The dramatic landscape around New Zealand’s lake Taupo and Mount Ruapehu formed the perfect backdrop for the Lord of the Rings films – and today offers one hell of a ride for the intrepid cyclist. We go on an adventure…
Real Middle Earth may remain a popular reference among Lord of the Rings film fanatics, but it wasn’t an unhealthy obsession with orcs, wizards and other assorted mythical folk that convinced Cyclist to travel to New Zealand. Our primary objective was to conquer a full lap of NZ’s largest inland body of water, Lake Taupo.
Guided by Doug Simmons – elite men’s race coordinator for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge – we found ourselves in good hands. His experience around the event and the town of Taupo made him the perfect companion for our 153km loop. For any Tolkien fans out there, our itinerary also included Mount Ruapehu, aka Mordor, although we’d hoped to avoid any fire pits, marauding dwarves and walking trees. But first, to Taupo.
Taupo really is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. It’s here that cyclists and triathletes flock in search of elusive PBs around the crater rim or along the IRONMAN NZ circuit. There’s also an off-roadie’s playground with fast-boat trips on offer for point-to-point riding along the ever-growing trail network or even the purpose-built Craters MTB Park. For those who don’t want to pack the knobby-tyre machine there are hardtails and dual-suspension bikes for hire straight out of Auckland Airport at Natural High or from the numerous bike shops down in Taupo.
Lapping the lake
First stop in Taupo is to meet with our man Doug for some pre-lake sustenance at the suitably named Eruption Cafe. ‘First-time riders generally acknowledge that it’s quite a challenging course,’ he explains over his double espresso. ‘We give them some warning of the elevation but the comments are that it’s quite tough all the way to the 100km mark.’
We depart from the centre of Taupo town and immediately face the Thermal Explorer Highway and Poihipi Road, heading steadily upwards. In the actual Challenge event, the climb, although at a gentle grade, comes immediately after the flag is dropped. In fact, the first 10km of the route feels incessantly upward and is a prompt way to warm the legs. Still, there’s some relief in knowing we have more or less the entire day to get through the course – which wouldn’t be the case if surrounded by waves of competitors all looking to latch onto a group that will keep them just about on the limit.
One of NZ’s most well-established mass-participation events, the Taupo Challenge has some history behind it. The first edition was held back in 1977, and while there have been a few significant changes over the years, most are safety and logistics related with the addition of numerous ride options. This has done wonders to break down the barriers many face when eyeing up the 155km (or thereabouts) route. The basic premise has, however, stood the test of time: ride around the lake as fast as possible. ‘Various ride options are helpful and certainly play a role in improving our numbers,’ says Doug. ‘We’ve been just on 8,000 for the last two years and we’re doing all we can to grow that number. We’re probably looking at 9,000 plus this year. That’s our goal.’
Back to our own version of the Taupo Challenge, we continue to push up the gradual climb before making our first turn, following the solo course. Relay and enduro (multi-lap!) riders continue along Poihipi Road for a little longer, and while we’re getting robbed of a kilometre or two we quickly forget as the backdrop continues to tantalise the senses. Passing by Kinloch – our drop-off point for tomorrow’s off-road adventures along the Great Lake Trail – the quintessential snow-capped mountains of many a tourism promotion feel within arm’s reach. A peep is all that’s on offer at this point and they soon disappear as we twist through the lush green walls halfway along Whangamata Road.
Doug explains that while there are no major mountains in our way, the first 90km are quite demanding. He’s not kidding. The road surface is tough going, the hearty bitumen keeping our pace leisurely but our effort a little more than expected. The land is tough for farmers too. Pumice-ground earth and limited flat terrain makes growing anything a mean task.
The rolling terrain is obviously tough on riders and it’s this observation that means Challenge organisers are always looking for new ways to attract even more participants. A lap of the lake means that course changes are limited, but this isn’t a negative – it’s why people keep coming back, reckons Doug. ‘A major part of the appeal is to actually just ride around the lake. The logic behind the direction is that riders are always turning left, never right across traffic, which is important. It’s ideal to come from the southern end with a nice finishing straight,’ he says of the anticlockwise ride.
We make another left turn onto Western Bay Road after a little under 40km.
This is where classic solo riders rejoin the regular course. We’re soon caught off-guard by a stubborn roadside goat; he seems rather unfazed by our presence and his collared chain allows for just enough ‘rope’ to step into our path, from which he refuses to budge. Perhaps the view of Tongariro National Park, the location of Mount Ruapehu – though partially hidden behind the clouds – is reason enough to stand his ground.
Hitting “The Wall”
The route is littered with mountainous backdrops that tease along the route, but as Doug has been telling us all morning, few of them can be ascended by bike. ‘What about that one over there?’ I ask. ‘Actually, yes,’ Doug says finally. The mountain in question is Ruapehu, and just so happens to be one of the fortunate to be graced with a sealed road.
While not in our sights quite yet, just knowing it’s there is enough to spark a serious line of questioning. The Ohakune Mountain Road ends at the base of a two-chairlift ski field and to reach said area involves ascending New Zealand’s only HC-ranked sealed climb. Utilised for many of the ground shots of Mount Doom (where The Ring was forged), Ruapehu is immediately added to our own Big Ride quest.
Drifting thoughts of another epic landscape fill the mind until we start to climb Waihaha Hill a few kilometres later. There are a couple of ‘steps’ before reaching the lookout at the top, where a water station is situated if you pass by on race day. It proves a good enough place for us to stop and check the first proper view of the lake below. ‘We get a first glimpse of the lake here but the best lookout with a view all the way back to Taupo is further up the road,’ says Doug, who’s keen to keep moving. ‘It’s about 5km past the Kuratau Junction.’ He clips in and promptly shoots off down the road.
