Tour de Niue

By Russell Baillie

Cyclists take a break during Niue's Rally of the Rock. Photo / Paul Johnson
Cyclists take a break during Niue's Rally of the Rock. Photo / Paul Johnson

It was time for the last big push. Days had been spent pondering maps, calculating distances, ensuring the gear was good to go.

Now it was time for the mission: circumnavigate this country by bike.

As I pedalled out into the warm morning, questions rattled around inside my helmet. Would I hold up? Would the bike make it? It looked like rain. Would the weather beat me back? But most importantly: Would I be back by lunchtime?

Turns out, I was. After a ride of 59.99km - the distance my speedo recorded around Niue and back to my cottage above the Pacific at Namukulu Motel.

Yes it was brief. But this three-hour nation-circling epic wasn't without risk.

After all, it had rained a bit, keeping the winter temperature - not that Niue really does winter - in the balmy mid twenties.

The road turned from tarseal to fine grit for 10km. Delivering the requisite friendly finger flick to oncoming traffic - not that Niue really does traffic - occasionally hampered steering and gearshifts.

There was bit of a hill - Niue doesn't really do mountains - for the last kilometre near the motel. Oh and one village dog thought me in need of sprint training. So yes it was tough out there.

But really there is one major impediment to doing a fast solo Tour De Niue. That is, the temptation to divert down one of the many tracks from the island's plateau about 60m above sea level to the beautifully craggy coral and limestone coast.

But I'd already spent much of the week off the bike and clambering like a mad crab - and Niue does have those big coconut-eating ugas - about the island's rugged edges, its coastal caves and chasms.

If the casual spelunking got a bit much, there was always a clear rock pool to take a solitary dip in. But while many come here for the diving, I opted for above sea-level wide-shots of the ocean rather than crystalline underwater close-ups.

Above the east coast's Togo Chasm - a beautifully eerie canyon into which you climb by ladder, landing on what is possibly the only patch of white sand on the entire island - it's easy to be transfixed by the Pacific pounding on the rocks below, while wondering how far over the horizon it is to Chile.

It's not hard to find yourself such spots of splendid and utter isolation.

Even Namukulu Motel (since renamed the Namukulu Cottages & Spa) came with one.

Rebuilt further up the hill from the coastline after it was devastated by Cyclone Heta in 2004, the place acts as a lookout point from which you can toast another orange sunset or any whales that happen to be passing.

Here, one could spend an entire week staring - and steering - into the distance.

As Niue is so very empty of people, locals or tourists, it's a place that can make you feel a long way from anywhere. Only 1400 people live on "The Rock" now, there are fewer than 100 tourist beds and one weekly Air New Zealand flight in and out.

But I hadn't flown this far just to cycle around an entire nation in the time it usually takes to lap Woodhill Forest back home. No, that was the easy part, a sort of warm-down ride. I was here for the Rally of the Rock.

That name might make it might sound tough, but it's really the friendliest, smallest, least mountainous quasi-international mountain bike race in the world. Niue's answer to Hawaii's Kona Ironman, it's not.

But if you want to take it all too seriously and break out the lycra, the locals are polite enough not to make fun of you to your face ...

Flashback. Four days earlier. Racetime. I am in high gear, going a little faster than is probably sensible or indeed sustainable on a track somewhere deep in the bush between Liku and Lakepa villages in the east of the island's interior.

Red-brown earth flies from my tyres. Some of it is giving me a truly organic taste of Niue. Occasionally tropical vegetation reaches in over the track, snagging my handlebars and slapping at my arms and legs. I've become a two-wheeled threshing machine, a lycra machete.

Sometimes the foliage falls away only for the dirt track to turn to spongy grass which saps the energy, slows the bike, takes the wind out of your face and turns up the humidity.

Niue's lush green lumpy hinterland, goes past in a blur. Occasionally, a clearing reveals some locals tending to their bush gardens and looking puzzled why the traffic is so heavy today. Other corners come marked by pig pens seemingly in the middle of nowhere, their residents squealing encouragement.

But the lack of hills means the riding is fast and concentration on the track in front is interrupted only by finding a line to pass the occasional cyclist you've caught up with - or giving way to the rider behind who seems to be going twice as fast but breathing half as hard.

Actually, make that five different blurs. The rally isn't an A to B race but five mad dashes of between 5km to 12km through the bush, plus a few kms of road in the "touring" stages. It keeps things social and makes the race for all ages, shapes and sizes.

Like a car rally, competitors are let go at one minute intervals in the hope they can catch the competitor sixty seconds ahead, or avoid being caught by the guy behind.

Back at race headquarters, the Liku Country Club, the times are collated by walkie-talkie and laptop to see who's won. Other than trying to remember how many cyclists you've passed and how many have passed you, it's a mystery how well you are doing.

