The birth of Smiles per hour

Smiles per hour, a phrase and an alternative outlook on bikepacking that appeared out of darkness.

Since hearing about the Geyserland Gravel Grinds' mega grind (circa 2017/2018) I’d been inspired to do it, but needed to slowly build up to multi day rides and work out how to take a week or so off from a new business. 

Late in 2020, after a year from hell, I decided this was my year to do an adaptation of the route (missing the Mamaku crossing section). 

I planned it months in advance, upgraded a few bit of gear and put in a lot of training. The Plan. Close early for Christmas and make the most of the child free days of my shared parenting arrangement. Unfortunately, schools had other ideas and the “last day of school” turned into a teacher only day, meaning I couldn’t drop them at school and leave like I had initially intended. 

My 6 days turned into 5, but I decided that a few strategic night sections, it should be possible, forgetting my life mantra of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should".

Leaving Whanganui for my start/finish point of Ohura at 5:30pm on Friday night (and having to be back in Whanganui at 5pm Wednesday to pick my boys up again), eating my pizza on the way I had a casual “see how I feel” approach to leaving Ohura for PioPio that night, having specially purchased a USB chargeable light that day, allowing me to keep weight down and charge from a battery bank. 

On the drive up, the sky started to clear and I thought how fantastic it would be to ride under a nice starry sky. Thinking 55kms (very little elevation gain from my last minute google) was about 3 hours for me I left Ohura at 8:30pm, SOLO. 

About 15kms in (about 9:45pm) I see a tractor driving through a paddock and over a Ford, think wow, he is out late. About 15 minutes later a Ute passes me in the same direction, five more minutes go by and this Ute appears again. It’s the farmer who was in the tractor, nice guy (10pm, pitch black, middle of nowhere) stops for a chat and says “I thought I was seeing things, though you were a UFO but you were moving too slowly, although you seem to be getting along alright”. We chat for about 10 minutes and then both carry on. 

About 15 minutes later another car comes towards me, out of courtesy I partially cover my light as they approach and pass by.... before stopping about 100m ish past me and yelling something inaudible back. 

At this point it’s fair to say my mental health was possibly questionable at the beginning of the ride. This was in no way helped when you hear wheel spinning on a gravel road from a car that has just yelled at you, in the middle of nowhere, at night, alone.

It happened 3 times, like they were trying to aggressively preform a U-turn, but I wasn’t hanging about to find out. My mind was firmly set on getting to camp as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I’m still at least 30kms away) and I start pedalling as if my life depended upon it (and I was worried it might). I do remember seeing my heart rate at 175 BPM  on my Garmin at this time. The car never came back, but it was somewhere around that point that I left my mind on the side of the road. 

I turned off my rear light, believing my paranoia and the reflective strip on my seat bag and ankle would keep me from being run down from behind. Proceeded to cover my head light at any light in the distance while I differentiated between it being a vehicle or a farm house while scouring the drain for a place to hide. In the instance of a vehicle, my light went off and I hid in the drain like a fugitive. 

To add further stress to the situation, a slight packing error was making my handlebar roll not stay tight and under compression of my suspension fork, my handlebar roll was buzzing the tyre. In an effort to combat this I decided to lock out my fork for the first time, which is weird on a full suspension bike I might add, only to get hit in the leg by something while riding at speed down the only big gravel decent of the night. Rummaging around in the dark I find it was a drink bottle, spare tube and strap from my fork. 

Finally getting to sealed road I was so tired from my earlier prolonged max efforts I couldn’t ride small hills, merely getting off and power walking up them in the darkness. 

I eventually arrived in PioPio at 11:50 to pitch my tent and turn in. I’ve never been so happy to be in PioPio (or alive).

At this point it’s worth pointing out it’s not the first unsettling experience that I’ve had solo at night in the greater Ohura area. Woken at night in my bivvy tent in the Moki forest rest area by a car coming in VERY hot to preform a flying lap was definitely my first “and this is how I’m going to die” moment.

Next morning I get up, eat, pack and on the road by my standard 8am deadline. Feeling absolutely toasted, I ease into the climb out of PioPio towards Kawhia. Working off cue sheets I got to a cue that said “continue Moiroa Rd” which 900-1200m after would see another cue, right, Waipuna Rd. 

I got to an intersection that didn’t 100% correspond and checked the map (Ride withGPS) that I had plotted the route on. I noted that while the road to my right wasn’t Moiroa Rd, the one to my left Ngapaena Rd was a road I didn’t go on, and I continued right at that road junction. 

Continuing on, watching the junctions, the miles dissolved and I felt okay. That was until I appeared at an intersection that the names didn’t match anything on my cue sheets. Then it hit me, I recognised the Te Kuiti Aerodrome from driving that road far too often. That was highway 3. 

At this point I thought I must be 5, maybe 10kms out of my way so I composed myself and decided I wouldn’t change my plan, but double back and pick up the right road. 

At 1:30pm I make it back to said junction, 20kms in each direction out of my way (an estimated 700m+ of un needed elevation gain. 

I take Ngapaena road as I feel it should only be about 1 km to Waipuna Rd, I was correct. 

Now I’m effectively 15.5kms from where I started with another 70kms to go, the next 30 all up hill. 

Absolutely broken, mentally, physically and emotionally. At this point I had to be responsible and make the call to turn back due to my deadline (after doing the maths on average km/day) as I was now half a day behind and not comfortable with more nights in the saddle after the previous evening. 

Turning back I arrived in PioPio to pitch my tent 10m from where it was the night before after a scenic 70km joyride. Eating tuna and rice was a far cry from the gin and pizza I planned for my birthday dinner in Raglan. 

I headed back to Ohura the next day and got to enjoy a scenic gravel road in the daylight. 

As I had joked with my friend and customers who knew of my plans before I left, I’m starting in Ohura, because all good stories start and finish in Ohura. This one definitely did.

It would be a few months later, on a training ride, I was mentally filing all of life problems, reflecting upon the challenges of those around me when I felt a duty to stand up and be counted. I text a friend and said I'm riding the Kopiko this year to start conversation around mental health. 

Unfortunately, after 8 months of training I had to make the call to cancel my Kopiko effort. Covid had led to remote communities asking visitors not to come, resulting in a course change. My plan had originally been to follow the West - East route to East Cape and onto Gisborne before making my way home on a bus, completing the best part of a route I had first plotted 20 years ago but not yet ridden, a bucket list ride. 

With Covid firmly in our communities I felt it irresponsible to sit on a bus for the better part of a day stewing in the viral juices of strangers and risking bringing it back to my family and greater community. The call was made to cancel the Kopiko, ultimately resulting in the Smiles per hour journey that I'm now on.