Day 55: Stratford, NZ to Wanganui, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 20, 2014

Day 55: Stratford, NZ to Wanganui, NZ

Before we even knew about the Forgotten World Highway we made the decision to head toward this part of New Zealand because it's home to Mt. Taranaki, which is an 8,200-foot-high stratovolcano that is known for being both beautiful and especially symmetrical. It's not that we're the kind to sit around and stare at the thing for hours and take 700 pictures and make profound commentary like, "Fucking big, isn't it?" But we had to go somewhere after all, and a dramatic-looking mountain seemed like not a bad choice.

As we ride out of town just before 8:00 we see the low clouds around the base of the mountain starting to creep their way up. It's only a matter of twenty minutes before it once again disappears entirely from view. But until that happens we have several chances to look back to the north, admire a clear view of the mountain, and think to ourselves, Fucking big, isn't it?

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"I feel like we're on a mission!" Kristen says as we pedal hard to the south on Highway 3.

And in fact we are. We haven't looked at many weather forecasts during our first couple of weeks here, but when we arrived in town yesterday I did, and that's when I learned an important fact: this afternoon promises sustained winds at thirty miles per hour straight from the west. By the time that happens we'll be headed straight to the east. I also knew that we'd be leaving behind the quiet back roads we've come to love, because the only option for most of the stretch between Stratford and Wanganui is the highway. That means the challenge for today was set: ride hard, surf the tailwinds, and get this big chunk of unsavory riding done with as little pain as possible.

This is Highway 3.
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In the towns we blow past kids with backpacks as they head down the sidewalk to school. In between the towns we deal with the aggressive noise and wind blasts from two-trailered milk transport trucks that scream by within ten feet of our right rear panniers, impatient drivers who insist on passing each other in places far too dangerous for passing, and the exponential increase in the number of cars and trucks and vans. These troubles are complicated by the fact that the shoulders go from broader than the width of a rail car to narrower than my ass with no warning and following no pattern that we're able to decode.

Where hand pies and Mountain Dew come from.
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"If I had a punk band, you know what I'd call it?" I ask Kristen.

"What's that?"

"The Dead Hedgehogs."

I make the decision this morning after we dodge the third dead hedgehog that sits in our path along the highway shoulder.

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Beyond Hawera the traffic gets a bit better, but much in the same way that a punch to the leg is better than a jab to the nose. The shoulder becomes more predictable, which means it stays wide on the flats and then all but disappears on the hills, which is where we most need it. Every cyclist deals with these kinds of conditions in a different way. Some put on headphones and listen to music and try to ignore the madness. Others put their heads down, stare at the pavement, and grind away the miles. In my case, for the rest of the morning and afternoon I make inappropriate comments related to the name Wanganui and the oil supply company named Fuchs, because there will always be a part of me that proudly remains twelve years old.

But again we feel like jerks for complaining, because the countryside around us remains lush and green and brilliant, the sunshine breaks through the clouds of the morning, rain isn't even a thought, and when we crest the top of a steep rise and look behind us we see far in the distance the blue reflection of the ocean, for the first time since our descent into Auckland two weeks ago.

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And of course there's that tailwind. Before today I could count on one hand the number of minutes we've spent in our big chain rings over the first 1,900 miles of this trip. But now we crank in them for hours, speeding along at an easy twenty miles per hour on the flats, with the wind canceling out the noise of our forward progress so that all we hear is the hum of our tires and the swishing of the grass. On the downhills we run out of gears and coast down at better than thirty, bobbing and weaving left and right as the gusts kick up and try to knock us off course. Sustained winds hit twenty-five miles per hour by the early afternoon and the gusts charge across the open fields as high as forty. When it reaches this point, the wind sounds as if it's a jet engine powering up for takeoff. It's the first day in New Zealand that we've headed east for more than a couple of miles, and we could have not asked for a better time to start.

It's also the first time that New Zealand hasn't been overwhelming. It's not that we aren't in beautiful country, but that the country has a more restrained and less obvious kind of beauty. This has the benefit of making it easier for us to keep our shit together when we look out at what's in front of us. We're still firmly in a farming region, which becomes clear when we eat lunch in front of the grocery store and watch people take off their gummies and leave them just to the left of the front door before they enter.

Mid-afternoon crumpet break.
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The afternoon brings us lots of pedaling and open plains. These then transition to a long series of hills, each of which drops way down to a bridge that runs over a narrow creek before right away giving way to the steep climbing that will take us to the top of the next hill. Low-level insanity starts to creep in after an hour of this, but hey, not every day can be all chocolate fingers and rainbows. Sometimes you just have to grind it out, and today that's what we do.

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The last hill shoots us out into Wanganui, a city of about 35,000 people that's the largest we've been to since Auckland. We grab a room in a backpackers and meet our first Americans since we arrived in New Zealand, a couple from Huntington Beach in California who have work visas and plan to spend a year in the country. Everyone else is German or Dutch, because it doesn't matter where in the world you're traveling, whenever you meet someone who's visiting from somewhere else there's a ninety percent chance that person is either German or Dutch.

Backpackers mugs.
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Even though the wind gave us the most wonderful push today, we still had to pound out seventy-six miles and crank our heavily loaded bicycles up more than 2,500 feet of hills. These facts hit us with great force after we return from grocery shopping and lay down for a moment on the double bed that sits near the window of our tiny room. With the muffled tones of rapid fire French coming through the adjacent wall and the faint hiss of a shower echoing from down the hall, we soon give up on things like writing and route planning and give in to the pull of sleep.

Today's ride: 76 miles (122 km)
Total: 1,921 miles (3,092 km)

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