Last October, Onzo rental bikes, with no gears and airless tyres, appeared around Auckland city as a commuter option. Madeleine Chapman decided to see just how far she could commute on one in a day.
It took nine hours for me to feel genuine fear on my Onzo bike ride to Huntly, and it was because all the cows were staring at me.
While cows and horses would typically flee when I slowly rolled by, these ones weren’t moving. They lined up on either side of the one-lane gravel road and stared at me as I miserably pushed my bike up an incredibly small incline. The staring was fine. I could handle three dozen sets of sad eyes staring at me. But when one of the bulls started making weird grunting sounds and stomping its hoof behind a flimsy fence, that’s when my bum involuntarily clenched.
I was so sweaty and tired and hadn’t seen another person in four hours. I got annoyed at myself for having such a dumb idea as “what if I tried to ride an Onzo bike out of Auckland”. Then I got annoyed at the editors at work for all responding with “you should definitely do that”. Then I got annoyed at the bull for making noise at me. Then I got annoyed at whoever was responsible for the gravel I was walking on. Then I circled back around and got annoyed at myself again for having such a dumb idea.
The dumb idea wasn’t mine to begin with. @nimbiwit on Twitter had suggested, jokingly I’m sure, that someone try to ride an Onzo rental bike from Auckland to Wellington. How idiotic, I thought, then made a mental note to bring it up at the next editorial meeting when I had no other ideas for stories. Sometimes when your brain lets you down, your body has to pick up the slack.
I pitched the idea “ride as far south as I can on an Onzo” at a Monday meeting. The attempt was limited to one day because even if I wanted to attempt a trip to Wellington (I didn’t), The Spinoff would definitely not pay me to spend two weeks crying my way down the North Island. One day was manageable. So manageable I figured I may as well do it as soon as possible.
“You should do some cycle training so you don’t completely embarrass yourself.”
Some helpful advice from my brother on Tuesday afternoon when I told him I was leaving on Thursday morning. So that day I set up an Onzo account and decided to ride one home from work. It was 4.5km – half of it uphill – and took 40 minutes. The thought of riding over 100km two days later would’ve made me cry if I hadn’t already sweated out all the moisture in my body.
On Wednesday I tweeted out my intentions so there’d be no backing out. A random person very kindly replied “Go Matt!” which meant I definitely had to do it. I said I’d be leaving my house in Mt Eden at 4am so, naturally, my fear of sleeping in meant I slept for two hours before leaving early at 3:45am. Ten seconds after I started pedalling, it started raining.
When there are no cars and no pedestrians and no sun, it’s quite lovely to cycle through Auckland. I cruised through Mt Eden, Epsom, and Greenlane before turning onto Great South Road. Two weeks ago I could’ve sworn Great South Rd was flat, if not a steady downhill heading south. I rode ‘down’ that road on a bike with no gears for two hours and can confidently say that it is very much not flat and not downhill.
By 6am I was eating some sort of chicken breakfast muffin at the Papakura McDonalds and feeling great. Outside, my chariot stood proudly, its front light still flashing because I’d forgotten to turn it off.
According to the app, there was one other Onzo bike in Papakura. Locals seeing it would probably assume it was my personal bike. A few have been ‘stolen’ and put on Trademe but stolen from whom? In October of last year, the bikes appeared literally overnight and were scattered all around central Auckland. With no marketing whatsoever, it was one step shy of U2 downloading their new album onto every iPhone in the world. Only this time it was a product that some people actually wanted.
Onzo keep a low profile. So low it’s easy to believe the bikes dropped out of the sky and will one day disappear again without warning. Their website is sparse, with the ‘news’ tab entirely empty. They post infrequently on their Facebook page and the app doesn’t have a customer service contact number, just a form to fill in to report a damaged bike. The message is clear: figure it out yourself like an adult. I loved it. As someone who avoids all shop assistants, being able to hire a bike for the day without talking or looking at anyone was ideal.
I sat in McDonalds Papakura, the only diner, and ate my chicken burger in tired but blissful peace. At this rate I’d be in Hamilton by 2:30pm, easy.
The 4km between Papakura and Karaka were some of the worst of the whole ride. The wide expanse and cycle lanes of Great South Rd were replaced by the gravelly asphalt, narrow shoulders, and 100kmh speed limit of Linwood Rd. And it was raining again. I rode slowly and deliberately, not looking over my shoulder for trucks in case I inadvertently veered into one.
