The New Zealand cycle trails provide 22 great reasons to swap your boots for a bike. Here’s how to do it, by Jonathan Kennett
New Zealand now has 22 Great Rides, most of them built in the last six years, and all of them open for both walking and cycling. So why would you choose to swap your boots for a bike?
Well, there are a few compelling advantages to riding. Consider a rail trail, for example, which follows much straighter lines than a tramping track, and on foot, can be boring – like doing a long road bash at the end of a tramp.
Cycle trails generally cover a lot more distance than your average tramping track – imagine the time and effort it would take to walk the 300km Alps to Ocean! Plus, your bike can carry your gear, rather than have it lumbered on your back, which means cycling can be much easier on your joints.
But perhaps the best thing about cycling is that it’s fun, and can take you back to your childhood in just a few pedal strokes.
Choosing your bike
If you just want to dip your toes in the water, then hire a bike for an hour or two on one of the easiest trails, like the Hawke’s Bay Trail or the Great Taste Trail in Nelson.
But if you think you’re up for something a bit more adventurous, you’ll need to do some training before saddling up for a multi-day ride. So, it’s either time to dust off that old bike that’s been languishing in your garage, or buy a new one.
There are two types of beginner bike: a hybrid bike (also called a pathway bike) or a 29er mountain bike. A hybrid is a cross between a cycle touring bike and a mountain bike. It’s ideal for easier trails (grades 1 or 2) and often comes with a carrier, which is a big advantage.
For harder trails (grades 3 and 4), you’ll need a mountain bike, which often won’t come with the fittings for a carrier. If you do opt for a mountain bike, a 29-inch wheel size is best because these larger wheels will soak up the bumps. Most shops stock plenty of 29-inch tyres for you to choose from.
A new type of bike gaining popularity is a ‘bikepacking’ bike. They are ideal for cycle trails, but aren’t commonly available yet. Salsa and Surley dominate this niche market.
Training for the experience
The level of training you’ll need to do depends on how far and how fast you’re hoping to ride. If you haven’t been on a bike for decades, and you’d like to ride the 150km Otago Central Rail Trail, then clearly you’re going to have your work cut out to make the distance. Not only will you be exercising muscles you’ve probably forgotten existed, but you’ll also need to re-learn how to ride a bike competently enough to dodge rocks and puddles, not to mention other trail users!
The average person rides 35-40km a day on a rail trail, and the infrastructure has generally been spread out to suit that distance. So your training goal should allow you to ride 35km with enough energy left at the end of the day for some sightseeing and socialising.
Start slowly, with a one-hour ride repeated three times a week for three weeks, followed by one week’s rest. Then increase it to a two-hour ride twice a week with a three-hour ride each weekend for a month. The weekend ride should be 25-35km long. Finally, do two three-hour rides twice a week and a four-hour ride each weekend for a fortnight. Rest for a full week before your trip, with just a couple of short rides if you’re really feeling hooked.
If you already have some cycling fitness and this seems way too easy, then simply accelerate your training programme. Alternatively, if it seems monumentally arduous, then pull back and take things a little easier.
Aim to make every training ride a satisfying trip in its own right; explore new places, socialise with locals and learn about the heritage of the places you ride to.
Packing and carrying your gear
The first rule is to travel light. Hills are not fun when you are heavily loaded, so keep gear to a minimum. Consider arranging to stay in accommodation along the route to avoid having to carry camping and cooking gear.
The second rule is to leave your big backpack at home and make your bike carry the load.
Traditional cycle tourers carried their gear in panniers that clip onto carriers at the back of the bike. If your bike has panniers, or panniers can be fitted, the ideal setup would be two rear panniers and one handlebar bag.
If your bike doesn’t take panniers, you can use the more modern bikepacking bags which can be fixed to any type of bike. Bikepacking bags are light and simple to attach and remove, but they’re more difficult to pack and don’t hold as much gear – which is a good thing, remember?
Setting up your bike correctly
Comfort on your bike is crucial, yet it revolves around only four critical choices:
1. Frame size
This is the most important factor to achieving a comfortable set-up. Most bikes come in small, medium, large and XL, but choosing the right size will mean seeking expert advice at a bike shop. Staff here will be able to sort out the correct-sized bike for you.
2. Seat type
Since no ‘derrière’ is the same, this is possibly the trickiest one to get right. Many new mountain bikes come assembled with horribly hard and narrow saddles, offering about as much comfort as riding on a brick. Get rid of it – you need a saddle wide enough to support your sit bones and with enough padding to avoid pressure points on crucial places.
You need that perfect seat to be angled just right – too much slope forward, and you’ll find yourself having to push yourself back up the seat; too much slope backwards, and you’ll soon know about it. Start with it perfectly level, then adjust it bit by bit.
3. Seat height
This is crucial to provide reasonable power to the pedals and to avoid knee injuries. Start by adjusting the height of the seat post in 1cm increments until your leg is almost straight at the bottom of the pedal’s revolution and with the arch of your foot resting on it. Then go for a test ride.
If the seat is too high, you’ll find that your hips will be rocking from side to side as you pedal. If the seat is too low, you won’t be able to use your glutes to push down on the pedals, and your knees will be taking the brunt of the pushing effort.
4. Handlebar height
Some bikes have adjustable handlebar stems, which mean you can raise them by loosening a bolt with an Allen key. If your handlebar stem isn’t adjustable, you may need to buy a different stem and/or handlebars that allow you to sit in a more upright, less stretched out position.
This is where the expertise of staff at a bike shop comes in handy – they can help you try different stems and handlebar options.
