In the first of a series on Weekend Warriors, Mike van Niekerk talks to photographer and keen cyclist Phil Walter.

Phil Walter likes to ride bicycles a long way at speed. Mid-morning on Monday, he left Cape Reinga at the northern tip of the North Island. All going to plan, by the time you read this he will be well on his way from the Cook Strait ferry, heading to Nelson on his way to Bluff.

The 42-year-old Aucklander is among 500 cyclists taking part in the Tour of Aotearoa, along a 3000km route that stitches together some of New Zealand's most spectacular off-road tracks, through forests, over mountains, down farm roads and only partly on sealed road.

Phil Walter cycling down 90-mile Beach south of Cape Reinga on day 1 of his journey. Photo / Phil Walter
Phil Walter cycling down 90-mile Beach south of Cape Reinga on day 1 of his journey. Photo / Phil Walter

It's one of the world's ultimate "bikepacking adventures", created by Wellington's Jonathan Kennett, a pioneer, with his two brothers, of mountain bike race events in New Zealand.


"You can learn more about this country riding this route than you can any other way," said Kennett, who is somewhere on the track behind Walter.

The tour is not, strictly speaking a race — there are cyclists in their 70s who expect to take a month seeing New Zealand — and there are rules about stopping for six hours out of every 24 while not taking less than 10 days to complete the journey.

That's about as long as it will take Walter, who will probably finish one minute past the minimum time, next week, so he can get home in time to prepare for the following week's Tour of Northland, a four-stage amateur cycle race between Whangarei, Russell, Opononi and Dargaville.

"I just love being on my bike and turning the pedals over," said Walter, whose day job is as a photographer supplying pictures of New Zealand sport and politics to the world for Getty Images, an international agency.

One time, he got back into Auckland airport after midnight from Wellington, where he'd been covering an All Black test match, got on his bicycle and rode around Auckland for 500km. That was part of an international challenge set by the Melbourne-based Hells500 group for extreme distance cyclists around the world.

Another Hells500 challenge is to "Everest" — find a mountain, or even just a steep local road, and ride up and down nonstop until you've climbed the equivalent of Mt Everest's 8848m.

Walter has done that twice, up Mt Donald McLean in the Waitakere Ranges and up Tongariro, which has put him in the Hells500 Hall of Fame.

Last November, as part of his preparation for the Tour of Aotearoa, he entered a 48-hour, nonstop cycling event. Naturally, he completed 780km.

Walter's approach is to push his body to the limits.

"You're surprised by what you can achieve if you don't let the pain take over your mind," he said on Thursday night somewhere on the road between Whanganui and Kaungaroa, pushing on to Wellington.

But why? Walter is not a professional sportsman. Like so many weekend warriors, he holds down a day job while spending thousands of hours a year devoting himself to the pursuit of a physical and athletic passion.

"I'm not a massive racer," said Walter, who nevertheless came 49th in mountain biking's solo 24-hour world championships in 2016. "I don't think I'm extreme; I just enjoy riding my bike — you can lose yourself, you can let your mind wander, it's an escape and a detachment from the work you do.

"In particular, the bike gives you a great ability to travel long distances, seeing New Zealand at ground level — I do have a desire to see parts of my country that people don't normally see. It's pretty special."

Getting off sealed roads to explore country back roads is a recent global phenomenon in cycling that has taken off in New Zealand with its extensive network of metalled country roads. Road bicycles and mountain bikes have merged into a new type of cycle called a "gravel grinder".

Walter was one of the first Kiwi cyclists to discover gravel grinding and his Strava file — the online GPS and telemetry record of his rides — shows him and his group of fellow cyclists in Auckland travelling unusual routes through the Waitakere Ranges and other remote locations north and south of the city.

Landscape near the Wanganui River on the Tour of Aotearoa. Photo / Phil Walter
Landscape near the Wanganui River on the Tour of Aotearoa. Photo / Phil Walter

Happily for Walter, his partner Rebecca Eng is a weekend warrior too: a couple of weeks ago she completed an ironman.

"It really makes a big difference," he said, "having a partner who lets you go out — it helps with the little things that are hard."

The Tour of Aotearoa is probably the most popular of many similar bikepacking events around the world, including the Transcontinental, between the Netherlands and Greece.

Unexpectedly, they have become spectator sports, of sorts. All participants carry trackers so the organisers can monitor them and because these are updated live to online maps, they've created a new kind of sports fan: "dot watchers" who follow the progress of cyclists during the event.

From Picton, Walter has 1400km of the 3000km total distance to go. What does the rest of the tour hold?

"The South Island looks a bit quicker," he said.

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