I am writing a guide for riding your first RAGBRAI so I am doing more research. I found a terrific movie, A Million Spokes, that follows a half dozen riders and tells their stories over the 7 day course, plus short profiles of lots of other participants–riders and townspeople. I was teary-eyed over and over again. Please watch it and tell me if you teared up too and if you have ridden RAGBRAI. I also laughed, winced and grimaced. I plan to use this video to recruit/educate potential team members for next year, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Note: I only found the DVD at Amazon–not available on Netflix, iTunes or Google Play.
I read Rumble Yell over the weekend. It is a memoir of Brian David Bruns first and only RAGBRAI ride. He is a travel writer by trade and does a fine job of telling his story. It is a quick read and gives you a taste of what your experience might be from the perspective of a small team that used an RV for their support vehicle. He emphasizes the characters you will meet on RAGBRAI and how a team may bond over the seven days.
Dumbest book title goes to RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong. The author John Karras co-founded RAGBRAI and this is a history of how RAGBRAI became the biggest, longest, oldest bike ride in America (when you factor in all three). By the way, it is pronounced Rag-Bri (long i), not Rag-bray. Think “i” for Iowa.
RAGBRAI is also featured in Ian Dille’s The Cyclist’s Bucket List. It is one of 33 rides listed in the United States. It gets a whopping three pages of prose and no photos. Most of the other rides are longer on photos and shorter on prose. Just a taster though, no real information on how to participate.
The good news is my RAGBRAI Virgin book idea is going to fill a niche currently not fulfilled in the marketplace. Now I just have to write it.
At last! I am pleased to share the first publication from On Your Radar Media Company, “A Cycling Adventure: Otago Central Rail Trail.” It is available as a downloadable PDF by clicking on the image below.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is a terrific, accessible adventure on the South Island of New Zealand. You can bike or walk, and this guide gives you all the information you need to plan your own adventure.
It will hopefully be the first of many On Your Radar Media Company cycling and other travel publications. Let me know what you think of the format and if you have any questions I did not answer.
After pedaling 150 kilometers along the retired Otago Central Railway, it was a treat to ride the rails by train. The Otago Central Railway was instrumental in developing Central Otago as an agricultural region. Today day-trippers and cyclists are the main “cargo”.
As we left Middlemarch I noticed a cute café called the Kissing Gate and Nick explained it was owned by Kate, a Dunedin councilwoman. We are more than 60 km from Dunedin and yet we are part of the greater city of Dunedin. Go figure.
My Off the Rails guide Nick turned off the main road at the sign to the Taieri Gorge Railway; we still had 12 km to go in the middle of nowhere. We arrived a few minutes before the train was due. Nick groaned slightly when he spied the little flea market along the side of the track. Their presence signified that there would be a tour train catering to a cruise ship that would delay our train.
Nick purchased my ticket for me and drove me to Pukerangi. Pukerangi means the Hills of the God in te reo Maori. The isolation does make a person wonder about the choice of the railway terminus (Middlemarch makes more sense). It was raining by the time we reached the station. The train was a little behind schedule and Nick was able to suss out the delay was due to an extra train carrying cruise ship tour groups.
When the train arrived, Nick had a word with the elderly guard Joe. He confirmed that we would experience a delay of about 40 minutes because there is only one track so we have to wait for them to arrive and their cruise ship disembarked an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile people desperate for retail shopping browsed among the market tables. The rain started coming down hard and the vendors covered their goods with tarps. The hardiest tourists continued to browse as best they could.
Our train arrived first and the train conductors greeted us warmly. They had my souvenir ticket and loaded my bags. I had time to stop at the dining car and purchase an egg salad sandwich and some potato chips before the train filled with travelers. There was a family with a baby who screeched. Not the usual boo-hoo from a baby or toddler but a screech like a parrot. Thankfully the rocking of the train seemed to calm him once we were underway.
Too bad it did not quiet the opinionated American woman with the southern accent who responded to a gentle joke from the conductor, “Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim.” It was apropos of nothing and really awkward. The Chinese-speaking rider across from me obviously understood and caught my eye as if to see if I would respond. I really did not know what to say. I did write in my journal, “Tests for letting people out of the country instead of in.”
The train is aptly named as we passed one gorge after another. The Scotch Broom blooms bright yellow on the hillsides among the tor (rock outcropping). Seats are assigned, so if you are keen to take pictures, request a left side window seat en route to Dunedin and opposite on way to Pukerangi, and if you are afraid of falling off the side of roads request an aisle seat.
Gradually the terrain levels out and transforms into bucolic farmland. Finally we reach the outskirts of Dunedin and see homes and businesses. About 1 hour and 45 minutes later, we arrive at the majestic Dunedin Central Train Station. The station is a gorgeous Victorian era monument to railroads and is centrally located in downtown Dunedin.
Dunedin Railways (www.taieri.co.nz) offers several daily trips from the majestic Dunedin Railway Station to Pukerangi (short drive from Middlemarch) or one train to/from Middlemarch on Sunday and Friday. The fare (as of January 2015) is $89 per adult. Tickets can be booked on line and I recommend you purchase in advance especially during summer season.
