Thursday, 21 January 2021


An unforgettable bicycle journey for Whitianga local

Around midday on 22 February, Graham Eccles, along with his cousin, Kerry Martin from Matamata, stood astride his bicycle on Ninety Mile Beach looking south and no doubt feeling a little nervous wondering what lay ahead. It was the point of no return. What sounded like a good idea two years earlier had suddenly become a reality.  Their end goal was Bluff, some 3,000km away, a destination they had given themselves less than 30 days to reach. 

They - along with around 1,000 other cyclists, sent off in waves of 100 - were part of the biannual 2020 Tour Aotearoa (TA), an event which has become one of the great bike packing adventures in the world. Officially it’s called a brevet, which means riders are unsupported. They carry all their required gear with them, including tents and sleeping bags. There are no prizes on offer and no fanfare waiting at the end, it’s all about personal achievement.   

Graham, a Whitianga resident since 1984, flies under the radar a little when it comes to the local cycling community, tending to do his own thing and riding as time allows. He and wife, Dianne, are former long-time owners of the Paper Plus shop in town and now operate a B&B from their home on Buffalo Beach Road. Many will also remember hearing about that unlucky fellow who got knocked off their bike by a car towing a trailer last year on Buffalo Beach Road. Well that was Graham, out training for the TA at the time.

So, what made him take on such a huge challenge? Well, it’s a story best told from the man himself.

“Up until my late 20s, I played cricket at various levels mixed with rugby, including several very enjoyable seasons with the Mercury Bay Rugby Club,” says Graham. “I have always used cycling as a fitness base for other sports, even managing to complete three marathons many years ago. After rugby, cycling sort of became a natural progression, it was easier on the body and great for health and fitness. I began participating in local cycling events with the Colville Connection and the K2 in its first year, followed by several K1s.

“I decided to enter the 2020 TA two years ago while following the progress of my mate, Grimmy Martin, in the 2018 event. I asked my cousin to join me. He entered first, so I was committed from that point on. I fitted my training in around the B&B, mostly early in the morning and mainly solo as that worked best for our household. Training involved plenty of long distances and hill work, including riding the Man of Steel course three times. But there were also plenty of shorter town rides, always finishing with the climb up Centennial Drive.

“I’m not sure if it was good management or good luck, but we had a dream ride on our TA, no punctures, no mechanicals, no injuries and only two half hour rain showers over the 27 days it took to complete the ride. Each day had its unique challenges, but I guess because we had no issues, the TA was actually easier than I imagined. We averaged around 110km a day, while our biggest day was around 140km. Our normal routine was to be on the road no later than 7:30am, ride for a couple of hours and stop at a cafe or similar for a good feed, progress from there and usually calling it a day around 5:30pm.

“What did become important was a hot shower, a beer, a good dinner and sleep. We managed all of those most nights. Also managing laundry became a priority. As we were travelling light, it was really wear, wash and wear again.

“There were always other riders in close proximity and we would often see the same groups on and off over two or three days. Riding with and meeting others was a fun part of the tour - all in the same boat as they say.

“We had only one flat day when we went from Nelson to Murchison, not sure why, but after a bit of a chat, a couple of beers and a good sleep we were ready to go again. Taking each day at a time worked well, not looking too far ahead, especially as the finish day became a reality and treating each day in some cases as a victory.

The best days were day one, riding down Ninety Mile Beach with a tail wind and, near the end, taking the TSS Earnslaw vintage steamer from Queenstown across the lake and riding up through Walter Peak and Mt Nicholas Stations to Mossburn, taking in some magnificent scenery.

“Along the way we stayed with friends or extended family, in cabins, country pubs, a caravan and one tin shed. Despite burning 7,000 to 8,000 calories a day, eating regularly and eating huge dinners I still managed to shed 7kg.”

With wife Diane there to greet him at the finish line in Bluff, Graham’s first words to her were, “I can’t believe I did that.”

“And it was true, I really didn’t know if I could do it, so the sense of achievement was pretty emotional,” says Graham. “I'll continue to cycle and if I see a challenge, who knows anything is possible... nothing is impossible! The next organised TA is in 2022 and if anyone is thinking about taking part, my best advice is to talk to those that have done it before, ride plenty of hills, and treat it as a fun challenge.”

Piictured: Graham Eccles after arriving in Bluff, having cycled the length of New Zealand in 27 days.


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