Chris Owens is moving from Toronto to Auckland in the New Year to pursue postgraduate studies in the sociology of urban cycling. He also finds himself unexpectedly following in his father’s footsteps, and fulfilling a lifelong dream deferred…
It’s very easy to let oneself settle. To find a comfortable groove, work the grind, and make a bit of hay. And why not? Life can be pretty chaotic and uncertain at times, so it’s only natural to yearn for a little stability. And yet, even after finding something solid to hold on to, for some of us, we begin to feel a twitch. The mundane life we sometimes strive for can also make many of us feel imprisoned, and I felt this was especially true in the workaholic city I was living in – Toronto – the giant hamster wheel by the lake.
I’d begun to feel trapped as soon as I started my new career in nursing. I knew beforehand that it would be demanding, but I did not anticipate just how much needless stress it entailed. I could see the grey set in my hair as I endured day-in and day-out, and it soon became apparent to me that I needed to find a means out.
Around this time, my father – who had grown up in New Zealand – was talking of cycling around Aotearoa as part of a family reunion. For years, he had been especially fond of mountain biking and road cycling, and would ride frequently, all while managing the Golden Kiwi, a NZ-themed restaurant he and my mother owned in Cambridge, Ontario.
Although I had been commuting by bike in Toronto for a good number of years and was involved in urban bike advocacy (both at work and with Cycle Toronto), I didn’t fully share my father’s zeal for the more sporty aspects of cycling. In fact I found his MAMIL-like tendencies to be a bit peculiar. (Spandex and cleats? Really…?)
Still, that did not detract from my appreciation of my father’s athleticism and his touring intent. While a part of me wanted to go with him and the rest of my family, I would tell myself that I didn’t have enough vacation time to make it worthwhile, or that I didn’t have enough money. What I was hiding from was the fact that, while visiting New Zealand as an adult was on my list of eventual to-do’s, I wanted to do other things in my life first.
However, my opinion on the matter drastically changed when, tragically, my father suffered a debilitating stroke and had to cancel his tour. It took everyone by surprise, given his good health – and it made me reevaluate what was important to me. Despite what I had seen daily at work, it took a health crisis of someone close to me to realize just how fragile and finite life really was and that, if possible, one ought to stop procrastinating and do the things that really matter. A couple of months later I decided to book a return flight to Auckland.
My vacation was limited to three weeks, and I spent it largely zigzagging by campervan with my then partner, trying in vain to take in everything. It was a bit overwhelming, and ultimately we felt that more time was needed at a slower pace to be able to fully appreciate what the country had to offer. We vowed to eventually return but when exactly, we couldn’t really say.
It was about a year later, back in Canada, that my father’s passion took hold in me. I was at a bike show in search of a solid commuter bike when I came across a glorious (and highly discounted) Giant TCR Composite. I was smitten with its striking design, from the nimble black-red frame to its drop handlebars. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
When spring arrived, I took the TCR for a spin and instantly became addicted to how it felt on the road. Its handling and speed were so different to what I was used to and I began to understand what attracted my father to the sport in the first place. It didn’t take long for me to join a cycling club, and before I knew it, I was making weekly rides out into the country.
Road cycling became the major outlet for me to handle the stress of my job. On those days and evenings that I was out on the road, I felt so happy, pushing myself to my limits with the help of fellow riders. Even with the aches and pains that multi-hour rides sometimes entailed, I longed for those days on a clear road under the sun.
During the last vestiges of that summer, a turn of events redirected my focus to Aotearoa. My relationship with my partner ended, and I came to evaluate the direction of my life. It quickly made sense for me to act on moving to New Zealand. I applied to graduate school, bought a one-way ticket, and started all the necessary arrangements in my life to make this a reality. While this entailed plenty of effort, I began to feel the weight of work and life begin to lift and people noticed just how I had positively changed.
Remembering my earlier three-week trip, I decided to take some proper time off prior to starting my studies: a hefty month and a half. I was tempted to hire a camper van, but after some reflection decided to pursue a proper cycle tour of the country. I wanted this journey to be propelled by my own legs, so I could stop on occasion to take in a view, grab a snack, or set up camp. I would go at my own pace, whether it be fast or slow, and make sure to take in as much as I could.
As it turns out, I will be pursuing my father’s dream to cycle Aotearoa. I will try to make him proud.
Note: My journey starts in Auckland on the 5th of January, two days after I fly in. I’ll be hugging the Firth of Thames to begin with, and then making my way toward Whanganui. I will then reach Wellington by a series of country roads, including the Rimutaka Trail. Once I’ve ferried across the strait, I will make my way towards the West Coast, connecting at Greymouth, then southwest to Haast, Wanaka, and finally my destination at Queenstown, where I expect to arrive roughly on the 13th of February. My journey doesn’t end there, as I plan on tramping through the Routeburn Track before arriving at Milford Sound for a day. And then it’s back to Auckland to begin my studies. Feel free to offer any advice or suggestions related to my travels – in the comment section below, or via my blog!
— Chris Owens