Today the event has attracted 30 competitors and about twice as many supporters and organisers. There's plenty of time to chat, share a banana, or a freshly topped coconut between staggered starts, or help your fellow competitors pull the foliage out of their unshifting gears.

Of those treating this like a real race, about a third of are middle aged bike nuts like me who arrived from New Zealand complete with a pile of gear, which added to the happy mayhem of baggage claim at Alofi airport two days before.

Of the imports, many have links to the island. Defending champ Wilson Isaac is both the Chief Judge of the Maori Land Court in New Zealand and a visiting High Court judge in Niue. Likewise, Auckland-based Grahame Struthers is an exporter of foodstuffs to much of Polynesia. His Crosby Exports is one of the sponsors of the race along with, Air New Zealand and Bank South Pacific.

Starting a minute behind, Struthers is also the first to pass me on stage one going like a fruitbat out of hell. It's a little daunting to see just how high his high-gear is so early. But soon I'm picking up on a few other competitors on the first track, including one representative of New Zealand who is riding with a small inflatable sheep on his back.

The first stage is over after a 5km mad dash along a 4WD track. Stage two starts back at race HQ in Liku and with it my chance to duel with the local favourite. That's Willie Saniteli, who having started a couple of minutes behind is already alongside me half way through the stage, smiling the same big smile which welcomes folks to his Washaway Cafe, a rustic and relaxed bar on the south coast of the island.

Piloting a bike which has an alarmingly rusty crossbar - apparently it hasn't been the same since he rode it off a wharf for rally promotional photos a while back - he pulls away. But not far enough. Soon we're racing front tyre to front tyre all the way to the stage finish.

Later video footage - Niue yacht club commodore Keith Vial officiates as handycam man and gives us all an edited DVD later - captures the end of the pointless mad dash: one grinning local and one grimacing palagi come hurtling out of the bush, cross the line in a dead heat and race out of shot to the sound of squealing brakes and much giggling.

Saniteli passes properly two stages later but only after I shout after him that he's taken a wrong turn. I had been out with the organisers the day before and spray painted the arrows on this very bend, possibly the first bit of tagging in this country ever carried out under police supervision.

He may be local but here I am the GPS. He turns back and passes me again for a final time.

Not much later, here comes the judge, his honour's road training regime clearly putting him at an advantage on these flat trails against mountain bike bushwackers like me.

And having sweated our way through much of the top half of the island, soon we're on way back to Liku, a leg which comes with the day's only discernible bit of hill followed by a sealed road home straight, followed by the finish line.

On the finishing line, as the arriving serious cyclists eventually give away to the give-it-a-go part of the field, the smiles grow bigger and the condition known as sore bike-butt syndrome is already showing one of its curious symptoms - infectious giggling among fellow sufferers.

Everyone home safe, the country club's bar and barbecue are open. The prizegiving reveals Judge Isaac has successfully defended his title by just under two minutes from Struthers.

Santineli is fourth and the fastest local, and ten minutes behind him in seventh place is yours truly. Suppose I can claim a top ten finish in my first international event but more roadwork needed obviously ...

A few days later the Washaway hosts an early evening social ride around the southern end of the island. The combined effect of the sunset, the occasional scrub fire and the open tracks make it a far more serene sightseeing trip than the race.

Niue is a really nice place to ride your bike, even when you haven't got a race number on the front of it. Burgers, beers and a guitar being passed around make for a sweet after-ride evening too.

But with a day to go before flying back - and having to scrub any remnants of Niue off the bike - it's out for the big ride round.

That night, race organisers and my hosts Joe and Robyn Wright (the now former owners of Namukulu) and I head into Alofi for dinner.

The race winner is also at the same eatery with Saniteli. He says he drove past someone out riding in the day's showers. Guilty, your honour.

"You must be mad," he laughs. Yeah but I'm training for next time.

And if I stay at the Namukulu again, I'm asking for the cottage next door, so I can clock up an even 60km on my next round trip. You have to stretch yourself ...

CHECKLIST

The Rally of the Rock: This bike race cum community outing has been running since 1999, when it was established by Joe and Robyn Wright, keen cyclists and former owners of Namukulu Motel. The event took four years off after Cyclone Heta in 2004 and returned in 2008. It's now run by the Niue Tourism Association with the the Government Tourism Office providing logistical support, as do the Niue Police, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and a host of volunteers.

Most New Zealand riders spend the week after the race relaxing with a spot of snorkelling, diving, fishing, and yet more biking.

Bikes for the race - or any other time - are available to hire on the island from the local car rental firms and many accommodation places have them too. Or you can take your own.

The 2010 Rally of the Rock is on June 7.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to and from Niue from Auckland once a week, leaving Saturday (and crossing the international date line to arrive on Friday). See niueisland.com for more information.

Russell Baillie flew to Niue courtesy of Air New Zealand and stayed courtesy of Namukulu Motel/Cottages & Spa.

- NZ Herald

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