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Riding the Great Forest of Tiriwa

From issue 73 • Words/images by Bruno Yates

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Kiwi charm is famous. The people are, broadly speaking, a convivial lot. Generous with their time, they are also quick with a smile and a hearty laugh—a rare trait for those of us who come from cynically fast-paced domains. It also turns out that New Zealanders have a dark sense of humor behind that ready smile. Their hospitality, at least in this story, happens to be—in Kiwispeak—a choice leg-ripper through Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges.

I hadn’t planned to ride on this trip down under. We intended a bike-free, three-week getaway. Just me, my wife and an undeterrable commitment to eating as many chocolate croissants as I damn well pleased. The moral of this story, however, might be interpreted as proof of the law of unintended consequences. It’s the story of how an off-hand Instagram question chain reactioned into me doubled over gasping for air on top of a hill in the middle of a jungle with my hosts having a good laugh nearby.

My message was: “I’m visiting NZ, and I occasionally write for Peloton magazine. Where can I buy a copy of the New Zealand Cycling Journal?” A near-immediate response through Instagram followed, which led to a plan to meet the Kiwi magazine’s publishers, Liam Friary and Cameron Mackenzie, at Auckland’s Allpress Espresso. Our planned one-hour klatch stretched into three hours, many flat whites and plans for a ride and proper Kiwi barbecue later in the week.

On the way to meet Liam and Cameron for our ride, my wife reminded me, “You haven’t ridden in weeks.” Her subtext was clear: I was out of shape. This was the kind of out of shape that only comes from three weeks off, four long flights, an 11-hour train ride, a half-dozen foreign beds, four hours on a boat, a 30-hour stomach flu and a new layer of intra-organ visceral fat from eating far too many orders of fish & chips. I felt like a well-marbled ribeye, and it was vaguely daunting knowing nothing about the ride ahead. As we pulled up to the start, before getting out of the car, my better half slyly added, “Don’t bring shame upon our house.”

When it comes to routes there are two kinds of riders. There are those who need to know the specifics—distance, duration, elevation gain, etcetera—and those who take a more free-jazz approach, preferring to remain unburdened by the bothersome minutiae. I am typically firmly in the give-me-details camp. Playing against type, however, I let the good vibes of my vacation-self take charge, opting not to ask any questions and blindly surrendering to my hosts’ plans. So, as we set off, when Liam said, “We’re going to do some gravel stuff through the Waitakeres,” I ignorantly shrugged with a naively carefree “whatevs.”

The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park lies 15 miles west of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. The park has 39,500 protected acres of dense, lush, jungle-clad hills. The Waitakeres are a volcanic-formed natural barrier between Auckland’s 1.4 million-person metropolis and some of the region’s most iconic beaches on the Tasman Sea, including Karekare Beach, which was made famous by the film “The Piano” and an eponymously named Crowded House song. Its Māori name Te Wao Nui o Tiriwa translates to “The Great Forest of Tiriwa.” Māori communities had been in the area since the 1600s, but Pākehā—settlers of European descent—didn’t begin to arrive until the mid-1800s.

This mountain range is a mixed-surface cycling playground. Its warren of intermingling gravel paths ribbon their way through densely forested hills, criss-crossing the scenic asphalt byway that takes locals to and from the coastal towns and beaches west of Auckland. As an officially protected area, those gravel paths are well cared for and, at least on this day, sparsely used. We rode in and out of the sun’s light as it crept through the lush green canopy to cast ever-changing shadows on our path. It was obvious to see how quickly the bush could reclaim these trails if left untended. As we rolled over the decayed remains of old rail tracks that led into a hillside tunnel, Liam told me that 19th-century pioneers forged these gravel trails, hand-cutting their way through the forest meter by painstaking meter.

I let the early parts of our ride create a false sense of ease. The Waitakere is a pure puncheur course that sneakily doles out accumulating fatigue. With a turn onto the main east-west road, we left gravel behind and settled into a long asphalt climb, and that fatigue quickly claimed squatter’s rights in my legs…and lungs. Easily dancing by me, Cameron asked how I was liking the 650b wheels on my loaner Slate. I barely gasped out an anaerobic response as he comfortably motored up the climb. I wanted to curse his youth, but…. Normally, this is the kind of 15-minute climb I love, so instead I just thought: “Stupid chips. Stupid croissants.” At a summit, the road forked and we returned to dirt—continuing onward only after I’d taken a long moment to regain my breath and dignity. Shame brought on house? Check.

Pedaling along the ridgeline, our dirt road took us northward, twisting and turning over gentle rollers. The road was wide enough and the dirt compact enough that we got into the drops and confidently opened things up. It was all skids and smiles now. An occasional car passed by, kicking up dust in a way that gave the surrounding jungle an eerily misty mood. We emerged from the jungle to a vista of endless, breathtaking horizon. The ocean stretched forever. The guys told me this wasn’t even the money shot. We found that a few kilometers farther on, overlooking Anawhata Beach at the northern end of the Waitakeres. For Liam and Cameron, getting to this view, to this poignant moment, was precisely what New Zealand cycling—and their magazine—is about.

Our ride back was more dirt, more pounding rollers, more jungle and more fatigue—all encapsulated by more unrelenting beauty. We finished just as the sun was setting. Seeing I was completely spent, Liam handed me a local soda and said, “There’s no hiding from the Waitakeres, eh, mate?”