We’ve been on the road for a little over two hours and there is yet to be anything too testing. That all changes when we begin a rapid and straight-line descent to what has been appropriately deemed “The Wall”. ‘This is a decisive point in the Challenge,’ explains Doug as we attempt to squeeze every bit of aerodynamic advantage on the descent towards its base. The gradient never gets too ridiculous, but it’s enough to have this writer put under pressure by the man with a personal best time of 4:30 around the lake.
Doug is eager to get to our first proper break stop, and the lookout near Kuratau provides the first real opportunity to see just how far we have come – and the distance still to go. The magnificent size of the lake is soon put into perspective, the mist-covered town of Taupo now just a speck in the distance.
We depart the lookout and notice the first proper sign that there’s activity happening beneath the surface of the dormant (not extinct) volcano. Steam vents scatter the ridgeline and rise out of the thick vegetation like smoke from a campfire. The steam plumes signal the end of our bumpy ride – well, most of it anyway. The descent into Tokaanu brings welcome relief ahead of the final stretch. I’m tempted to take a rare right-hander there and then, but I relent – the path to Ruapehu along Te Ponanga Saddle Road must wait until tomorrow.
East bound and down
We’re still a little way off from Taupo but the terrain is significantly easier after turning left (again) onto State Highway 1 at Turangi. We experience the first real signs of any kind of motor vehicle traffic, but considering this is a major arterial road, there really is little to complain about.
It’s here that the road twists and turns along the water’s edge and through Waitetoko and Motutere. The afternoon light reflects off the now completely flat lake surface and the puffy white clouds allow just the right amount of blue sky to shine down. There are a number of great spots to stop for a photo along this final stretch and given we’ve been riding for most of the day, we think it’s been earned.
Our speed kicks up a little higher, but Doug has one last trick up his sleeve – and it might just be why he wanted to stop for a quick breather. Just when you think it’ll be a high-speed run to the finish, the road turns slightly east and a long, straight climb appears before us. With 130km already in the legs it’s not a pretty sight, but as the saying goes, ‘What goes up…’
Having never ridden the Cell Omeo 2.0 prior to this trip, I try to put the #AeroIsAffordable social media hashtag to the test. Hurtling down at a maximum speed of 90km/h is enough to tell me it can handle speeds well above the legal limit quite comfortably. From here, we enjoy the cruise right along the glassy lake with Taupo in our sights. There’s a small rise just before making the final left turn, and Doug says this can really hurt during the Challenge. He’s not lying considering we’ve already completed 1,600-odd metres of vertical ascent on what’s not considered a climbing course.
Our hotel is slightly before the official finish but Doug wants to get it done properly despite having lapped the lake more than a dozen times since the mid-90s. Right after we part ways I’m already thinking about making a return later in the year. It seems Doug and co are onto a good thing, and I suddenly recall his comment at the pub the night before. It seems just about right. ‘It’s a total cycling experience,’ he had told us. ‘The riding is a key element and it’s a real challenge. It’s iconic, it’s been running for nearly 40 years and it’s well known. We’ve had a lot of practice and hopefully it’s such a positive overall experience from start to finish that people want to come back again and again.’ We think they will, Doug. Cheers for the ride.
On the back of a good night’s sleep after circling the lake, we’re back in the van the next day for a trip to Mount Ruapehu. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Taupo to Ohakune, the town at the base of the mountain, so we’re pleased when Natural High’s Andy Hunt tells us there’s a cafe that serves decent coffee awaiting us. He’s right: the Mountain Rocks Cafe delivers what we need ahead of the short but breathtaking ride.
It’s not much of a pedal to the base of the climb, and it’s certainly not what we
expected considering this is the Ring’s ultimate destination. In the movie this is a barren wasteland, but we’re instead greeted with a lush, green, fern-lined road. We push on, at quite a good pace, and quickly knock off the first half of the climb. It doesn’t seem to be too tough. There are a couple of little kickers that get well into the double-digit gradient, but as we pull over nearing the midway point I’m surprised by our average speed. The lower slopes allow you to get into a steady rhythm and give you a false sense of what lays beyond the trees.
Things soon get tougher, but as you break free from the covering there’s also a little more to look at, including the mountain peak directly ahead and some mountain bikers who are racing down the road toward the next trail entrance.
Seeing the enjoyment of others going down gives us a little push to keep on ticking through to the first switchback. There’s only two of them, but the rapid rise in elevation provides an even greater view of the valley below. It’s from this point onward that the greenery falls away and the land opens up to something decidely more like Mordor.
The road doesn’t relent until the very top, just before the Turoa ski village, where it levels out to a somewhat anticlimactic car park. But it’s not the top that we’ve come to see – it’s the breathtaking views across the vast expanses of New Zealand’s North Island. The wind also takes a breather, the usual crisp alpine breeze briefly giving way to a quiet stillness, and we sit a while to soak it all in before making the flowing trip back into town.
We spent two days in Taupo, but we wish we could have stayed much longer. A lap of the lake, the ascent of Ruapehu, an afternoon of mountain biking and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had were satisfying enough, but we would have loved to stay on for more outdoor fun. We missed following a local bunch around Farm Loop, the off-road Bike Park remained unridden, and there was no time to visit the strangely intriguing Prawn Park. Not to worry, though – with the Challenge scheduled for later this year, we’re thinking another visit might just be on the card.