Photo: ROUGH CHIP SEAL AND WHATEVER WEATHER BLOWS IN.
How the six o’clock swill helped make Southland the cycling capital of Aotearoa New Zealand.
EVERY TIME YOU CRACK OPEN A SPEIGHTS IN INVERCARGILL, YOU HELP A CYCLIST. THIS IS BECAUSE EVERY DROP OF ALCOHOL PURCHASED BETWEEN THE INTERSECTION OF SH6 AND WEST PLAINS ROAD IN THE NORTH TO WAIMATUA / DUCK CREEK IN THE SOUTH IS REGULATED BY THE INVERCARGILL LICENSING TRUST. AND WHEN THE ILT TURNS OVER A SURPLUS, IT PUTS MONEY BACK INTO THE COMMUNITY.
Invercargill was ‘dry’ from 1905 until 1944, and to this day the licensing system prohibits alcohol sales in supermarkets. The crowning glory of this hangover from New Zealand’s dalliance with prohibition is the ILT Stadium Southland. A $41 million venue, it’s not the kind of facility you would expect to find in a small city (population 55,000) that’s so close to Antarctica you can smell the ice when the wind turns southerly.
The stadium has climbing walls, courts for just about every conceivable ball sport, and a cavernous multi-purpose hall that hosts gigs, plays, shows, gala dinners, exhibitions and conferences. Nigella Lawson has been there. And Billy Connolly. But
its centrepiece, completed in 2006, is the indoor velodrome.
Velodromes are arenas purpose-built for track cycling. They look like oval bowling alleys, except they are steeply banked and, instead of balls, it’s cyclists that roll around them, reaching speeds of more than 70 kilometres per hour. In 2012, for the first time, the Invercargill velodrome hosted the UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships, the premier international event for young up-and-coming talent in bike racing. Matt Sillars was events manager for Sport Southland at the time, and when the jets full of bleary-eyed kids from around the world touched down one afternoon that August, he and his crew were tasked with picking them up.
“As we drove into town, we quickly learned that the best thing to do was to shut up and take them to the velodrome,” he remembers. “There were guys saying, ‘where the hell are we? Where are all the people?’ There was bugger all happening in Invercargill. Then they got into the track, looked down, and said, ‘bloody hell, how can a town like this have a facility like that?’”
But Southland, the remotest of New Zealand’s rural regions, is a cycling hotbed. As well as having a world class venue, it hosts the country’s premier road race, the Tour of Southland. Its athletes populate the ranks of the national squad and, every Sunday morning, club rides and amateur events see hundreds of locals flood its roads on thousands of dollars’ worth of carbon fibre.
With all this activity comes a cycling-mad populace of the kind rarely seen outside of Europe. A case in point was Invercargill’s famous Zookeeper’s Café, one of the country’s few ‘cycling cafés’. Its walls were covered in memorabilia, including framed winners’ jerseys, race photos and roadside signage from Tours gone by. (Sadly, in 2019, Zookeeper’s became a casualty of the city’s CBD redevelopment.)
To find out how this all got started, we have to go back, again, to drinking. Or to be more precise, closing time. Ten to six in the afternoon seems a little early for last orders, but such was the way in the temperate south of the 1960s. Fortunately, for hardworking folk seeking further distraction and entertainment, there was the Kew Bowl.
These days the Kew Bowl is a forlorn and boggy parcel of land on the outskirts of town, currently stuck in a stalemate over land ownership. It is overlooked by a Super Liquor (licensee: ILT) and a lawn bowls club. A few scraps of concrete in the long grass is all that’s left of the 333-metre track that was five laps to the mile; a tiny painting on an electricity transformer all that’s left of the cyclists; and memories and photographs all that’s left of the days when Kew Bowl was the place to be.
“I can remember back in the day, the fifties and early sixties, people streaming out
of the Southland Hotel at six o’clock and going straight over to the velodrome to watch the cycling. Some of the club nights there you’d get up to 2000 people standing there watching,” Bruce Ross recalls. Indeed, there’s a photograph on a wall at the new indoor velodrome of a young Bruce, aged 10 or so, tucked away among a roaring crowd.
“They had a guy there called Warwick Doulton, one of New Zealand’s best all round riders. They put up competition against him, top Aussie and Kiwi riders, and that’s what captured the crowd’s attention. He was a legend of the motor-paced mile. They used to have a motorbike on the velodrome and him tucking behind it on a great big gear. His record has never been broken.”
“But if the wind picks up and you’re not in the right place in a couple of corners, it’s race over”
Bruce has been involved with the Tour of Southland for more than 50 years, 35 of those as organiser, before handing over to Sally Marr in 2020. The Tour is a stage race, a style of multi-day road race which is won by the cyclist with the lowest aggregate time across all the stages. Think Tour de France, but with crappier weather and cheese rolls instead of baguettes.
