'Life is full of opportunities': Peter Yarrell at home in Queenstown

Cyclist Peter Yarrell, QSM, has turned his love of the sport into a vehicle that’s raised hundreds of thousands for charity. On the eve of his latest Tour of New Zealand, he tells PHILIP CHANDLER why he’s stepping down as tour director, and recalls looking after down-and-outs in Queenstown in the ’70s

The latest Tour of NZ charity cycling race, which started in Glenorchy yesterday, marks the end of the road for tour director Peter Yarrell.

The 77-year-old Queenstowner, whose event’s raised about $1.5 million over the past five
editions, is stepping down after this latest eight-day race, which finishes with a criterium around Wellington’s Parliament Buildings.

Though he and his wife Jilly moved to Queenstown, settling at Threepwood, only early last year, they had a fascinating first spell in the resort from 1973 to ’84.

Wellington-raised Yarrell says he became a very successful insurance agent from age 21 to 27.

‘‘I wanted to put something back into life and I’d read a book where you could have an open home — people come and stay with you and you help them.’’

The couple had a house at McEntyre’s Hill, near Arrowtown, called ‘Koinonia’, and two
apartments where they put up people who’d had a hard time.

‘‘We had 400 people a year in the end, it was great, but it was pretty stressful because we had four kids, too.’’

Yarrell, who wrote a book on the experience, says he learnt a lot from his guests, even if 70% left ‘‘probably in much the same way as they came’’.

During this time Yarrell also helped revive the Wakatipu Yacht Club, starting its Donald Hay Race from Kingston to Queenstown though it initially went the other way.

He says they left for Christchurch for their kids’ education.

He also resumed selling insurance for AMP.

‘‘I was earning good money so I could afford to do charitable races at no cost.’’

Yarrell had raced bicycles as a teenager, even winning the Wellington junior title at 16, but
gave up after briefly moving to England.

At 50, however, he was inspired by his son Simon winning the two-day Coast to Coast multisport race, so started pedalling again.

The pair teamed up for the next two-day Coast to Coast, and Yarrell says he even led the race for about a kilometre.

In ’96, he started the AMP City of Christchurch Multi Sport Race, which ran till ’08 and raised $250,000-plus for charity.

After ‘retiring’ to Picton, Yarrell also started the popular Lochmara Lodge Half Marathon in the Marlborough Sounds, which he runs till this day.

However, he’d also hankered to run a multi-day cycling race, initially thinking the length of NZ then realising that was too ambitious.

Instead he started the Tour of NZ which at first ran simultaneously in the North and South

When Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt welcomed cyclists in Bluff for the first event, there was mayhem when he accidentally triggered the starter hooter early.

The race has latterly been in the South Island only, after riders were asked their preference, though it’s always finished at Parliament.

Riders have to raise at least $250 for one of several nominated charities — some raise  $10,000.

‘‘I could never afford to give away $1.5m to a charity myself, but all these people have their own circle of friends that support them.’’

Yarrell’s giving up as tour director to let ‘‘fresh blood’’ take over, and to write more books.

He’s about to publish his second book, Born to Live, addressing particularly people who reach 70 and find excuses to give up things — ‘‘they’re just basically waiting to die’’.

‘‘I have got a strong Christian faith, I have a total belief life is full of opportunities, everywhere we go.’’

He recounts bad early episodes he turned into positives, like being beaten up in England when he was 17 and being sacked as a TV reporter at 19 in favour of a hotshot who turned up after him.

True to his beliefs, though he’s stepping down as Tour of NZ’s tour director he’ll keep riding the event for as long as he can.

‘‘I rode up the Crown Range the other day and I could still get up there, just.’’