The flightless bird that inspired my off-the-couch 120 km gran fondo

Richard Abraham is a former full-time biking journalist turned full-time international marauder, most just lately in New Zealand. He filed this piece about his first journey again after 18 months off the bike, the place he rediscovered a chunk of himself he hadn’t identified was lacking.


Tōmua is a kākāpō, the world’s heaviest species of parrot. Flightless, nocturnal, endemic to New Zealand and endearingly cute as they shuffle their mottled inexperienced and brown feathers round on the forest ground, there are solely 208 kākāpō left on this planet. The species was introduced again from the brink of near-certain extinction within the Nineteen Nineties, and each single residing chook has a reputation. 

Actually, this entire factor was all the way down to Tōmua. For one night time solely, he made a flight over from his sanctuary island house to the South Island of NZ (in a helicopter, naturally) to go on show to mark Waitangi Day, a nationwide vacation. His show was intentionally low key, and it necessitated a four-hour drive to the nation’s southernmost city of Bluff, however the alternative to see considered one of these stunning birds – a species again from the brink – is exceptionally uncommon. There was no manner I used to be going to overlook it. 

By sheer probability, I found the Milford Mountain Basic, a 120 km gran fondo on one of many world’s most spectacular mountain roads, was going down on the identical weekend, en path to twitcher nirvana. There have been just some hours left for me to enter. 

The occasion itself had gone extinct in 2016. However in 2021, with New Zealand’s borders shut to worldwide guests and the native hospitality business in determined want of a lift, it was again from the lifeless. 

Races and occasions throughout the globe have been cancelled or postponed as a result of Covid-19 pandemic. Right here was one thing that solely happened due to it. 

I’ve lived in New Zealand for 18 months and had gone full-on chilly kākāpō on my dependancy to highway biking. I questioned what would occur once I rode once more after 18 months off. I had no bike, no package, no biking health and no thought. However there was no manner I used to be going to overlook this both. 

The Milford Highway, the place the Mountain Basic takes place, is the gateway to what has grow to be often known as the eighth surprise of the world, Milford Sound, a pure nonpareil of chic glacial canyons and hovering peaks that after attracted one million or so vacationers a yr. The Milford Mountain Basic, which begins by the Sound, is a definitely a contender for the world’s most scenic begin line. 

But it was that quantity of tourists – crammed onto buses, campervans or unfamiliar right-hand-drive rental vehicles – that killed off the Mountain Basic again in 2016. Drivers have been too busy ooh-ing and aah-ing on the surroundings to note tiny specks of lycra within the gargantuan panorama of primeval beech forest. One thing unhealthy was ready to occur. Customer numbers ramped up one other 83% between 2015 and 2019 however in 2021, with tourism all the way down to a tenth of what it was 12 months earlier, the occasion was resurrected. 

Being a conduit for vacationers and the occasional crate of lobster, the highway isn’t any well-trodden path of least resistance. The Kiwi highway language is tough and difficult, born of an period of machines and motors and empire constructing. It’s why the town of Dunedin has the steepest road on this planet (deliberate in London with out consideration of native terrain) and why the Milford Highway expenses over hillocks and bumps that may cripple a horse and cart.

The Milford Highway is the trail of least value. On the similar time, the Fiordland area is among the wettest locations on this planet. A crew of highway engineers and builders are on web site full-time to clear rockfall, patch up landslips and excavate avalanches. The mountains themselves bear nice scars of earthly highway rash the place timber and skinny soil have been scoured away like hair and pores and skin. The Milford Highway could also be a marvel of recent engineering, however it’s a fragile one too. 

Within the 120km occasion there may be virtually 2000m of climbing, with half of it proper out of the gate when the highway snakes up from sea degree to the roots of the Southern Alps and a sheer rock face towering the most effective a part of 1000m above the tarmac. The answer, the Homer Tunnel, is a single-lane bored into the mountain at 11% gradient for 1.2km. Within the darkness you may really feel the feel of the mountain’s granite innards and sense its blood and bile seep by the seams and drip onto your again. It’s not a lot a tunnel as a mineshaft. 

The course is tough and grippy, an unforgiving highway in unforgiving terrain because it winds its manner down and out of the mountains to the end line within the little city of Te Anau. However on these rarest of bluebird days, it’s drop-dead beautiful too. 

Is that this the ache cave?
Picture Douglas Thorne, @douglasthornephotography

Kiwi roadies, who after all made up the 150 or so entrants, are amateurs within the true sense of the phrase. It takes one thing as highly effective as like to persevere with highway using when among the world’s greatest off-roading is in your doorstop. They’re severe they usually’re quick. In the meantime my jersey is a racing castaway that value $2 from a thrift retailer and gives an aero slot in the identical manner {that a} sheep’s gut does to a haggis. My rental bike is sporting the 23mm tyres the store couldn’t promote and its drivetrain is caked in extra-mature highway grime that has been indelicately aged in a again room. I’ve utilized edible chain lube (the outlets have been shut; olive oil works properly) however I can’t assist discover I’m surrounded by correct riders on correct bikes. I look down at my legs, a good distance from the chiselled pins of these round me. We was once such as you, they assume.  

For the primary half-hour, they wish to run. They’ve muscle dementia and circles are a really complicated idea. However then the stream returns. The endorphins and serotonin – no matter cocktail of mind dope that biking induces in me – construct like a thunderstorm. However its extra than simply chemical substances. I can really feel one thing that I had forgotten was there. Part of my identification. A chunk of my soul. 

Or that might be the caffeine, which I additionally gave up and now save for particular events. So it’s that, having necked a pint of chilly brew on the beginning, I emerge into the daylight out of the Homer Tunnel with my coronary heart charge nudging 200bpm and my senses bombarded by UNESCO World Heritage induced euphoria. I’m sweating and shaking like a Belgian celebrity at a post-Tour crit within the Eighties. 

Highway using is one of the best ways to see this kind of stuff. Climbing trails are so arduous that you simply’re too usually watching your ft; mountain biking you’re staring on the path. Driving is just too quick and too sedate. Scenic flights are too tragically ironic a strategy to expertise a glacial panorama. Nothing else may give you this unbelievable excessive as you fly down descents, meditate at 50mph, whirr alongside within the wheels. All these good vibes, all the nice emotions, the nice reminiscences, all of them come again. Till, having red-lined my physique for 3 hours, the bounce goes from my bungee and I get dropped. With no conditioning and no power left, I roll in after 5 hours, resting my busted triceps with my forearms on the bars (take that, UCI) and two hours after the man that received, an 18-year-old expertise named Hunter Gough who broke each his arms in November. 

5 hours of using after 18 months off. Was it a good suggestion? I don’t know the reply however I’m delighted that I requested the query. With disruption to worldwide tourism more likely to proceed into 2022, organisers are planning for one more version in a yr’s time, so maybe I’ll be capable of return and ask once more. 

We’ve in all probability all needed to give one thing up in latest months, maybe not by selection. However someday we’ll decide it up once more. It in all probability received’t be a kākāpō or a gran fondo in New Zealand, however will probably be one thing that makes you’re feeling alive. What was as soon as mundane will grow to be momentous, and also you too will recognise how particular it truly is. It’ll by no means really feel so good. Now isn’t that one thing to look ahead to?

Picture Douglas Thorne, @douglasthornephotography

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