Riding through Pukekohe at 8am, an older gentleman on a road bike passed me as I struggled up yet another small hill. He greeted me.
“Bigger wheels really do make a difference”
“Ahahaha yeah thanks.”
I wanted to yell that some gears would also make a difference. Instead I watched as his padded bum disappeared in the distance and decided that instead of complaining that the Onzo’s highest seat setting was 10cm too short me, I’d be grateful that the Onzo’s highest seat setting wasn’t 20cm too short for me. Wherever the bikes are made, people must be short. My knees were rising above my hips with every pedal and my thighs were just asking to be horrendously chafed if not for the sweet costume I was wearing.
I didn’t have any cycling gear. I used to have so much cycling gear. When I moved out of home at 17, I thought I had everything I needed. That is, until I needed a cricket ball for training, or paprika for a recipe I’d never make again, or a spare sheet for camping, or a thousand other things you assume will always be at hand. I realised that my parents had everything I needed while I had nothing. In the seven years since then, I’ve gradually paid for new versions of everything I had free access to in our garage at home. Growing up is a pyramid scheme and I’m right in the middle of it. Not advanced enough to have bought back cycling gear though.
Luckily, Spinoff managing editor Duncan Greive is exactly the type of person to own a lot of serious lycra. He loaned me a helmet, hi-vis vest, and some sort of unitard with bum padding. He can never wear that unitard again because lycra doesn’t stretch back and my thighs are a lot bigger than his, which is a lose-lose reality for both of us. To complete my outfit I went to K-Mart at 11pm on Wednesday (God bless K-Mart) and bought a long-sleeve construction shirt for $12 and some sunnies for $6. My food supplies were:
1x BBQ Pringles
1x Original Beef Jerky
1x Natural Sour Worms
1x Blue Powerade
Along the way, about four hours into my journey, I rode past some rubbish dumped on the side of the road. Among the mess was a tiny kids bike. I briefly pondered switching out, certain that literally any bike would go faster than an Onzo, but decided against. Next to the bike was a deflated Gilbert rugby ball. I rolled past all of it and was fifty metres away when I stopped, ran back to the rubbish, and picked up the ball. From that point on, Gilbert sat in the front basket keeping me company. Tom Hanks had Wilson, I had Gilbert.
No, I didn’t start talking to a gross rugby ball, but in keeping with the Castaway references, it did make me feel like I was delivering a package somewhere rather than riding there for no reason. I did talk, though. More than I thought I would. Riding through the middle of nowhere with no cars, homes, or people, I could voice my thoughts aloud and literally no one would know. Pretty soon I was talking loudly to myself about god knows what, and it was nice. When a lone car sped by me a little close for comfort, I yelled after it for a solid three minutes, long after it had disappeared. COME OOOOON THERE’S A WHOLE ROAD IT’S NOT THAT HARD TO GIVE A LITTLE ROOM HAVE YOU EVER DRIVEN ON A NORMAL ROAD BEFORE THERE ARE ZERO CARS COMING THE OTHER WAY YOU COULD’VE DRIVEN IN THE WRONG LANE AND BEEN FINE and so on and so forth. It was cathartic and no one was there to look at me sideways.
Saying every thought out loud also lessened how many thoughts I had and resulted in me saying a lot of things while not thinking a lot of thoughts. Something I’m sure plenty of columnists would relate to.
By the time it was bright enough to put on my speed dealer sunnies, I was unwittingly entering the worst part of my day. The hill started small enough that I could manage by standing up on the pedals. But after one kilometre I was done and had to walk the bike up the next five kilometres of very narrow, 100km zone steep incline. It took me two hours and my will to live to reach the top of the hill, but it could’ve taken a lot less.
Halfway up Mt Doom, cursing every empty bedded pick up truck as it zoomed past me, a truck finally slowed down coming the other way. I prepared to half-heartedly insist I was going great when he inevitably asked if I needed help because why else would he slow down?
He slowed down to ask me for directions.
I gave him no helpful answers and in return asked him how long he’d been driving downhill for. “Oh not long at all,” he replied, referring to the nearly 3km I still had left to go.
As he continued down the hill I wished the nice man was heading in the opposite direction. He seemed like a friend in this dark wilderness. Someone who had seen my suffering and would help if only he could. Ten minutes later, he realised he was going the wrong way, turned around, and drove straight past me on his way back up the hill. No such thing as a real friend. I sat down in the roadside ditch, ate some Pringles and checked my phone. A lovely Spinoff reader had messaged to say that if I made it to Z in Huntly, I could have a free pie. It was decided. I would make it to Huntly.
