New Zealand Mountain Bike Web

31 August 2010

Back to the future for cycle touring?

By Simon Kennett, 2010 [A version of this article originally appeared in Chainlinks, the magazine of the New Zealand Cycle Advocates Network.]

Since it first took off in the 1890s, the popularity of cycle touring has followed a rollercoaster ride. It's been in a trough for over a decade now, but the success of the Otago Central Rail Trail suggests the public are ready for a revival.

I remember the moment when rural cycling presented itself to me as an aspirational activity. Our family were driving down a small hill into Tekapo. Mum and Dad in the front; Penny, Lawrence and Paul in the back seat; Jonathan and I on top of the luggage in the back of the station wagon. Being at the end of the chain of command, that was our place at age seven. It was mid-summer – stinking hot – and we were nearing the end of a long journey. Out the side window a cycle tourist came into view. He looked foreign, probably American, but I didn't hold that against him. He appeared so free, noble even, and happy as he soared down that hill on his exotic touring bicycle. I wanted to be him!

Seven years later I finally bought a touring bike. It lasted for three years before snapping in two on a 4WD track, just as the first MTBs appeared in New Zealand. The MTB boom made touring rough roads more accessible, but it gradually moved the focus of recreational cycling to shorter, more adrenalin-fueled riding. The bicycle was largely transformed from vehicle to toy.

After a decade the MTB boom generated a surge in the popularity of road racing and then rail-trail cruising. Now, another decade on, we have hundreds of thousands of cyclists with both on and off-road riding skills. If it is time for a renaissance in cycle touring, what's holding it back? An image problem.

Cycle touring rarely features in the mainstream media unless a serious accident has happened. When most people see touring in action it is as they drive along a busy highway, wondering if the poor sod with 30 kilograms too much gear will ever make it to the next town.

Despite the dangers of fast traffic, sports road riding is generally perceived to be healthy and fashionable. Despite the dangers of extreme tracks, mountain biking is seen as exciting and cool. Touring on the other hand is seen as dangerous and boring at the same time. Does that matter? Yes.

So long as cycle touring is seen as a marginal, slightly kooky activity, it will struggle to attract the tens of thousands of riders necessary to generate a safety-in-numbers effect, or justify significant investment by businesses and councils. It will fail to be as sociable as it once was or meet its potential as a sustainable tourism earner. For these reasons, it's worth giving touring an 'extreme makeover'.

If we consider the strengths and weaknesses of cycle touring, most of them are the same as for tramping and mountaineering, activities that are still a popular part of the New Zealand psyche. The main difference is motor vehicle traffic, which has increased significantly in speed and volume over the last 25 years. This has made cycling on major roads less pleasant and the perception of risk much greater.

I say 'perception' because the actual risk may have changed little. Main highways have much wider shoulders that 25 years ago and vehicles have better brakes and steering. Our cycling road toll has changed little over the last decade – at around 10 per year it is in the same ball park as traditional mountain sports. The difference though, is that Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) have a more positive and empowering attitude to safety. They accept there is risk in the hills; they emphasise safe tramping techniques and encourage club members to do alpine safety courses before heading to the mountain tops. They advocate reduced exposure to risk by recommending safe times of the year to attempt difficult slopes. And, the climbs are graded so that people know what they are getting themselves into. When tragedy does occur, the media often discuss what might have been done differently to avoid the situation. 

Quite rightly, organisations like FMC and Living Streets Aotearoa each think quite differently about safety – the mountains are different to streets and tramping is very different from walking in towns and cities. Nobody thinks the Milford Track is particularly dangerous, despite it's lack of concrete and handrails. CAN, however, advocates for both urban cycling and touring. As cycling advocates, we need to be careful that we differentiate between commuting and touring when advocating for safer cycling, least we perpetuate the myth that cycling on the open road is fool hardy.

