Cycling the South Island, A Film

What happens when four friends go cycling in New Zealand?

Sung Han

I rolled my bike off the gravel path and into the tall, golden grass next to a family having a picnic. Beneath them was a rocky shore leading to the remarkable cyan water of Lake Pukaki. I snapped out of my pedals and set the bike down. “There’s going to be some nudity here”, I said, unzipping my jacket. “Is everyone going to be okay with that?” They nodded, a little bewildered, and continued munching on their sandwiches.

Matt rolled up behind me. “You’re not going to do it”, he said, pointing out that the lake was fed by glaciers, probably very cold. I was just in my bibs at this point, walking carefully over the sharp rocks down to the water. He followed and we perched on the two largest rocks, stripped down to our birthday suits and jumped in. Fortunately the sun was hot that morning — because the water was cold as fuck.

You feel the topography: the smooth pavement, the body-rattling gravel, the climbs and the descents.

We did the same in the middle of the night at Lake Ohau, recruiting a small crew of vacationers to join us, and then again a few hundred miles later in the South Pacific off of Oamaru. I’m not especially inclined to get naked, but when you get out of the still-frozen East Coast and land in New Zealand on the first days of fall with a set of road bikes and two days to kill, you feel a little, I don’t know, fancy-free?

There’s hardly a bad view on New Zealand, from the snow-capped summits of Mount Cook, to the quiet country roads lined with dairy farms and vineyards, to the endless miles of coast bordering the Tasman Sea, the Pacific Ocean, sounds, fiords and rivers. What’s more, when you’re out on a bike exploring the network of roads and trails, you’ll often find yourself alone, especially on the South Island where the vast majority of land is occupied by fewer than one person per square kilometer. That’s the definition of open road.

Like lacing up your shoes at dawn and running to explore a new city, there’s something meaningful about riding a bike across an unfamiliar country, covering a large number of miles on a human-powered machine instead of by car or airplane. The morning is cool and your body is a little reluctant to move. You feel the topography: the smooth pavement, the body-rattling gravel, the climbs and the descents. You’re eat and drink because of actual hunger and thirst rather than boredom or routine. At the end of a 100-mile day you’re pedaling on fumes until you know it’s almost over, when you tap into the “cold beer is in my immediate future” reserve.

In the end, we spent two days on three Specialized Roubaix workhorses and one Crux, covering roughly 150 miles on the South Island. The first 50 were gravel, dirt and a few rocky riverbeds; the last 100 were mostly paved roads. Along the way we blew a flat just once, ate some better-than-expected sandwiches at a gas station deli, drank raw milk at dairy farm, fell twice (that’s on me) and drank some of the best whisky we’ve ever tasted. And when we rolled in to Oamaru and saw the ocean lapping up on the beach in front of Waterfront Road, we just did what came natural: took off our bibs and went for a swim.

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