Basic bike maintenance
Before heading away on any cycling adventure, get your bike checked over by a bike mechanic. A quick once-over should ensure your brakes, gears and tyres are in good working order (both tyres need to be pumped up to a good firm pressure, 35-40psi for a mountain bike) and there should be no loose nuts or bolts.
If everything is in good condition before you go, it’s unlikely you’ll have any problems to mar your riding experience.
Even so, you should always take a few basic tools on any ride: a pump, spare tube, tyre levers (the easiest way to fix a puncture is to replace the faulty tube), and an Allen key set to tighten anything that comes loose.
Learning how to change a tube can be part of your training, and it’s simpler than it seems.
Fixing a puncture
Most punctures occur in the rear tyre, where most of the weight sits. Here’s how to fix it:
- Shift down your rear gears until the chain is sitting over the smallest cog at the back (and is sitting further away from the wheel).
- Undo the quick release lever and remove the wheel.
- Using two tyre levers, prise off one side of the tyre, then reach inside and pull out the tube.
- Check the tyre carefully to find the cause of the puncture – has a piece of glass or a thorn pierced it? Remove anything that might have caused the puncture.
- Pump a little air into the new tube before inserting it inside the tyre.
- Replace the tyre and pump it up to 40psi (almost as hard as you can get it with a hand pump).
- Align the chain to the smallest cog on the wheel, and it will pop back on easily.
Five great starter trails
Otago Central Rail Trail
The 150km grade 1 rail trail from Clyde to Middlemarch is the flagship of New Zealand Cycle Trails. Most people take four days to complete the trip along a wide, smooth path, which never gets steeper than two degrees.
The trail was fully opened in 2000 and is credited for rejuvenating the quaint towns en route, which now offer delicious food and comfortable lodgings right where they are needed most. Highlights include spectacular Otago scenery, massive viaducts, long tunnels and, of course, the optional Taieri Gorge Railway, which runs most days between Dunedin and Middlemarch.
Allow plenty of time to visit the shops, villages and historic sites that pepper the trail.
Hawke’s Bay Trails
For those new to cycling, the 200km network of grade 1-3 trails in Hawke’s Bay is an ideal introduction. There is no need to cycle the whole network – hardly anyone does. Instead, you can cherry pick the best bits. The most popular trail skirts the Pacific Ocean from Napier i-SITE down to Clifton, which is 27km one way and would take the average cyclist two hours to ride.
On a hot summer’s day, the best ride is the Puketapu Loop, starting from the suburb of Taradale, weaving up one side of the Tutaekuri River to the village of Puketapu and back down the other side.
Most of the rivers around Napier and Hastings have trails along their stop banks, which provide elevated views of the region as well as a quiet, traffic-free cycling experience.
Pick up a map from an i-SITE or bike shop and plan a trip. There are bike hire options near the Napier i-SITE.
West Coast Wilderness Trail
This 135km trail is a mix of grade 2 (easy) and grade 3 (intermediate) and runs from Greymouth to Ross.
The first day follows the Tasman coast to the Taramakau River before heading inland through native forest to the historic town of Kumara. The second and third days pass through more native forest, but also skirt large reservoirs and follow ancient water races much of the way to Hokitika.
The final day has a lot of variety, as it heads south to Ross, often along old tram and railway lines.
At 85km, this two-day trail through Pureora Forest really does feel like tramping on wheels. It starts from the DOC outpost of Pureora, halfway between Te Kuiti and Taupo, and passes through stunning native forest, often following historic bush tramlines en route to Ongarue, just north of Taumarunui. The podocarp forest is home to several rare and threatened native bird species such as kiwi and kōkako, as well as native frogs and bats.
This is a grade 2 trail with bits of grade 3 here and there. It is easy to walk those tougher short sections if conditions are wet and slippery.
A 50-bed lodge is being built at the halfway point of the trail, which will be officially opened in March 2017 and will make it easy to travel light and fast.
Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
The 300km Alps 2 Ocean is the longest point-to-point cycle trail in New Zealand, and is easily one of the most scenic.
From the edge of the Southern Alps, near Aoraki/Mt Cook, the trail follows hydro canals and lake edges for much of the journey to Oamaru at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Most of the six-day journey is grade 2, although there are a few hills and a highway section that provide grade 3 challenges.
Cycle trail grades
Grade 1: Easiest. The off-road trail surface is either firm gravel or sealed and is wide enough for two people to cycle side by side for most of the way. On-road trails generally follow quiet roads with little traffic.
Grade 2: Easy. Off-road trails are predictable and mostly flat with some gentle climbs. The surface is either firm gravel or sealed and is wide enough for two people to cycle side by side at times. On-road trails generally follow quiet roads with little traffic.
Grade 3: Intermediate. Off-road trails can be narrow and may include hill climbs, steep drop-offs and small river crossings. The trail surface is mostly firm, but may include muddy or loose sections. On-road trails have traffic of up to 1000 vehicles a day, include hill climbs and possible gravel sections.
Grade 4: Advanced. Off-road trails are narrow with steep climbs and unavoidable obstacles. The trail surface includes firm and loose sections, with lots of rocks and tree roots. Some walking may be required. On-road trails have traffic of 2000+ vehicles a day, include hill climbs and possible gravel sections.
Grade 5: Expert. Off-road trails include steep long climbs, precipitous descents, lots of rocks and dangerous drop-offs. The surface will be varied and cyclists should expect rocks, roots and ruts.
There are likely to be river crossings. The trail will be barely wide enough to ride in some places and some walking is likely. On-road trails have traffic of 3000+ vehicles a day with a limited shoulder for riding, hill climbs and possible gravel sections.
– Jonathan Kennett is the author of several cycling guidebooks, including The New Zealand Cycle Trails, Nga Haerenga and Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails.