of our Coke before we got into the big hills...
The remaining 60 km to Matawai was tough, almost all of them metal with significant climbing but extremely rewarding nevertheless. Three hours of up and down bleed slowly into darkness. It would be 7pm when we got in from a
6 am start. A big day at the office - 210 km, 3100 metres of climbing and 11 hours riding.
We got of lightly. Some riders would not get in till nearly midnight, and some, not at all under their own steam, rescued by the support vehicle piloted by my long suffering and super star partner, Karla.
Day 3 Matawai to Rotorua 232 km
Day three was going to be the toughest day at 232km. Some of the (smarter) randonneurs elected to take a shorter more direct (200km) route down the Waioeka Gorge and straight back to Rotorua.
Chris and I stuck to the plan and at 5.20am we begun our trek towards Motu on a grey, wet and windy morning.
The ride from Matawai to Motu village is downhill which was just as well my legs did not want to go, and its a nice start to the 10 km climb that greats you soon after. The climb is a brute topping out at 787 meters leaving the the farmland behind as it ascends into the bush and the heavens.
For some who are ride the Pakihi track, which is popular with mountain bikers are ferried up this climb in a shuttle, and the turn around point for the shuttle signalled the beginning of the long descent back to sea level on the Opotiki side, and our second breakfast. The road Old Coach Road is rough and unkempt, fording streams and strewn with rocks. It took us nearly five hours to cover the 60 km between Matawai and Opotiki.
There are settlements on the Old Coach road and Chris and I wondered how they managed to scratch out a living. It was like going back in time affording the odd photo opp for our bikes.
The road had the consistency of wet cement in places. Soon both our machines and and each other were wearing a veneer of sloppy papa mud that every effectively frustrating the gear changing mechanism of my bike. At least I had a rear carrier to act as a mudguard - Chris ended up with a stripe!
Once off the Old Coach Road, Chris and I made short work of State Highway 2, stopping at Opotiki for a big breakfast then again Taneatua for food where there is an excellent bakery.
The road surface was good, weather great and practically no wind. Both of us had aerobars so cruising along at 30 odd km/hr soaked up the miles. The riding was pleasant but uneventful.
Soon, after Te Teko the road turned into McGivor Road and the seal and flat ended. 70km stood between us and home. 50km was unsealed...
McGivor road is a beautiful climb. Scenic, quiet and a consistent grade, however it is 8km long and a category two climb on now very tired legs. No records were broken on that ascent. The road would climb up and down as it weaved its way along the Rotorua lakes as the sun set on a perfect day of riding.
The metal roads were quite smooth and our progress good. The only traffic on that road was a group of 4-wheel drive enthusiasts who were no problem at all.
As the night wore on and the sun set, we were greeted by the most fabulous view of the setting sun over Lake Rotoiti. One of the most magical parts of the trip, I almost forgot the fatigue accumulating in my legs after nearly 200km of tough riding. Still I was feeling surprisingly good and could now smell the hay. Growning up in Rotorua, I was now on familiar roads.
We finally rode into Rotorua Government Gardens around 9 pm in the dark, 15 hours 41 minutes after starting at 5.20am that morning, buggered but satisfied.
On reflection while the route was epic and the scenery sublime, but this course is not accessible to most of our members when ridden over three days. Its very tough.
The real star of the show was Karla. had it not been for Karla’s amazing support getting riders home, it would not of ended well.
I was amazingly fortunate to ride with Chris. Our similar paces and perverse like for gravel climbs kept each other going - great company.
All in all this would be a great touring route over five or six days. The complex being built at Ruatahuna halfway through the tough Waikaremona section will provide a welcome and natural stop for touring this route.
Any ideas for next Easter?