Moonlight Akas

The Akatarawa loop (“Akas”) is a legendary Wellington road ride.  There are three solid climbs and most of the loop is on narrow, winding low-traffic roads.  If you start and finish in Wellington city it’s about 140km so it’s no joke even in daylight hours, let alone at night.

For my 30th birthday I’d planned a night-loop of the Akas however for various reasons it never happened. This week, a decade later, with my 40th birthday fast approaching, and with a full moon and reasonably clear skies I was determined to make it happen.  I asked Matt if he’d like to join me and he immediately said yes so I knew he was up for an adventure.

When it started raining during the afternoon I thought my plans were once again scuttled however the rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and we set off through peak Wellington commuter traffic towards Upper Hutt.  A fresh Southerly helped us make good time and we arrived at the Akas turnoff exactly at sunset.  While we were both thankful for the tailwind the temperature was already down to 8 degrees so we knew we were in for a cold night.

Climbing up the Akas with our lights off and the road illuminated by the moon was surreal, and was exactly why I wanted to do this loop at night.  We spotted a wild deer - something I’d never seen during the daylight.  As the moon came up we were treated to a cold, crisp evening at the summit with the Southern Cross clearly visible but with the temperature at 5 degrees we didn’t hang around and instead donned every item of clothing we’d brought for the shivering descent into Waikanae.

We rolled into the gas station in Waikanae for a hot drink and Matt was treated to the best hot chocolate he’s ever had and while we spent a few minutes defrosting noticed a copy of NZ Road Cycling Magazine from May 2016. In the past 5 years (!!) this magazine must have sat unpurchased next to a stack of boyracer mags.  We had a flick through but the clear highlight of the magazine was an article titled “WHY DISC BRAKES WORK BETTER” which was obviously written by some cycling savant with foresight into where bikes would develop.  Being a physics nerd Matt’s highlight was the nut-cracker photo and excellent explanation of mechanical advantage.  The article was ahead of its time in extolling the virtues of disc brakes and bravely concluding that one day in the future all bikes would have then.  Remarkably the author’s name was the same as mine!  Incredible coincidence!

Back into the night and rather than risk a puncture on the dirt section on Waterfall road we took the main road to the bottom of Paekākāriki hill, straight into the brisk Southerly wind. This was the lowpoint of the ride for me as Matt declared “I’m cold and I need to warm up” before accelerating to about 45kph and leaving my frozen legs struggling to hold his wheel but it achieved the desired result plus got us to Paekākāriki hill faster than expected.

Riding up Paekākāriki was a delight. The moon had fully risen and with very little tree canopy and good sightlines of the road ahead we could turn off our front lights and use the moonlight to see Kapiti island, Pukura Bay etc. The moon was slightly behind us and strong enough to cast our shadows onto the road as we climbed.

With almost zero traffic on the roads the descent off Paekākāriki was awesome! Lapping-out at 50kph with only the rider in front and a small section of the road illuminated was a new experience for me and the contrast against the black surroundings changed the perception of speed and focus.

Haywards Hill was the last challenge and ironically where we were the slowest - not because of the tired and cold legs we both possessed but because of the amount of roadworks. We spent more time stopped at roadworks than anywhere else we’d stopped during the rest of the loop. I’ve never enjoyed riding up Haywards and with the Transmission Gully works going on it’s absolutely terrible at the moment, but with the massively reduced traffic volume at night I felt far safer than the last time I rode it during the day.

Another weird thing about riding at night was drivers behaviors towards us. Anyone who spends time road cycling is used to an utter lack of courtesy from drivers however this ride was completely different - the uniqueness of seeing cyclists at night meant the drivers we encountered gave us space and waited for us. Two blokes who were leaning out of their ute and filming us in Waikanae even gave us encouragement - and not in the patronising way you’d expect. Incredible.

With the roadworks behind us we coasted the final descent down Haywards where my lovely wife Erin met us at the bottom with a warm car and plate of fish and chips - this felt a bit like cheating but was waaaayy better than slogging back into the headwind and we were both grateful to warm up and get home for a shower and some kip.

So all-up we did 120km with 4h20m moving time of which about 3h was under moonlight. I achieved my goal of doing this iconic Wellington loop at night and was successful in pushing back the impending mid-life crisis my 40th birthday was delivering.

Mini-adventures like this are one of the many reasons I love cycling - not only a way of staying fit and keeping things fresh but also a way of catching up with mates. Thanks for your company Matt!

Winter is coming but that doesn’t mean the riding and the adventures need to stop - think creatively and get out there and enjoy these colder months.

- Tristan