Celebrating the river ride

Olympic gold medallist and Te Awa River Ride trail manager Sarah Ulmer on the Te Awa River Ride track between the Velodrome and Hooker Road. Photo: Mary Anne Gill

Sarah Ulmer is one of our greatest cyclists, the first New Zealander to win an Olympic cycling gold medal. The only medal I’ve won of any note is a gold for winning the Northland junior women’s cross country.

And that was more than 50 years ago!

So, when she asked me to join her for a cycle ride on the Te Awa River Ride to talk about the upcoming celebrations to mark the ride’s completion, I was keen, but just a little daunted.

We met at Gaslight Theatre – she looked fit and raring to go on her cycle – and I had my fully-charged eBike. It was this bike which got me back cycling for the first time since I finished high school and which I now use to gather news around Cambridge.

Olympic gold medallist and Te Awa River Ride trail manager Sarah Ulmer on the Te Awa River Ride track between the Velodrome and Hooker Road. Photo: Mary Anne Gill

The interview took place as we rode. That explains why there are no direct quotes.

After 14 years and nearly $40 million, the 65km Te Awa Great New Zealand River Ride – from Ngāruawāhia in the north to Karāpiro in the south – is finally finished.

Ulmer, 46 (47 by the time of the celebration) lives in Cambridge and has been involved with the Brian Perry Charitable Trust for more than a decade.

The mother of two is the river ride’s trail manager and knows every inch of the route.

The first section opened in Cambridge in 2009; the brainchild of Simon Perry who wanted to make the Waikato River more accessible to the community through a multi-purpose path.

He chairs the Te Awa River Ride Charitable Trust which undertook the work.

Ulmer became an ambassador for the New Zealand Cycle Trail in 2011 and soon after joined the Brian Perry Charitable Trust. Since then, other sections have been added – Cambridge to the Velodrome, Ngāruawāhia to Hamilton, Velodrome to Tamahere and the final piece – Tamahere to Hamilton Gardens.

It was she who fostered relationships with landowners, community groups, Waka Kotahi and the local councils of Waikato, Hamilton and Waipā. Ulmer would be embarrassed if I had suggested her famous name helped that process, but it is fair to say engaging with a legend of New Zealand sport is not an everyday occurrence for most.

Janet Myers, Sarah Ulmer and Lois Lewis on the Te Awa River Ride. Photo: Mary Anne Gill

Impressively, as we ride, she rattles off each of the 27 stations which will be open for the Sunday celebration on  March 26.

She even knows the names of the entertainers, the face painters, where you can get free ice cream and where the coffee cart will be.

Ulmer shows me the new picnic stop at the Velodrome/Hooker Road intersection which will be one of the stations open between 11am and 2pm on the day. At each station, you will be able to pick up a passport and then collect stickers at the others. The more stickers you get, the more chances you have to go into the draw for $13,000 in spot prizes, including two eBikes.

Three women ride towards us on their bikes – I feel a bit inadequate, their ones are people powered not e-bikes like mine.

They excitedly tell Ulmer they managed to get up the hill. Ulmer congratulates them thinking they mean the steep ride up to the Velodrome; they mean the hill leading to the bridge and back before the steep incline.

She still praises them knowing that too is a tough ask.

We stop for a photo shoot and Ulmer notices how overgrown the bank is overlooking the Waikato River saying how busy Waipā parks and recreation staff have been since Cyclone Gabrielle. You get the feeling that bank will not be overgrown on the day of the celebration.

Sarah Ulmer and Mary Anne Gill stop for a selfie during the ride.

We head back to Cambridge, cutting the interview short. Ulmer has an urgent trip to make to the orthodontist for one of her daughters.

We ride along the Hamilton Road two-way cycleway, a project she championed two years ago amid what she called ‘bike lash’.

“Cambridge is about to get another $11 million to extend the cycleway, it’s wicked,” I think she says that, because she says wicked a lot.

She doesn’t say it but her expression suggests she feels vindicated with the announcement because of the trials and tribulations which came before it.

Oh, and for the record, the pink and blue dots were not her idea.

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