Spawned from the success of the Kew Bowl, Southland’s Tour started as a new event during Invercargill’s 1956 centenary celebrations. It quickly became the premier road cycling race in New Zealand. Now eight stages long, this is a distinction it retains.
One of the paradoxes of cycling is that it often seems to flourish in locations where conditions are far from ideal. The Tour of Southland is cycling in Southland in a nutshell. It’s a week of rough chip seal and whatever weather blows in off the sea. There’s a traditional stage finish up the wall of tarmac that is Bluff Hill. Even though
it takes place in November, the riders, on occasion, face blizzards. Aaron Gate (who you might remember as the unfortunate Kiwi who crashed during the 2020 Olympic team pursuit bronze medal ride-off against Australia), has won the Tour of Southland twice. His career has seen him race all over the world at the top levels of road cycling, including winning World Championships, and he took Olympic bronze on the track.
“My first proper experience down here as an Aucklander was training in 2008, middle of winter, on the track and out on the roads. I remember getting home after a ride, getting in the shower, and I thought my fingers were going to fall off,” he says. “The treacherous weather here is often what makes the racing so memorable, and so watchable too. You sign up, look at the stage distances, think that the profile doesn’t look too bad. But if the wind picks up and you’re not in the right place in a couple of corners, it’s race over.”
“Think Tour de France, but with crappier weather”
The Tour of Southland has been a graveyard of dreams for many a seasoned European pro, most notably disgraced 2006 Tour
de France “winner” Floyd Landis (he was stripped of his TDF title for doping). He effed and blinded his way to a mid-pack finish when hail battered the peloton on a stage along the coast at Riverton.
“The Tour is not for the fainthearted,” Bruce explains. “There were often a lot of unofficial alliances between riders that worked together and, I suppose, a little bit of pride about not letting the overseas rider win it. It was always a tough race to win.”
Bike races reflect the regions that host them. The gritty, beer-fuelled country
vibe of Belgium’s Tour of Flanders is very different from the slightly over-the-top flamboyance of the Giro d’Italia, which traverses Italy every May. The bones of the Tour of Southland are the lumpy lanes that criss-cross dairy farm after dairy farm and pass some of the country’s cheapest real estate. Its heart is the wild weather. Its soul is the region’s community spirit.
“Cycling is something that takes a lot of people behind the scenes to make it go ahead,” Aaron says. “That’s just something you don’t get in other parts of New Zealand, that southern community feel. Everyone’s out to help each other out.”
This spirit comes in handy for race organisers. “The Tour of Southland went right past their doors and people felt a part of it,” Bruce points out. “People supported it because they knew they were part of it. And you’d go into towns looking for sponsorship, walk into a garage and say, ‘well the guy across the road put in 100 bucks, probably good if you did the same thing’. ‘Oh did he?’ they’d say, ‘I should probably better it’.”
And the people of Southland know how to make stuff happen. They once successfully bid to host the National Beach Volleyball Championships indoors on the velodrome infield (a feat which required numerous trips with a dump truck to Oreti Beach
and an awful lot of shovelling). From this nourishing, can-do soil, umpteen amateur races have grown, like the Milford Mountain Classic, a 120-kilometre mass participation ride from Milford Sound to Te Anau. It was cancelled in 2016 due to growing traffic volumes, but came back from the dead in February 2021, one of the only events that was put on, rather than cancelled, because of Covid-19.
In May, Erin Criglington, an eight-time World and multiple National Masters Track Cycling Champion, joined Cycling Southland Nic McAra to ride the Westpac Chopper Appeal ride, a 245-kilometre charity fundraiser to support the air ambulance. Under crisp blue skies and next to no wind, it concluded with a raucous reception outside the Westpac branch in town. It was late afternoon, in autumn, and the venue was what must have been a contender for New Zealand’s coldest concrete car park. But it was full of the country’s warmest hearts.
“It’s the kind of place where you say ‘I need X’, and it would just appear,” Erin says.
“A bike, whatever. It’s kind of a Southland thing, you don’t need to know people’s names, you know they’ll give it back, it’s a trust thing. Everyone supports everyone and makes things happen.”
The region is also just a good place to ride a bike. “You can stay off the main roads, you have a lot of choice about where you go, not a lot of traffic,” Erin says. “They say the wind is the Southland hills. Most of the time you plan your ride based on where the wind is, so you get a tailwind home.”
The next SBS Bank Tour of Southland kicks off on Sunday, October 30, 2022.
WORDS & PHOTOS: RICHARD ABRAHAM