The flightless bird that inspired my off-the-couch 120 km gran fondo
Richard Abraham is a former full-time cycling journalist turned full-time global marauder, most recently in New Zealand. He filed this piece about his first ride back after 18 months off the bike, where he rediscovered a piece of himself he hadn’t known was missing.
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 green and brown feathers around on the forest floor, there are only 208 kākāpō left in the world. The species was brought back from the brink of near-certain extinction in the 1990s, and every single living bird has a name.
Really, this whole thing was down to Tōmua. For one night only, he made a flight over from his sanctuary island home to the South Island of NZ (in a helicopter, naturally) to go on display to mark Waitangi Day, a national holiday. His display was deliberately low key, and it necessitated a four-hour drive to the country’s southernmost town of Bluff, but the opportunity to see one of these beautiful birds – a species back from the brink – is exceptionally rare. There was no way I was going to miss it.
By sheer chance, I discovered the Milford Mountain Classic, a 120 km gran fondo on one of the world’s most spectacular mountain roads, was taking place on the same weekend, en route to twitcher nirvana. There were just a few hours left for me to enter.
The event itself had gone extinct in 2016. But in 2021, with New Zealand’s borders shut to international visitors and the local hospitality industry in desperate need of a boost, it was back from the dead.
Races and events across the globe were cancelled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here was something that only took place because of it.
I have lived in New Zealand for 18 months and had gone full-on cold kākāpō on my addiction to road cycling. I wondered what would happen when I rode again after 18 months off. I had no bike, no kit, no cycling fitness and no idea. But there was no way I was going to miss this either.
The Milford Road, where the Mountain Classic takes place, is the gateway to what has become known as the eighth wonder of the world, Milford Sound, a natural nonpareil of sublime glacial canyons and soaring peaks that once attracted a million or so tourists a year. The Milford Mountain Classic, which starts by the Sound, is a certainly a contender for the world’s most scenic start line.
Yet it was that volume of visitors – crammed onto buses, campervans or unfamiliar right-hand-drive rental cars – that killed off the Mountain Classic back in 2016. Drivers were too busy ooh-ing and aah-ing at the scenery to notice tiny specks of lycra in the gargantuan panorama of primeval beech forest. Something bad was waiting to happen. Visitor numbers ramped up another 83% between 2015 and 2019 but in 2021, with tourism down to a tenth of what it was 12 months earlier, the event was resurrected.
Being a conduit for tourists and the occasional crate of lobster, the road is no well-trodden path of least resistance. The Kiwi road language is rough and tough, born of an era of machines and motors and empire building. It’s why the city of Dunedin has the steepest street in the world (planned in London without consideration of local terrain) and why the Milford Road charges over hillocks and bumps that would cripple a horse and cart.
The Milford Road is the path of least cost. At the same time, the Fiordland region is one of the wettest places in the world. A team of road engineers and builders are on site full-time to clear rockfall, patch up landslips and excavate avalanches. The mountains themselves bear great scars of earthly road rash where trees and thin soil have been scoured away like hair and skin. The Milford Road may be a marvel of modern engineering, but it’s a fragile one too.
In the 120km event there is almost 2000m of climbing, with half of it right out of the gate when the road snakes up from sea level to the roots of the Southern Alps and a sheer rock face towering the best part of 1000m above the tarmac. The solution, the Homer Tunnel, is a single-lane bored into the mountain at 11% gradient for 1.2km. In the darkness you can feel the texture of the mountain’s granite innards and sense its blood and bile seep through the seams and drip onto your back. It’s not so much a tunnel as a mineshaft.
The course is rough and grippy, an unforgiving road in unforgiving terrain as it winds its way down and out of the mountains to the finish line in the little town of Te Anau. But on those rarest of bluebird days, it is drop-dead gorgeous too.
Kiwi roadies, who of course made up the 150 or so entrants, are amateurs in the true sense of the word. It takes something as powerful as love to persevere with road riding when some of the world’s best off-roading is on your doorstop. They’re serious and they’re fast. Meanwhile my jersey is a racing castaway that cost $2 from a thrift store and offers an aero fit in the same way that a sheep’s intestine does to a haggis. My rental bike is sporting the 23mm tyres the shop couldn’t sell and its drivetrain is caked in extra-mature road grime that has been indelicately aged in a back room. I have applied edible chain lube (the shops were shut; olive oil works nicely) but I can’t help notice I’m surrounded by proper riders on proper bikes. I look down at my legs, a long way from the chiselled pins of those around me. We used to be like you, they think.
For the first 30 minutes, they want to run. They have muscle dementia and circles are a very confusing concept. But then the flow returns. The endorphins and serotonin – whatever cocktail of brain dope that cycling induces in me – build like a thunderstorm. But its more than just chemicals. I can feel something that I had forgotten was there. A part of my identity. A piece of my soul.
Or that could be the caffeine, which I also gave up and now save for special occasions. So it is that, having necked a pint of cold brew on the start, I emerge into the daylight out of the Homer Tunnel with my heart rate nudging 200bpm and my senses bombarded by UNESCO World Heritage induced euphoria. I’m sweating and shaking like a Belgian superstar at a post-Tour crit in the 1980s.
Road riding is the best way to see this sort of stuff. Hiking trails are so arduous that you’re too often staring at your feet; mountain biking you’re staring at the trail. Driving is too fast and too sedate. Scenic flights are too tragically ironic a way to experience a glacial landscape. Nothing else can give you this unbelievable high as you fly down descents, meditate at 50mph, whirr along in the wheels. All those good vibes, all the good feelings, the good memories, they all come back. Until, having red-lined my body for three hours, the bounce goes from my bungee and I get dropped. With no conditioning and no strength left, I roll in after five hours, resting my busted triceps with my forearms on the bars (take that, UCI) and two hours after the guy that won, an 18-year-old talent named Hunter Gough who broke both his arms in November.
Five hours of riding after 18 months off. Was it a good idea? I don’t know the answer but I’m delighted that I asked the question. With disruption to international tourism likely to continue into 2022, organisers are planning for another edition in a year’s time, so perhaps I’ll be able to go back and ask again.
We’ve probably all had to give something up in recent months, perhaps not by choice. But one day we will pick it up again. It probably won’t be a kākāpō or a gran fondo in New Zealand, but it will be something that makes you feel alive. What was once mundane will become momentous, and you too will recognise how special it really is. It will never feel so good. Now isn’t that something to look forward to?