My note in my journal for today’s ride is “Too short.” At this point, I was feeling very strong, though a little tired. I only needed to ride 12.5 or 13.5 kilometers depending on the signs you read. Nick designed the days so on Day 4 I could ride to Middlemarch and still catch the train to Dunedin.
I felt very melancholic about completing the ride. It was also one my final days for my adventures in New Zealand. I did my best to savor each moment. In no time I was in Middlemarch. First there was the finish at the official signs and stamp. Nick recorded my feat.
Then I rode further into the old rail station buildings and Quench Café. We loaded my bike in the trailer and walked to Quench to get a Flat White. I pulled out my Picnic candy bar to celebrate. Nick presented me with a certificate celebrating my accomplishment.
I had already packed my bag and so once I returned my cycling gloves, there was little else to do but head to the train station.
I loved cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail. I would do it again for sure. I spent a lot of time on the trail imagining how the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta could benefit from a similar rail trail. The rail trail is terrific for families, for school groups, and for cycling clubs or for individual cyclists like me.
This trail is the first of the Great Rides. Built and maintained by New Zealand’s excellent Department of Conservation. Nga Haerenga-The New Zealand Cycle Trail offers 23 “Great Rides” varying in difficulty from easy to advanced. You can discover all of the trails at www.nzcycletrail.com.
I ended Day Two in Ranfurly so I began Day 3 just behind the Information Centre.It was a pleasure to wake up and roll out of town with little fuss. I borrowed a pair of gloves from Off the Rails because the sun and wind had burned the back of my hands the previous day. It was also cooler and cloudier so the extra warmth felt good.
I still was not sore from cycling, just tired. I was confident in my ability to cycle the 44 kilometers to Rock and Pillar.
The plan was to ride to Hyde for lunch and then finish the day mid afternoon at Rock & Pillar, giving me ample time to get cleaned up and go curling before dinner in Naseby.
I packed my rain jacket in my pannier everyday—a wise precaution in New Zealand where the weather is changeable. Today I wore it to ward off the chill and “just in case” although it never actually rained.
I stopped frequently to take photos as the scenery was even more gorgeous than previous stretches. The place names are sometimes Maori, sometimes reminiscent of somewhere in Great Britain. I loved “Daisybank,” which likely describes the place in springtime. I saw some picnicking couples but otherwise I had the trail to myself.
There was another tunnel and quite a few bridges. It seemed like no time and I was rolling into Hyde. We stopped at the charming café Otago Central Hotel after quickly admiring the World War I memorial. The women in the teashop were very friendly and the cheese scone yummy. I warmed up with some tea and a little time out of the wind.
I was whizzing along lost in my thoughts and I rode right past the stamp stop at Tiroiti and also did not see the sign that indicated the memorial for the 21 victims of the Hyde rail accident. Fortunately the café in Hyde had the stamp for Tiroiti and Nick was happy to stop at the Memorial after loading my bike on the trailer at Rock and Pillar.
Then it was just 14 kilometers to Rock and Pillar. I clouds in the sky were spectacular. I felt like I was flying along.
Hyde Rail Accident
The 4 June 1943 Hyde rail accident was horrific. Of the 113 people on the train, 21 were killed and 47 injured. The train engineer ought to have reduced speed before Straw Cutting but because of his own fatigue failed to do so. The engine and 5 carriages jumped the tracks, several of them telescoping into one another. Passengers were thrown onto the cold ground and there was risk of dying from exposure. Rescue efforts were hampered by wartime petrol rationing, lack of manpower, and busy telephone lines. Locals will share some of the remarkable stories of survivors.
After a flat white stop in historic Ophir, we arrived at the trail stop in Lauder. Nick unloaded my bike and downplayed the climbing. He gives me a torch for the couple of tunnels I will pass through today. He will meet me at the bridge after the second tunnel and ride awhile with me. Then meet me for lunch. After Day One I know what to expect and I am more confident in my ability to tackle it. I am not the least bit sore in the limbs but my bottom is feeling the contours of the seat even with the gel pad.
Between me and my lunch stop was the first of two 7 kilometer inclines. “Climb” is an exaggeration. I decided to take my time and make steady progress. The views from the trail are definitely more wild and scenic. Nick mentioned The Lord of the Rings filmed in this area and I spent happy hours trying to guess what scenes might have been filmed in this rock outcropping or river gorge. Sheep were still my main companions as I only saw about 6 other riders in groups of 2 along the rail trail.
The first of two tunnels was exciting. I thought about my colleagues in Sacramento and how fascinated they would be with the tunnel engineering and it helped to distract from entering the tunnel with just my little bike torch. It got darker and darker then pitch black. I was glad I heeded the sign and got off and walked my bike. The sign suggested horses go around and I wondered if any horses would go through without fuss. The darkest bit did not last long and suddenly I could see the actual light at the end of the tunnel! The second tunnel was not nearly so long or dark and Nick had met me by then.
