The mixed joys of cycle touring

Suddenly, as I rounded the corner, it all made sense to me. Lake Pukaki was sparkling in the morning sun, reflecting the snowy slopes of New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, which stood like a sentinel at the far end of the lake.

The view was an almost tactile experience – because I'd cycled some 45 kilometres to see it. I'd felt the wind, sniffed the smells and heard the chirping of creatures on the way; I felt like a part of the landscape.

The awful bitey sandflies turned parts of the West Coast into a “ride or die” experience.

Compare that with the usual road-tripping experience. Fanging along in a steel cage, you swerve into a designated viewing spot, grab the camera and jump out the car, like an astronaut leaving the landing craft. A quick five minutes – “ooh, it's really fresh out here” – and then back into the confines of a climate-controlled vehicle that gets you places with no real investment of effort, or appreciation of distance covered.

I must confess that the previous night I'd been lying on my bed in a Lake Tekapo hostel and wondering what honourable excuse I could find for quitting after the first day of a planned 10-day cycle around the South Island.

The 90 kilometres from my starting point in Geraldine that morning had seemed doable, but I'd reckoned without the steady gradient culminating at Burke's Pass – and a ferocious headwind. I'd also worried constantly that the back wheel of my cobbled-together touring bike wouldn't cope with two panniers and 100kg of me.

But the Aoraki vista put it all in perspective, and I sped gleefully into the next nine days. The Lindis Pass proved easy; a bizarre Hotel California-like experience at a hostel only added to the excitement; and the road north from Wanaka, weaving around lakes, was another 360-degree feast for the senses.

Yes, the awful bitey sandflies turned parts of the West Coast into a “ride or die” experience; 100km in howling rain proved challenging; and the bloke who wrote the guidebook seemed to have missed a hill near Knight's Point (or maybe the wind blew me backwards and I did it twice).

But loading up in Greymouth for the TranzAlpine train back to Christchurch, the sense of accomplishment was both calming and invigorating.

The downside had been that I was “toothbrush” touring, without a tent or sleeping bag. This meant that beds had to be booked ahead – no good turning up in a town at 4pm, to find no room at the inns and the next town 50km away. And cycle touring should surely be about serendipity at times – choosing the path as you go.

So a year later I flew into Launceston with a beefed-up rear wheel and portable sleeping arrangements. First fun thing about cycle touring – no need to worry about airport transfers. I assembled the bike in the arrivals lounge and left the cardboard travel box in a recycling bin.

Magic moments? Trundling along the near-deserted Esk Highway en route to the east coast, on a sparkling morning, with a sulphur-crested cockatoo screeching in protest at my invasion from 200 metres away. The easy side of the Elephant Pass, the pancake restaurant at the top and the flying descent to Bicheno. An echidna fossicking on the roadside en route to Coles Bay – try spotting that from a car! The savage, hilly beauty of the Tasman Peninsula.

And yes, the basting sun at times, the flat tyre two kilometres from my destination, packing my tent in the rain and some lunatic towing a boat north of Triabunna. Variety is the spice of cycle touring.

And so to the future. I'm meeting family in the Alps in August, and what better place to be on a bike?

At first I was planning to pack the racer and do the Haute Route, an amazing seven-day supported race that would either be the making or destroying of me as a cyclist.

But my dates shifted, and now I'm eyeing my new Surly LHT and thinking I'll go wandering on the continent for a while. With two tours under my belt, I'm still a novice, and it's time to change that. Maybe head east into Switzerland, then on to Lake Como? The Dolomites? Liechtenstein?

I'm imagining picturesque roads, magnificent vistas, quaint towns and simple but delicious food and drink. I'll also expect the usual weather challenges, killer hills and occasions of doubting my own sanity.

Is there any better way to travel?

Do you cycle tour, and what's the best trip you've had? Any tips on cycle routes near Chamonix?

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