The journey from Austria to New Zealand would take more than forty hours, flying from Vienna to London to Auckland to Palmerston North. After the tour, I would travel another forty hours from Wellington to Auckland to Hong Kong to London to Vienna to Graz, making a full circle of the globe.
What most excited me about this itinerary was the four-hour layover in Los Angeles and concomitant promise of a burrito. But after my eight-hour layover at Heathrow and a twelve-hour flight to LAX, instead of sitting down to a fat tortilla gloriously doused in California-style enchilada sauce, I found myself crowded with the rest of our flight in a small room with a sad offering of potato chips. For four hours preceding the next twelve-hour flight, I settled into a quiet corner of our pen, legs resting vertically against the wall, and silently cursed Homeland Security for crushing my hopes and dreams.
Two flights and another 18 hours later, Cath Cheatley picked me up from Palmerston North in New Zealand, and of course I walked straight to the right side of her car before she reminded me that was actually the driver’s side (uh, mental note). I spent the next several days reminding myself to stay on the left side of the road as I rode around Cath’s hometown of Wanganui.
Tucked slightly inland on the western coast of New Zealand’s north island, Wanganui (pronounced wahn-gahn-oo-ee in Maori) spans the Whanganui River (pronounced fahn-gahn-oo-ee in Maori—the “h” is a long story). Riding along the river past verdant parks and steel-riveted bridges felt eerily similar to riding along the St Croix in Stillwater, Minnesota, minus the occasional palm tree. Outside of town, rolling pastures and steep grassy hills reminded me of California’s Central Valley, until I’d round a corner into a patch of lush forest with canopies of ferns reminding me that this was indeed a very different part of the globe.
Knowing the thrill of exploring New Zealand would soon give way to an exhausted tour of race hotels and transfers, I relished my time in Wanganui and those long-awaited delectations of summer. Not one to procrastinate, the first thing I did was to get sunburned. (Doh.) Next I stocked up on big tubes of sunblock and aloe vera. I also discovered a new favorite coffee drink (the Flat White), got the hang of left-side-of-the-road driving, and took my first-ever dip in the Southern Ocean.
The late summer climate made for a delicious array of produce, so one morning we headed for the quay to check out the local farmer’s market. We strolled through the crisp early morning along the riverbank as we sipped locally roasted coffees and perused the summertime cornucopia: fresh corn, avocados, berries, pears, squashes, rhubarb, local cheeses, sausages, scones and pot-pies. At Cath’s place, we reaped a daily harvest of fresh squash (for dinners and zucchini bread) and strawberries (for morning müsli with Cath’s homemade yogurt). Coming from a long winter of root vegetables and snow, I savored every moment this little slice of summer had to offer.
A tortuous bus ride past bucolic hills and rocky shorelines took me from Wanganui to the race hotel in Lower Hutt. After years of graduate research on rocky tidal shores and oceanography, I couldn’t help but wish I had time for a dive, or at least a day to explore the tidepools.
That’s the thing about bike racing. On one hand, races take you to some amazing places in the world. On the other hand, what you see of those places generally doesn’t amount to much more than a blur of hotel rooms, buffets of overcooked pasta and exhausted transfers in the team car. Each tour has similarities—fatigue, lot’s of packing and unpacking, relentless schedules, meetings, groggy breakfasts, and team dinners peppered with bad jokes made much funnier by exhaustion; however, each is also unique—terrain, race tactics, language, food, landscapes, architecture, culture—and so leaves its own indelible mark.
When I think back on the Tour of New Zealand, I think of our stage-victory and the huge smiles and sweaty happy hugs we shared at the finish line; the steep, fern-lush hillsides of the pass between Wellington and Masterton; undulating, windy pastures dotted with cypress, sheep and cows around Palmerston; speedboats towing skiers with shocking velocity across the Wellington harbor; and the deep appreciation for and pride in the country shared by every New Zealander I met.
I will also never forget the news footage from the earthquake in Christchurch. Images of loss and suffering strung together with moments of human compassion and resiliency offered a potent dose of perspective every evening.
During my layover at Auckland International after the tour, I watched arriving passengers from Christchurch file off the jetway into the terminal. An elderly woman among them walked straight into the arms of the young woman waiting for her. The two held each other tight in a long embrace as a voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “Passengers arriving from Christchurch, support services are on hand for you throughout the terminal.” Red Cross volunteers stood by to show the way to the crisis support center, if needed, as passengers and crowds filed past. Although the world moved on, turning in its inexorable way, it seemed for a moment to revolve around those two women, locked in tearful embrace, for whom time had clearly stood still.
Follow Amber's adventures as an American cyclist and expat in Europe and beyond, as she shares the journey through her own words on Anywhere Road.
Amber Pierce - An American expat living in Austria, Amber has made the leap across the Atlantic in pursuit of her dreams on the road. After making a name for herself as one of the top road cyclists in the US, she now faces new challenges in her life on the road in Europe.
Amber's path to full-time racing in Europe has been anything but linear. From high school valedictorian holding national swimming records, to scholarship athlete at Stanford University and researcher on the open ocean, she has found herself in countless adventures all over the globe. With 53 career victories under her belt, however, Amber appears to have found her calling on the bicycle.
Photos: © Amber Pierce