Cycle touring is not an everyday activity. It is a 'peak' activity where greater risk can be reasonably accepted by those with the appropriate skills and experience. Once we recognise the risk, we can set about mitigating or minimising it. Much has been written about riding skills and safety gear – that is something we should continue to promote. The development of advanced road riding skills is lacking in New Zealand.  But even less attention is given to reducing exposure to risk (without abandoning the road all together).

Huge reductions in risk can be achieved through careful route selection and timing. This can allow us to see cycle touring as safe with only moments of danger rather than dangerous with only moments of safety. New Zealand has over 90,000 kilometres of public roads. Almost 11,000 kilometres of those are included in our 99 state highways (many of which are fairly quiet roads). About a third of our roads are still gravel, because they typically don't have the traffic volumes necessary to warrant sealing. Not only are quiet backroads peaceful and often very scenic, they offer a different perspective on cycle touring with regards to safety.  They allow us to see it as “safe with only moments of danger rather than dangerous with only moments of safety”.

Backroads touring does pose some new challenges though. The roads are rougher, often hillier and the distances between towns greater. As the route less traveled is typically less direct, it's important to remember that touring is more about the journey than the destination. But, no matter how satisfying to the soul, one can not eat good scenery. The distance to the next fuel stop may be over 100 kilometres and it needs to be covered with the resources carried under your own steam.

The traditional view of touring in New Zealand seems to be driven by a Girl Guides and Boy Scouts mentality of being prepared for every possible difficulty, even if that saddles one with a mountain of gear that IS the difficulty. While I normally tour with two or three bags, I've been experimenting lately with ultra-lightweight touring. It's not a style that works when camping is on the agenda, but by reducing a touring load to less than five kilograms (and effectively streamlining it at the same time) you can increase your range by 20-30% in hilly terrain. Where you might have thought 80 kilometres was a long day, now you can cover 100 with the same effort, which opens up the possibility of riding from one town to the next via remote roads that previously required camping gear and lots of time.

Simon Kennett and John Randal enjoying some light-weight cycle touring.

The lightweight approach works particularly well if you are planning to include off-road trails in your tour, as some of the most scenic do require a bit of walking, and many MTBs don't have rack mounts. Neither do many road bikes.

Cycle touring does need a makeover if it is to become a popular pastime once more, and now is the time to give it a push. Recreational cycling is on a high and the NZ Cycle Trails are destined to encourage greater appreciation for cycle tourists (and their spending power). Backroads cycle touring can be promoted as a safe ride back in time to the period when New Zealand really was seen as a pedaller's paradise. The upcoming biography on touring heroine, Louise Sutherland will rekindle nostalgia for long-distance, cycling adventures. New technology like 29'ers and streamlined seat bags can give the modern touring set-up a trendy appeal. Finally, lightweight 'Stealth Touring' and brevets help to re-brand touring as a daring, exciting pursuit. All you really need to do is accentuate the positives, advocate for some improvements in infrastructure, and enjoy the ride so much that when the next generation sees you out the car window, they'll wish they were you.    

SWOT analysis of cycle touring in New Zealand

  • Healthy
  • Sociable or Solitary
  • Tuned into the environment
  • Exciting
  • Affordable
  • Big appitite generator
  • Access to backcountry
  • Sense of acheivement
  • Character building

  • Growing pool of recreational cyclists
  • New wave of environmental awareness
  • 'Challenge tours' appealing to ex-racers
  • Improved route knowledge (with guidebooks, GPS and Google Maps, etc)
  • New bike gear (e.g. 29ers &
  • Trail development
  • Wider shoulders
  • Education for road users (including cyclists)

  • Risks of traffic
  • Risks of rough roads
  • Exposure to weather
  • Noise and fumes from traffic
  • Boring
  • Slow/time consuming
  • Exhausting & uncomfortable
  • Uncool
  • Special gear required

  • More traffic
  • Bad driving
  • Negatively biased reporting
  • Poor maps and road signs
  • Unpredictable weather
  • Crime
  • Fear

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