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From boots to bikes

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December 2020 Issue

Sarah Bennett has left her tramping days behind for adventures on two wheels. By Matthew Cattin

When freelance author Sarah Bennett talks about tramping, it’s in the past tense.

Like a no-good ex, her tramping ship has sailed, loaded with her heavy pack and boots.

Her new love interest of cycling is an ‘unstoppable force’.

“I’m never going to tramp when I can bike – I’m done,” she says. “Once you start [cycling], your poor old tramping boots will sit there gathering dust.”

Despite her indifference to ditching it, Bennett was no slacker when it came to tramping. Like many Kiwis, she began at high school, and “got hooked” in her twenties. She went on to author The New Zealand Tramper’s Handbook, and complete many of the country’s classic tracks.

In the late 80s, she was an early adopter of mountain biking, and rode its first wave of popularity in New Zealand. At the time there were few off-road options for bikers, but after a five year stint in London, Bennett returned to New Zealand in 1999 to find a blossoming sport – still in its infancy, but gathering momentum.

Today it’s in full-bloom, with new cycle networks and trails popping up nationwide every year. Bennett believes the country is on the cusp of a bikepacking revolution.

“Bikepacking is swinging into view big time and it’s going to block out the sun,” she says.

“We are about as spoiled as you can get. Bike sales are going through the roof,” Bennett says.

Accessibility is one of its biggest draws, she adds, and there are cycle trails out there for all ages and abilities.

“You can get an old granny onto an e-bike, and they’re in the game,” she says.

Bennett believes the greatest misconception of mountain bikers is that they have a need for speed.

“What we hear from trampers is that we’re not immersing ourselves, and that’s simply not true – when we ride the Old Ghost Road or Paparoa Track, we’re not going that much quicker than the walkers,” she says.

“We catch them up, then they catch us up, and often we arrive at the hut at the same time.”

Though cyclists do actually travel faster than walkers, Bennett says the time saved is spent relaxing or detouring down side tracks trampers don’t have the time to explore.

“New Zealand trail managers want to see riders travelling slow – the hooners can go to the mountain bike parks,” she says.

Swapping the boots for a bike has been the “most natural thing in the world” for Bennett, and she expects the shift will hold up well in the long run – barring any serious accidents.

“It’s hard to beat cycling for health and fitness as you age – it’s good exercise for knees and hips and there’s less wear and tear on the body,” she says.

After a long day’s ride, Bennett says her body complains less now than it used to on the long tramps of her youth.

“You get a sore arse, but it’s nothing a good pair of bike pants won’t fix,” she says.

And then there’s the downhills.

“I seek more adrenalin now as a 50-year-old woman than I did as a 25-year-old,” Bennett says. “Try [a cycle trail] once and it will be all over for you.”