Three women, 30 days and 3000 kilometres to go. Joanna Wane meets the Rhythm Belles, who have age on their side.
In 30 days, if all goes according to plan, the Rhythm Belles will roll into Lands End after a 3000km bike ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
The three Auckland women — the oldest is 77 — were scheduled to set off this morning in a wave of cyclists heading down Ninety Mile Beach. Any stragglers who don't make it off the sand in time will have to camp in the dunes and wait out the next low tide.
The last time Tour Aotearoa was held, in 2020, it rode straight into the first Covid lockdown and dozens of cyclists had to abandon the route. Despite uncertainty around the current Omicron outbreak, 300 have signed up this year.
The TA isn't a race but a brevet event that follows a set course, via photo checkpoints, running the entire length of New Zealand. The fastest will do it in 10 days. The Belles, who are riding electric bikes, will be on the road for a month and still average 100km a day.
For most normal people, that sounds like complete lunacy. For Liz Forde, it sounded like the perfect way to celebrate her 60th birthday. Ten years ago, she marked her 50th by rowing across France in a 200km race on the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Beziers. Until a few months ago, she hadn't ridden a bike since the 1970s.
"When I was a kid with my little red LoLine, we'd spend hours riding around furiously, being chased by boys and going on adventures," she says. "After everything that's gone on in the past couple of years, it's really good to feel that element of whimsy again."
A mother of three, Forde has won a stash of rowing gold medals at masters events (among a string of other sporting achievements), performed as a drag queen called Krystal deKanta at the Queens of the Whole Universe fundraiser for the Aids Foundation and, career-wise, is currently specialising in cryptocurrency inheritance planning.
For the past few months, she's been in charge of team logistics for the Rhythm Belles (she's good with spreadsheets), booking accommodation for each night so they don't have to carry camping gear. Lands End is a boutique hotel in Bluff, right at the end of State Highway 1.
Forde's doubles partner at the West End Rowing Club, Martha DeLong, is their official timekeeper, responsible for enforcing food stops to refuel every 90 minutes. A semi-retired geologist, DeLong was a last-minute ring-in just four weeks ago, after an original team member based overseas failed to secure a spot in MIQ.
Born in Ohio, DeLong has worked for Big Oil in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and met her Kiwi husband when they were installing a sour gas compressor in Texas (a later stint in Nigeria was cut short after their 7-year-old daughter was taken hostage in a carjacking).
A marathon runner with her own set of rowing golds, DeLong has done endurance bike rides before, plays the jazz trombone and has just published a children's book. On March 2, she'll celebrate her 66th birthday with a glass of bubbles on the summit of Maungawhau/Mt Eden, which is one of the event's official checkpoints. "My driver [for the TA] is just to be able to say I did it," she tells me. "But I won't be bringing my trombone along for the ride."
The third "belle", Tina Frantzen, was Forde's rowing partner until a cancer diagnosis in 2014 (she was given the all-clear last year). A teacher for most of her life, she's now an exhibiting artist in painting and photography at the Railway Street Studios gallery in Newmarket.
At 77, she recently had both hips replaced, so without an e-bike doing the TA simply wouldn't have been possible. The Rhythm Belles are riding the event as ambassadors for MeloYelo, a New Zealand electric-bike brand that's involved with Evolocity, a charity that runs high-school programmes and innovation labs to promote e-transport.
In Taumarunui, where the local police ride MeloYelo bikes, they've been promised an escort into town after they emerge from the Timber Trail. "They did say we might have flashing lights coming in, but to make sure we don't need flashing lights on our way out," says Frantzen, whose husband is coming on tour as their roadie. "He's our version of The Stig."
Frantzen has a deeper personal motivation for taking on the challenge, too. Her older son, Simon, was killed in a car accident in 2002 at the age of 31. "He loved cycling, so he'll be on the bike with me."
Despite their sporting experience, there's been plenty of nerves. Canvas photographer Dean Purcell, who was pulled off the TA in 2020 when New Zealand went into lockdown, is riding again this year. A long discussion ensues about avoiding saddle sores — wash your sweaty bike shorts each night to get the salt off your butt — the "hell day" climbing past Tāne Mahuta, and the pleasures of chocolate milk.
Forde has already suffered from nasty saddle blisters on training rides and admits it will be an anxious time, separated from family as the pandemic is accelerating. Most importantly, though, they have each other's back. "I think rowing has given all of us the mental capacity to know we can do it and how," she says. "And we're all mature enough to know we can get off and walk."
Each morning, they'll be on their bikes by 6am. Team rules include stopping at forks in the road to regroup if they've become separated and never passing up the opportunity for a toilet stop.
The TA is notoriously tough on relationships. A friend who's previously ridden it told Forde he got chatting to a woman cycling alone who confessed she hadn't spoken to her touring partner for the past three days.
As a safety valve, each of them are carrying three "I don't give a f***" cards, which are non-negotiable and can be used to make a call on something without needing to justify it to the group. They also have red armbands in their emergency kits.
"That means you're having an off day," says Forde. "Just leave me alone and I'll get over myself eventually."