Each year a crew of bicycle enthusiasts from around New Zealand’s North Island leave their regular lives behind and make a pilgrimage to the ‘Republic of Whangamomona’ for the Dirty Detours gravel cycling event. Our New Zealand distributor EVO rolled along to support the event and see what all the fuss was about.

“Where’s Whangamomona?” you ask. Whangamomona sits on highway 43, dubbed ‘The Forgotten World Highway’. The Republic is 65 km North of Stratford and is about 5.5 hours south of Auckland. Day to day, things are pretty sleepy in the area, farmers tend their flocks of sheep, tourists drift through, pausing at the iconic Whangamomona Hotel for a meal between sightseeing stops, and leather-clad touring motor bikers lounge on the sun-drenched benches outside the hotel entrance, sinking cold pints before continuing their journey. It’s fair to say there’s usually not a great deal going on in Whangamomona, but that’s the attraction of this little blip on the map.

Dirty Detours (DD), now in its second year drew 70 odd riders from around the North Island. From the outside it appears to be some sort of fun ride, but the reality is, it’s so much more than just a bike ride. DD is a weekend of good times disguised as a bike event. This untimed event (notice we haven’t called it a Race) pits teams of 2 against the course, that’s it. There’s no winner, no prize giving, and the only timing that exists with the event is that it’s time for a good time, all the time!

Things kicked off on Saturday afternoon with a majority of the riders travelling into town over the day, some opted for a quiet afternoon chilling in the sunshine, some a pre-ride of the course and others, well they kicked a ball around in the middle of the main street, such is the advantage of being in a sleepy town.

Sunday dawned fine and clear, albeit slightly cool. Riders prepped at their respective digs, all manner of breakfasts were consumed but most had a common thread. Coffee – black, white, frothy or flat, it didn’t matter. Riders gathered in the town hall for a welcome and event briefing from Liam Friary, the event organiser and owner of NZ Cycling Journal.
The 82kmish loop begins with some admin over a couple of saddles on the road, south through Te Wera where soon after riders hooked a left turn and towards the Makahu Tunnel. Through the tunnel and onwards. Soon after you’re riding on perfect backcountry, gravel roads devoid of traffic, winding through everything from endless vistas of rugged farmland, to towering stands of native bush in valleys as you head through the back blocks of nowhere. Dodging Captain Cooker piglets and the odd pothole as you roll through the middle of a working farm you’ll never be starved for something to look at or to avoid on this ride.
After a number of solid climbs, and equally solid descents, the course headed off the gravel, and on to farm track, this is where we (Kona Bikes/Evo) were set up. In association the parents of Marco School we manned a track side Bake-Sale. Almost all riders opted for a break from the saddle to take in some of the home-baked treats, all in the name of fundraising for the school. Fun fact – after 3 hours or so of riding, cyclists seem to prefer savoury over sweet, the baked mince, beans, egg and cheese baked in bread sold out first! After a belly full of treats riders headed on to “Whangamomona Road”, a paper road that would complete the ride and bring them back to the town hall where their journey began.
This dirt track follows the river & gently trends downwards. A substantial drop off the right means you need to keep your ego in check as you pick your lines through or around the large puddles and bogs that break up the ride. Get it a little wrong and you could be up to your hubs in mud, but get it really wrong and you’ll be down the steep bank and into the river. Riders taking their time can stop and peer through the greenery into ravines so deep you can’t see the bottom, as they cross a number of bridges. The area must be an amazing sight after prolonged heavy rain!
Scramble over the recent landslide, through a couple more gates, ensuring the local cows don’t follow you through, and it’s all downhill into town. Back at the town hall, Stratford based ‘Forgotten 43 Brewing’ were serving their finest brews while riders spread out in the carpark, trading tails of the day and breaking down their experience while airdropping phone photos between one another. On the subject of phones, in Whangamomona, unless you’re running a satellite phone, your regular cell phone may as well be called a “camera” while you’re there as no cell signal makes it this far out. With no access to their regular social media, there was barely a phone to be seen, in depth conversations were had, personal connections were made, and everyone noticed how different the social dynamic was without everyone on a screen.
As the day was drawing to a close the most important part of the day began – the Sheep Shearing competition! Teams of three battled it out against each other for the fastest time, adjudicated by the President of the Republic, John Herlihy, the first team member had to shear half a sheep, the second ate an overly-hot pie (and burned their mouth in the process!), and the third downed a pint, fastest time wins! The townies battled not only each other, but a team of local Mums who’s baking graced our bake sale, needless to say they didn’t really flinch at any of the tasks at hand. No-one remembers who took the win, but it was awesome to see everyone get involved and have a good time.

After the shears were put away and the Hazy Pale Ale had dried up, it was off to the Whangamomona Hotel for dinner. Who would have thought a hotel in the centre of nowhere would be humming on a Sunday night, not us that’s for sure! Burgers and chips polished off, the day wrapped up with oversized ice cream sundaes and it was done. Back to our accommodation for an early night after an exhausting day.

Dirty Detours was a real ‘bike culture’ experience that left everyone with one burning question: When’s the next one?!

Words: Lester Perry
Images: NZ Cycling Journal, Cameron Mackenzie, Ralph Cabman , Ray Tiddy & Lester Perry.