Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge - Mountain Biking Under the Volcano

A rumbling giant can't put the brakes on an action-packed visit to New Zealand's North Island, writes Michael O'Reilly.

By: Michael O'Reilly

'It's not every day you get into a 19-seat plane and fly towards an erupting volcano," I say to the man squeezed into the seat across the aisle from me as we take off from Auckland airport.

Mount Tongariro is clouding the skies in the middle of the North Island and it's a worry. I'm heading for a cycle race around nearby Lake Taupo but the ash and smoke being spewed is threatening to close the course. I haven't travelled from Sydney to have some burping rock ruin my adventure.

Of course, if it wasn't for volcanoes, the event wouldn't exist. Lake Taupo was formed 26,500 years ago by an eruption that created the largest freshwater lake in Australasia - and the course for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, the biggest bicycle event in New Zealand.

The main race is a 160-kilometre circumnavigation of the lake and as the pilot swings us over the sparkling blue water, I get a chance to study the route. Certainly no chance of a shortcut.

Taupo is a tourism hotspot and as we drive into town, the roads are lined with accommodation and restaurants to cater for some 11,000 competitors and their travelling companions.

Aratiatia Dam

The day before the race starts bright and sunny with a trip to the Aratiatia Rapids, a hydro electric scheme disguised as a tourist attraction. Several times a day, a dam on the Lake Taupo-draining Waikato River opens its sluices and turns a placid, brook-filled gorge into a raging channel of water. It will feature in the second instalment of The Hobbit, in a scene where Bilbo and the dwarves ride down a river in barrels.

After this, a chance to get more intimate with raging torrents - a jetboat ride to the base of the squat, powerful Huka Falls.

"Don't sit in the second row on the right-hand side!" a bedraggled woman tells me as the previous adventurers quit the boat. Naturally, that's where I wind up and I soon get to savour a cooling stream of water down the back of my neck.

It's a white-knuckle ride of aqua doughnuts and sandbar-dodging, piloted by a studiously laconic captain.

The afternoon is consumed by nerdy bike tweaking and a leg-loosening ride along the shore. By now, cars laden with bikes racked in shiny rows are are streaming into town, where the main drag has been closed to traffic and converted into a course for a street criterium. The restaurants and pubs along the route colonise the pavement with tables, and as cyclists whiz past, we sit against a barricade in the afternoon sun, drinking beer. Carbo loading for the event, you know.

I've long suspected cycling is a masking drug for weirdos who just like to get out of bed at 5am. Such pre-dawn patrollers would be unhappy at Lake Taupo - with no traffic issues, my start time is a leisurely 8.45am. The clear day undermines every wet-weather joke I've been told about the Land of the Long White Cloud, and I'm in short sleeves as we roll out of town.

The course is a dream - hilly and winding for the first 100 kilometres, with trees and rolling meadows lining the way, then a mostly flat run along the lakeshore to the finish, as legs turn to wet noodles.

The numbers worn by competitors also list their home towns, a nice touch that encourages banter. I hail from the vast hamlet of "Australia" and get a few cheery welcomes. No one mentions the Wallabies or Quade Cooper, which is a relief.

I'm just pondering whether I should pick up the pace when I notice some surprisingly speedy people going past - with the letter "B" on their numbers. It turns out you can do the event as a four-rider relay and we've just gone past the first changeover. I shamelessly tag on to the back of a line of fresh riders.

Regardless of my sneaky slipstreaming, I'm grateful to see the flat track that follows a steep, swerving descent to the lakeside with some 60 kilometres to go. But the scent of the finish line is already in my nostrils and I get my head down and make time, occasionally glancing at the gorgeous lake vistas on my left. 

Did I say "flat"? I'd been warned about Hatepe Hill, a heartbreaking climb with 20 kilometres to go - it's steep and horrible and I lose all my fresher companions. The plummet back to the shoreline gives a chance to recover and I speed over the line some six hours after the starting gun.

A carnival atmosphere pervades the finishing zone. I nick back to my motel for a welcome shower, then return to the festivities. Thousands pack a natural grass amphitheatre for a prizegiving cunningly interspersed with lucky draw prizes.

My number doesn't come up but I'm feeling pretty blessed. We feast on restorative takeaway pizza on the lake's edge, looking at telltale patches of bubbles that indicate water-warming hot spring activity.

I contemplate a quick dip to check the temperature but decide to put off any interaction with volatile subterranean activity until the morning. Right now, I'm just grateful Mount Tongariro didn't ash on our parade.

The writer was a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo.

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