Cyclist whistles up a shift in socialising

On yer bikes: Peter Atkinson leads his Pedallers out from Queenstown's Evoque cafe last Saturday

A Queenstowner has won an award for creating a cycling revolution. Queenstown Pedallers founder and organiser Peter Atkinson discusses what spins his wheels with Philip Chandler

A 75-year-old is the pied piper of Queenstown cyclists.

Fifteen years ago, Peter Atkinson formed Queenstown Pedallers after taking someone for a ride, who then brought her friends along.

Now he has more than 500 riders on his email list who, when they can, join weekend or week-day mountain bike and road bike groups.

Though he’s a non-Rotarian, Atkinson last Tuesday received the Rotary movement’s highest award, a Paul Harris Fellowship.

Introducing him, former local Rotary Club president Steve McLean said he’d amply demonstrated Rotary International’s main attribute, ‘service above self’.

“Personally, my life has changed after meeting this person, as has [my wife] Tracy’s, and we are certainly much better for the experience both health-wise and socially.”

McLean added that Atkinson had not only introduced many locals and part-time residents to cycling, including sharing bike and safety tips, but he’d also advocated for cyclists.

A former Aussie, Atkinson moved to the North Island just over 30 years ago.

Soon after, he says a woman told him he was overweight and unfit, “which I found quite offensive so I ignored her”.

“Then she gave me a bike for Christmas, and at that stage the last thing I wanted in my life was a bike.”

A young male friend, however, hearing he’d got a bike, offered to take him for a ride.

“He just about killed me the first day.”

Accepting award: Peter Atkinson

Atkinson, however, started training three or four days a week and, eventually, dropped his friend during a long ride.

“He never rang me again, so then I started riding on my own.”

His wife Heather, though, spotted an ad placed by two ex-pro cyclists, then in their 60s, who wanted to form a club.

“I met them in a South Auckland hall and we all agreed to form a club.

“That grew to about 400 in about 10 years.”

Twenty-five years later, the Manukau City Veterans Cycling Club is still going strong.

Sixteen years ago, he and Heather decided to move to Queenstown – “we just thought it was the best place in New Zealand to live”.

The Pedallers arose after Atkinson was put in touch with a woman whose partner had just died.

“She needed something to distract her so I took her for a ride.

“She was probably the first pedaller, and then she had a big range of friends and they all joined.”

He says the Pedallers have grown by word of mouth – “we don’t have a website, we don’t use social media, we don’t advertise”.

Besides Saturday and Sunday rides, there are now also Monday and Wednesday women’s groups.

Pedallers ride mountain bikes all year round and road bikes from spring to autumn.

The youngest, Atkinson thinks, is in their early 30s.

The oldest male, just pipping him, is 76, and the oldest female is 80.

“The interesting thing is that the extreme minority have ridden bikes in the previous 10 years.”

Watching fitness levels rise and people’s weight reduce has been amazing, he says.

He sets easy and long courses which he posts every Friday in his informative e-newsletters.

Advanced riders tackle anything from The Remarkables skifield road to the Crown Range.

Courses start and finish at a cafe.

Weather rarely intervenes.

“We never cancel it because we always meet beforehand in a cafe for a coffee, anyway, and we’ll make up our minds when we’re there.”

There are no subs – just a voluntary gold coin donation after each ride – and no committee, either.

“We had this discussion when we first formed the group.

“I said, ‘we can have a constitution, a committee and a few office-bearers’ and they all said, ‘no thanks, we want to keep it informal’.”

Beyond the health and fitness benefits, the Pedallers have also become a social network.

“That’s what all the group says – they look around the table and say, ‘if it wasn’t for cycling, I wouldn’t know any of these people’.”

Atkinson modestly says his Paul Harris Fellowship should really go to his whole group.

“It doesn’t matter what I’ve done.

“The reality is, without the Pedallers I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.

“I’d just be out there riding on my own, still, as I was 15-16 years ago.”