We met at a cafe in Oturehua for lunch. I was in search of soup, bread and cheese (Ploughman’s lunch). I wanted just a little something to warm me and hold me over without weighing me down. Nick checked at all of the establishments, alas every cook in the region was looking forward to summer and so no soup.
After I said goodbye to Nick, I stopped at Gilchrist’s Oturehua Store in the hope of finding proper bike shorts with a chamois. Thankfully they sell a variety of biking clothes and souvenir Rail Trail t-shirts. They do not take credit though so I walked across the street to the Pub. The publican kindly offered to be my ATM. I slipped on my bike shorts under my Terry board shorts and felt instant relief.
Thankfully since I faced the second 7 kilometer incline. Near the summit I passed the marker for the 45th parallel. Then stopped for a cup of tea and to answer questions for the local council. “How was I enjoying the trail?” That sort of thing. They asked if I thought electric bikes should be allowed on the trail and I emphatically said “No!” I imagined the last long slog and thought how demoralizing it would be if I was pedaling hard to get up the hill and then someone went scooting by on e-bike. Nick says they may be allowed regardless. I hope not.
Not long after the tea break I reached the highest point in the trail. Whether you start in Middlemarch or Clyde, the first half to this point is going to be a gradual uphill and the second half is going to be a gradual downhill. I was glad to think I had mostly downhill bits left.
As I began to roll down the hill into Wedderburn I remembered to shift into third gear and realized I did not downshift the whole time I was going up the grade. Duh! I saw Nick in Wedderburn and then began to hot foot it to Ranfurly. We would meet up later for dinner at the Vulcan Hotel. I wanted to get back to Ranfurly in time to restock some supplies from the chemist and clean up.
I still stopped as often as I could to take photos. I was especially intrigued with the old train station buildings. So is local artist Grahame Sydney. He paints ultra realistic landscapes that include many of the Rail Trail historic buildings. He is a bit of recluse so Nick was excited when he spied him eating his lunch near us in Oturehua.
Ranfurly is a decent sized town with a large information center, a hotel with restaurant and a café. They also boast architecturally interesting library now radio station. (It may be a Carnegie library!) I was particularly keen to check out the bookstore and to buy a Picnic candy bar to celebrate the conclusion of my trip in just 2 days.
Walking around town I also discovered a statue for John Turnbull Thomson, the Chief Surveyor of Otago. Nick’s couple of stories remind me of the adventures of American John Wesley Powell. Wallace Stegner wrote a wonderful book about Powell called West of the Hundredth Meridian. Please comment below if you know of something similar for Thomson.
My Off the Rails guide Nick arrived at my Queenstown hotel at 8 a.m. We were quickly on the road toward Cromwell. After about 45 minutes we pulled off the highway at the statue of supersize fruit. The original town of Cromwell was partially inundated by hydroelectric dam and reservoir. The project build a new town center and we stopped at the Tin Goose for a flat white.
We pulled into the parking lot at the Otago Central Rail Trailhead and Nick unloaded my bike and adjusted it for me. He put on a pannier and I loaded my backpack inside. I put my camera in the front “lunchbox”, and inserted my map. Nick had a snack and a water bottle for me to take along too. I was ready.
Lastly, he gave me my “passport” where I can collect stamps along the way. He explained that there are white kilometer markers along the way. I was ready to start my first 44 km of 150 km.
The railway was shut down in 1990 and then followed a period of construction. Between 100,000-120,000 people walk or ride on it each year—grinding up the rocks that make up the old rail bed. The trail started out flat and I found myself whizzing along stopping to take pictures as the landscape evolved from bucolic agriculture vineyards and paddocks to more open pasture and natural landscapes.
I stopped frequently to take pictures and drink in the beauty. Nick calls the trail “intensely scenic” and it is designated as an area of outstanding beauty, which is saying a lot in New Zealand where there are no ugly places.
It was 8 km to Alexandra, 7 km to Galloway, and 10 km to Chatto Creek. At each train station I stopped and stamped my passport and stopped to take pictures. Along the way Nick met me to make sure my bike was in good working order and that I was cycling without difficulty.
About the time my blood sugar was dropping I arrived at Chatto Creek pub and restaurant. I made the mistake of ordering the Bacon Buttie sandwich (bacon and brie). It was delicious and I ate almost all of it, which was fine until I got back on my bike and faced the hardest section of the day. I felt sluggish and heavy.
The first 8 km (of 12 km) on the way to Omakau is called Tiger Hill. None of the inclines are greater than 1:50; however, this section shifts direction so the wind from tail to the side. Plus it was 2 in the afternoon and had cooled considerably and the trail rocks were deeper and more difficult to maneuver through. At one point a beautiful egret was roused from the verge and flew overhead as a kind of encouragement.
I slogged up the hill and my reward was a nice downhill stretch for a couple of kilometers into Omakau. Then it was just 7 km to Lauder.
Nick met me and we loaded my bike. He dropped me at a lovely cottage built in 1906 in Ranfurly. It has two bedrooms, lounge, bathroom, dining room and kitchen. I have it all to myself this week because I am the only one booked on this tour. It feels a little odd but I am so tired that I am just glad to have a hot shower and comfortable bed.