As I zoomed down the other side of the hill as fast as an Onzo can zoom, the wind whipped my hair, dried my sweat, and felt glorious. When I stopped to have a drink I noticed there was a tear rolling down one cheek. Was it because of the wind? Probably. Was it maybe the only way to express physical relief while still 50km from where I wanted to be? Almost certainly.
Somewhere between kilometres 70 and 90, I gave up. I was on the cruelly named Chapman Rd, trudging up gravel molehills and then slowly rolling down them so as not to wipe out on a loose pebble. It was 1:20pm and the terrain was so up and down that my pace had slowed to that of a mediocre jogger. Bulls were acting like they wanted to mate with me. I looked around at all the cows and horses surrounding me, with no human life in sight, and gave up.
The great thing about the human body and – hold your nose – spirit is that when you think you’ve reached your limit or have done everything you can do, you’re not even close to being finished. The moment I stopped and seriously decided I wanted to give up, I knew I was, at most, 75% done.
Once I knew that, I got back on the bike and rolled towards Huntly, exactly 120km from my flat in Mt Eden.
While most people’s reaction to my dumb idea was of the better you than me variety, more than a few seemed genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. Partly because drivers are generally bad and I could get into an accident, but mostly because riding a clunky single-gear bike for over ten hours would certainly cause irreparable damage to my body. That made me laugh.
Do you know how much crap our bodies can withstand before they cave in? It’s a lot more than one day of slow pedalling. But the amount of crap we want to withstand is minimal. Why would I put myself through an 11 hour bike ride when no one asked me to? Because I needed a reminder that I could. Sometimes it takes doing something extremely dumb to remind ourselves that our bodies can perform infinitely better than our minds would have us believe. And if I was going to give myself a dumb reminder, I wanted to at least see the DEKA sign at the end of it.
The closer I got to Huntly, the more I started thinking about the past 10 hours. Somehow it had gone by quickly. My biggest dread had been the sheer boredom of riding without music for so long. I didn’t want to be stuck with my own thoughts and pain for that many hours on end. But once I got past Karaka and into the farmlands, the very real silence was comforting. In an average day, I would spend less than half an hour not reading anything, listening to anything, watching anything, or silently stressing about anything. I didn’t notice until I had a full day to do nothing but pedal.
While my body was working out enough to last the week, my mind was able to fully rest for the first time in a long time. If you spend all day digging holes and carrying bricks, a holiday is sitting down to watch TV and read a book. If you spend all day thinking of different ways to string words together, a holiday is not having to look at any words. Pedalling for 11 hours was a holiday.
There truly was nothing to think about. I wasn’t procrastinating anything, I wasn’t ingesting any new information, I wasn’t racing the clock. I was just pedalling in silence. There was an old song playing in McDonald’s when I had breakfast and it pleasantly stayed in my head all day but I don’t remember what it was now. All I know is that I had no epiphanies, no realisations, and no stresses. It was great.
At 3:44pm, exactly 12 hours after I left my flat in Mt Eden, I made it to the DEKA sign in Huntly. The Onzo bike had held up remarkably well. Aside from some worrying clicks during the steepest descents, there’d been nothing to suggest it would break or malfunction. Those bikes are built sturdy, the one positive side effect of not being built fast or efficient. I suppose the same could be said for me. I rode incredibly slowly and was quick to give up on the hills. But my goal was never to ride well, it was to ride far. And though it took 12 hours, I considered 120km to be quite far. Put ‘sturdy’ on my gravestone, thanks.
When I walked into Huntly Z in my unitard and helmet, already shivering from my rapidly cooling full body sweat, the young woman behind the counter took one look at me and said “Are you here for a pie?”. I had a steak and cheese.
I dropped the bike and Gilbert back under the DEKA sign where they could spend the night while I stayed with my sister in Hamilton. When I woke up the next morning I gingerly sat up, ready for the pain, but it never arrived. Immediately, the thought crossed my mind that I should go pick up the bike and keep heading south. It crossed my mind and crossed back pretty quickly, but it was there, which is good.
As we drove through Huntly on our way back to Auckland, my sister asked about the Onzo bike, which was still under the DEKA sign. I’d originally planned to cart it back in the car because I felt bad about leaving it stranded there, out of use. But after riding it all day, I changed my mind. Maybe I was doing the people of Huntly a favour in gifting them a bike for hire. Laying down a challenge.
I hope someone rides it back.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.