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Pedalling The Silk Road - Prelude

08 August 2023

Words & Photos: Rod Oram

Ready for my ride-of-a-lifetime along the Silk Road to Istanbul?

Fat chance, I thought as I lay sprawled on the concrete floor of the underground car park of our apartment building in Auckland - thanks to a stupid rider error.

Gunning my eBike on a fast, sharp turn through a puddle at the bottom of the car park ramp, flicked the bike horizontal, dumped me and sent the detachable eBike controls skittering 10 m across the concrete.

I landed with a sharp thump on my right hip, thigh, knee and elbow, ending my training with a bang and a whimper just four days before my departure date. After months of training and thousands of dollars on bike, gear and travel... is this how the dream dies, I wondered.

But once I calmed down a bit and eased myself up, I felt my problem was sore flesh rather than broken bones. Still, I thought it best to go to A&E for a professional verdict. There a young doctor gently moved my elbow and leg through most of their usual range.

“You’re not complaining. So, you can’t have broken anything. No need for X-rays” was his hopeful but taciturn verdict. “Just take it easy for a few days.”

Well, for once I obeyed doctor’s orders. I confined myself to a couple of very flat and leisurely 50 km rides back and forth along Tamaki Drive. A few days later, here I am in Almaty, Kazakhstan, writing this blog and meeting up with some 30 fellow riders as we prepare ourselves and our bikes for the imminent start of our 5,200 km ride to Istanbul.

We’re riding with TDA, a Canadian company with decades of experience of long-distance bike tours. We’re riding for 44 days, at an average of about 115 km a day, plus rest days, and transit days across the Caspian Sea for a total of 64 days. There’s more about the ride on this TDA page.

For some time, TDA has run a four-month, 13,000 km ride from Beijing to Istanbul once every three years. Back in 2018 I signed up for the 2021 ride. But Covid nixed that. Likewise, last year. Earlier this year, China was still Covid-closed when TDA had to decide what to do. Hence our start now in Almaty half-way along the Silk Road. But they hope to reinstate the full ride in 2025 and I’ve booked for the first half from Beijing to Almaty.

In my case there’s more. For years I’ve dreamed of riding from Beijing to Birmingham, where I grew up. So next year I’m planning to ride 4,000 km unsupported with some Auckland friends from Istanbul to Birmingham. So with my TDA rides this year and in 2025, I’ll fulfil my big bike ambition.

For me Beijing to Birmingham is also a ride back to the future. As I ride, I want to learn about the past, present and future. I’m seeking answers to the twin questions that underpin all my work as a business journalist: how will 10 billion people live well and in relationship with the Earth by 2050? And what distinctive roles will we play in Aotearoa New Zealand?

For more on that, please read the first of my Silk Road columns at Newsroom. More on those themes will follow over the following nine weekends I’m on the road.

I’ve never spent so much time, effort and money preparing for a ride. I’m on a Shand Stoater gravel bike, custom-made in Edinburgh for me in 2019 with this ride Beijing to Birmingham in mind. It has a 14-speed Rohloff hub and Gates carbon belt drive, with 40mm tyres, plus aerobars for the first time in my riding career. At just over 12kg, it’s a bit on the heavy side but a very comfortable ride and rugged too.

Lots of people have helped get me to the start line in Almaty. Particularly, my family for encouraging me; Paul Leitch for his spin classes and ride programme; Karl Murray and his mechanics at Rouleur for getting my Shand ready for the ride, and improving my bike fit; Mark Sinclair at Les Mills for his one-on-one session to strengthen my core and make me more flexible; and Anna Macquarrie at Performance Pantry for nutrition advice.

And thanks to Guy and Cherie at Ground Effect for lots of advice on kit. For example, my elderly Rock Lobster tops were long overdue for upgrading to a couple of merino Berglar tops; as were my well-worn Ringleaders for a pair of Tournadoes.

I’ve ridden some 4,200 km in the past six months, with a fair few weeks in the 250-300 km range; plus a good number of 100 km rides. I’m far from sure that was enough, though I’ll find out on the first week of the ride!

You’ll find a day-by-day account of my ride on my website. But please bear with me if some days if I don’t write. Those will be the days I only manage to tick off four crucial priorities to keep me going: ride and learn; eat and sleep. And I’ll write again for Ground Effect mid-ride and at the end.

I’ve never stopped riding since I was a small kid. But I was mostly an urban cyclist – apart from years ago a John O’Groats to Lands End ride in the UK and a Ride the Rockies tour in the US, both with my wife Lynn.

Then we emigrated to Auckland in 1997 and I was introduced to marvellous new cycling adventures here, thanks particularly to a new friend I made not long after we arrived. One evening I was cycling home from work along Tamaki Drive on my old Dawes touring bike, trousers tucked into my socks, when a cyclist pulled alongside with a cheery “g'day, mate!” We chatted a bit before he introduced himself as Peter Atkinson and invited me to ride with him and fellow Manukau City Vets on Sundays, which I did for years.

Peter was brilliant at encouraging people to ride and masterful at helping them develop the skills they needed, whether their goals were modest or challenging. Over the years he and I for example, rode nine Round Taupō's as a two-man team.

When Peter and his wife Heather moved to Queenstown, where he created the Queenstown Pedallers, he got me hooked on mountain biking - hence four Motatapu races. The photos below are of us on the Lake Hayes trail not long after it opened some 20 years ago.

To help me train for the Heart Foundation’s Great Ride for Heart in 2010 from Cape Reinga to Buff, Peter organised a 255 km one-day ride from Sumner to Hokitika. Dawn to dusk on the summer solstice of 2009, with the Pedallers.

When I was riding the Tour Aotearoa in 2020, I stopped in for a cup of tea and a chat with Peter and Heather at their Arrowtown home. I showed him the Shand Stoater gravel bike I was riding, which I’d bought specially for my planned Beijing to Birmingham ride, which I told him all about.

Very sadly, though, that was the last time I saw Peter. Heart trouble was keeping him off his bike and he died the following year. So, thanks, Peter, for all the great cycling times and advice over the years. You’ll be with me in spirit all the way from Beijing to Birmingham.

I’m also jointly dedicating this ride to Mike Sheffield, my cycling next door neighbour for almost 25 years. Tragically he was killed two years ago when an empty truck en route to Auckland Port knocked him off his bike on Stanley Street and killed him.

Mike was a big bloke on a bike, and not fast. Yet as unlikely as he looked, he rode across the US in 2006 and again in 2007 when he was in his mid-60s. But his greatest passion was touring in France, with a particular obsession about reaching the 2,115 m summit of the Col du Tourmalet, one of the highest of the Tour de France mountain passes.

He tackled Tourmalet on multiple trips but failed each time. Returning home after his penultimate attempt, we sat down with some beers one Friday evening to talk through a video of the whole ride, corner-by-corner, ramp-by-ramp. Mike had plenty of humorous stories to tell about his failed attempts.

But then in 2019 at the age of 71, he triumphantly texted me from the top of Tourmalet: “Everybody beat me up. But nobody beat me down.”

Mike on Tourmalet

Knowing of my long-held dream of riding from Beijing to Birmingham, it was Mike who first told me about TDA’s ride from Beijing to Istanbul. I think he secretly hankered after it himself. That was back more than a decade ago. But when I checked the TDA website, I discovered many riders informally made it a 13,000 km race based on cumulative time. No way, I’m doing that! I thought at the time.

But when I checked back in 2018, the ethos of the ride and thus the people attracted to it, had changed a lot. They were older riders like me who are strictly long-distance tourers, and I signed up.

So, Peter and Mike, this ride’s for you two!