Earlier this year, Rickie Cotter cycled the length of New Zealand on her mountain bike. The sort of trip that many of us dream about, will probably never do, and if we do, then we’ll take at least three months over it. But not Rickie – she hit this route hard. The rules of the Tour Aotearoa event, stipulated that riders must complete the route within 30 days of starting it. Rickie, who seems to get one hell of a kick out of pushing herself way beyond her comfort zone, only went and finished the 3000km cycle in 12 days.
Rickie cycled from Cape Regina, in the North Island, to Bluff at the very bottom of the South Island with only what she could carry on her bike. In the biking world, this is know as ‘bikepacking’, and going as lightweight as possible is essential. The total independence of having all that you need strapped to your bike opens up a freedom of adventure like no other.
Tour Aotearoa was not the first long distance bikepacking challenge that Rickie has conquered. In 2014 she completed the Transcontinental London to Istanbul ride in 14 days, she is the current 24 hour MTB National Champion and the Highland 550 record holder.
An impressive resume of incredible accomplishments that shouldn’t be taken lightly and are certainly not for the faint hearted. Such determination, drive and strength (mental and physical) doesn’t come along everyday and right now, Rickie is bossing every event and biking adventure that she gets herself into.
The world of sleep deprived, coffee-fueled, long-distance solo pedalling expeditions might not be for us all, but something about it makes Rickie tick and she even calls it fun! Read why she can’t get enough of these rugged adventures:
How (and why) did you take the first steps from bikepacking towards long distance enduro mountain bike events?
I first started bike packing when I needed a fresh challenge within biking. I also wanted to ride my bike in places I couldn’t cycle to in a day, so I bought myself a waterproof bin bag, also known as a bivvy bag, and set off on long weekends.
What is it that motivates you to complete these seemingly impossible challenges?
My motivation comes from a desire for adventure and to really push my physical and mental strength as far as I can to see if I can handle it.
I believe we can all achieve way more than we expect we can and it’s exciting delving into this part of ourselves, because it’s unknown.
How long did you train for Tour Aotearoa?
I have a strong cycling baseline to work from because I don’t drive, so everyday I ride to work and sometimes that could be a 30 min ride each way or 1 hr or more each way. Sometimes I ride the long way home and I avoid flat bits. Often on the weekends I’d abandon all other responsibilities and disappear on the bike for the entire weekend. The more miles the better.
How did the Tour in NZ compare with the other events that you have done?
NZ is an incredible place to bike pack. The fact that English is the main language and you only need one currency (unlike riding across Europe) makes life on the road a lot simpler. The whole Kiwi attitude is very relaxed, I’m talking walking around barefoot in the supermarket relaxed. Compared to other events I’ve done this was up there as one of the best, and totally worth travelling across the world for.
What was the highlight of the race?
There were a number of highlights including sensational sunrises, jet boating down a river with my bike on the back, the wilderness trail on the south coast, humbling mountain passes and negotiating dense jungle.
Talk us through your typical day on the road…
My typical day in NZ during the ToA started at 3am. I’d pack away my sleep gear and have a snack whilst riding along, focussing on getting to the next open available breakfast stop. I’d be treated to a glorious sun rise. When I’d eventually find food I would make sure my water supplies and snacks were topped up enough to keep me going for a few hours, then I would just ride, ride and ride. I’m partial to a good caffeine hit so occasionally I’d allow myself a quick shot or two. I would aim to ride without too many stops – I’ve learnt to brush teeth, apply suncream, clean sunglasses, read maps and put on a jacket whilst riding along. I even ate a tin of beans whilst cycling. So I’d only leave the bike for nature breaks – sometimes it’s just quicker not to use a toilet
I did take photos too.
Eventually around 10pm I would pass out somewhere and get everything ready for the next day so that I didn’t faff in the morning. I’d set my alarm and raise my legs up. I rarely got undressed because trying to put a bra on when you’re exhausted at 3am is like trying to work out the most complex puzzle – it’s frustratingly impossible.
Do you prefer riding alone?
I rode mostly alone in NZ. There are times during these events that I really enjoy sharing the moment with other riders – like bivving on mount Eden above the city of Auckland or being in boats on the ocean during crossings. But there are also times when I just need to focus on getting through the pain or concentrate on tricky sections. Sometimes all my energy has to go into pedalling not talking although I do seem to always find the energy for a good chat!
During the long periods of not talking to or seeing other people, how do you cope when you are starting to question why you’re doing what you’re doing?
I never question why I’m doing it but sometimes I do question if I can do it. At these times I give myself a good stern talking to and remind myself that I have worked hard to get here and I WILL finish and finish strong because I do not accept failure and I have a responsibility to myself to do a good job.
On your first race in 2014 you only took a foil blanket to sleep in! Did you use anything warmer this time? If so, what sort of kit was it?
Yes I took just a foil blanket to ride from London to Istanbul, I can honestly say that wasn’t my finest idea. Before the ToA I did a 1000km warm up to check my kit and make sure I was dialled in psychologically, plus I wanted to see as much of NZ as I could so for that reason I took an exceptionally light tent. My sleep arrangement was luxurious :
PHD sleeping bag 280g
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir 3/4 sleeping pad
Trekkertent Stealth 660g
Carbon tent poles (bearbones norm)
You’ve slept in some pretty random places during races – did your nights in NZ live up to the variety of sleeping spots that you are accustomed to?!
I slept on a concrete church step; at the top of a dormant volcano overlooking the city; on the shore of a lake; under a tree on a golf course (great grass for tent pegs); in someone’s spider web infested log shed; in the reception of a ferry terminal; in a cockroach cabin; in an unlocked carpeted internet room on a campsite; and in a cow insemination barn with plenty of dried out cow pats.
Have you lined up your next race or will you be taking it a bit more casual with some bikepacking trips?
My next adventure has yet to be decided, sometimes spontaneity adds to the experience. I think Scotland is calling me.
What advice can you give to those wanting to do a bikepacking trip for the first time?
Planning a trip is the hard bit. I love maps so get a map out and set realistic goals. If you’re with a group make sure the whole group has the same expectations and that all the group can achieve the final goal, especially when planning the distance and technicality. ALWAYS have a plan B, sometimes you have to change the plan or something may break (bikes or people) so be prepared and flexible.
Don’t carry crap you don’t need. A classic mistake is to carry way too much stuff and this makes life hard – under 5kg is easily doable, so be ruthless in your packing.
Always assess potential camp spots, check for danger eg. potential rivers flooding, over hanging trees in high winds, falling rocks, near towns/people.
Basically common mountain sense.
For more information on how to take your first pedal pushes towards a bikepacking adventure, bikepacking.com will have you covered.