Over one hundred and fifty cycling enthusiasts traveled across continents and through the International dateline to participate in the " 2000 First-to-the-sun" bicycling event. There were single bike riders from eleven countries including Holland, Norway, Finland, Hong King, England, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the United States and three tandem teams.
Ranging from eleven-years of age to the golden years men, women and children shared the same goal - to pedal over 600 miles across mountain ranges from Auckland, New Zealand through the Coromandel Peninsula into the town of Tauranga and onto Gisborne where they would be among the first in the world to witness the rise of the first sun's millennium.
Participants started each day with hearty breakfasts enjoyed bagged lunches and snacks enroute fully marshaled routes. Once they arrived at each campsite, they enjoyed catered meals fit for royalty.
"This ride means freedom, travel, culture and socializing for me," Tom Pilger said of Utah. The university pharmacist said he traveled half way around the world to share and enjoy the moment. Something that he has looked forward to for a long time.
It was Mel's life long dream. He had always talked about riding our tandem in New Zealand and after Neville Frost and Trish Anderson from England tempted us with their plans to attend, we signed up.
A brand new S&S coupled custom Bushnell tandem was ordered and painted seafoam green. We call it our "57 T-bird".
Since December is the start of the Southern Hemisphere summer we knew we would have to keep fit well into New Jersey's fall and early winter months. The work began...
Our traditional daily morning ride became a training workout. As temperatures dropped in the twenties we layered lightweight clothing and faced the cold. The average ride was under 20 miles but enough to keep us in relatively good shape following a summer of heavy cycling.
Dedicated friends helped us train on weekends. Jim and Michele Cooper from Delaware, Sue and Bob Lamb of Pennsylvania and Vineland couples John and Joan McQueeney and Michele and Rick Torchia-Feltman tandemed with us on rides that averaged 25-40 miles. Afterwards we shared brunch favorites and
We boarded the first of many planes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 15. It took us to the meeting point in California. While boarding Air New Zealand we met one of the other tandem teams, Rick Babington and his girlfriend Jan (never caught her last name) from Glendale, California.
Like most tandem enthusiasts, we became friends immediately and later shared many memorable moments and challenges.
The official ride began on December 20 with the first stage beginning in the small village of Clevedon, just a short 20 miles from Auckland. We rode 57 miles on relatively flat roads where we set up camp in Thames, a 19th century historic mining town. Cyclists were eager, friendly and naiive about the beautiful mountainous terrain that followed.
Most days were the same - slow climbs, quick downhills and windy flat stretches. Fellow cyclists encouraged one another before zipping down the other side at speeds as high as 45-55 miles per hour. Mel gave mechanical advice to the struggling and performed a few on-the-road repairs.
In spite steep passes and hairpin turns, the routes were well planned, support was always available and the country roads were generally quiet.
At sunrise on December 21 the sky was gray and threatened bad weather. We were riding 61 miles to Whitianga through the town of Coromandel. Rain turned to torrential downpours and most everyone questioned their sanity. A trip to the Caribbean seemed like a better option!
A lot of people chose to walk. They looked more like warriors dodging mud puddles inching uphill.
We stopped in Coromandel, a welcomed small town with several coffee shops and a laundromat where most of us decided to spin-dry our sopping wet clothing. The owner provided laborer uniforms to change into while our cycling shorts and tops dried out. Organizers offered a bus ride over the next stretch of gravel road. All but a few opted for the safe and easy way to
our day's destination.
Stage three was a mere 51 miles to Whangamata. In comparison the road was flat and had great views of the Coromandel Range.
The next day was similar to the rest - climbing switchbacks, breath taking views and swift downhills. We were riding 60 miles to Tauranga where we stayed for the holiday break.
On Christmas Eve the festivities began with a sit down dinner. We were served gourmet delights on linen covered tables, yummy desserts and plenty of spirits and dancing. The mood was good and everyone was ready for a two-day rest.
On Boxing Day (December 26th) we mounted our bikes and started the journey to Whakatane (67.5 miles). We rode along the ocean, passed coastal grazing lands and climbed a few passes before spending the night in this small town with shops, restaurants, banks and a needed Laundromat.
Our day began like most - beautiful mountainous backdrops meant the 72-mile day would begin with the first of many climbs. This one seemed to be the biggest challenge. The views were amazing - mountains against the sea of vibrant colors. The White Volcano in the distance was still smoking. A few cyclists chartered a helicopter to get a closer look at this act of nature.
TeKaha was a lovely village of no more than 150 residents. We doubled their population. Local men and women prepared an incredible feast of freshly caught fish, fresh fruits and vegetables and all the fixings.
Friendships were in full bloom and the group felt more like a family than a bunch of strangers from different lands and tongues.
The sun rose and after breakfast and farewells it was off to Te Araroa, a mere 56 miles. We thought it would be our "easy" day but we were wrong. There weren't any easy days. We climbed and fought strong winds and light rain all day before arriving in this Eastern Cape town which is considered the most significant easterly point in the Southern Hemisphere.
We were getting closer to our final destination and participants were beginning to realize what once was hard work had become well worth the effort. Photos snapped on mountain climbs, rest stops and along country roads. Sheep bellowed, cows mooed and local kids on horses and their parents in cars cheered as we passed through.
Tokomaru Bay was only 51 miles away but the journey began with an immediate climb up a gap into the cliffs. Once at the top of the 2km climb there was an immediate fast descent full of hairpin turns and a wooded valley.
This was our best day. The winds were finally with us on the downhills and in the flats. We cruised at 33 mph into the village and were pumped up and energized.
"I can't believe how much fun it was to draft on your wheel," Ken Sharples said of New Hope, Pennsylvania. "You sure create a great ride from behind!"
The group was invited into a Maori Temple and served another amazing meal. Young Maori teens danced and entertained us after dinner. It's wonderful how they have grasped their roots and are committed to their rich heritage.
The final day into Gisborne, 57.5 miles meant one last day of grinding gears up mountain passes and flying around hairpin turns. We had developed a good rhythm for climbing and no longer dreaded the mountains. The terrain took a sudden change. Green lush hillsides became brown and barren. Sheep outnumbered people and the sea and sky were bright blue.
All 150 cyclists and the organizers met on the outskirts of Gisborne. It was decided we should all ride the last 6 miles together with a police escort.
The tandems rode three abreast. Jan, Trish and I held hands and bystanders cheered. Camera crews were on the hillsides and in the streets. We were celebrities in this town of 30,000 people. Many knew we were arriving and seemed amazed at our courage and ability to cycle through so many challenges.
It was well worth the effort. We celebrated the first sunrise of the new year with thousands of others in this easternmost city to the harmonious sounds of the New Zealand Symphony, Soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, native Maori dancers, street parties, fireworks and an air show by the New Zealand Air Force.
Our journey was over but lasting friendships were made and moments carved in our memories forever.
One cyclist said, "Thanks for the encouragement through great times and hard times and even rainy times. I know we will meet again."