Few countries have so passionately embraced cycling tourism as New Zealand. Adorning its series of Great Rides is a cycling infrastructure that's second to none, making planning for a cycling trip here easier than in arguably any other country in the world.
Across the network of Great Rides, getting started can be as simple as arriving at the trailhead. Along many of the rides, tour operators offer bike hire and shuttle services and can often pre-book accommodation if you're on a multi-day ride. If you prefer to pedal among like-minded company, guided rides are available.
Hire will typically include a hybrid-style bike and helmet, spare tubes and tools, and it's worth checking if panniers are included. These bags, which attach to a rack over the rear wheel, will allow you to carry snacks, clothing, camera and any other needs without the weight of a pack on your back. Some bike-hire outlets even include bike service along the trail.
The "Official Partners" link on the Great Rides website (nzcycletrail.com) details hire outlets and tour operators along each trail.
Discomfort is the greatest and most literal pain in the butt on a bike, so if you're hiring a bicycle and you ride at home, bring your saddle to fit on the hire bike. Similarly, pack your pedals and cycling shoes if you ride with clip-in pedals at home. The bike-hire outlet will be able to fit and remove them before and after your ride. Many tour operators can also provide gel cushions.
New Zealand's varied climate makes cycling possible at any time of the year. The best time across the board is around March and April when the heat of summer has abated, the holiday crowds have waned and much of the country experiences its lowest rainfalls and calmest conditions.
On rides such as the Otago Central Rail Trail and Roxburgh Gorge Trail, autumn sees the land aflame with deciduous colour. October and November are other good cycling months as the country warms towards summer.
Summer cycling is excellent on rides such as the West Coast Wilderness Trail on the South Island's West Coast, and the Queenstown Trail and Around the Mountains in the south. Winter can be beautiful and comfortable around parts of the North Island, especially Northland, where you'll find the Twin Coast Trail, and rides near the Coromandel Peninsula such as the Hauraki Rail Trail.
Weather patterns vary wildly across New Zealand (Milford Sound averages almost seven metres of rainfall a year, while just 400 kilometres away, across the Southern Alps, Christchurch receives less than 10 per cent of that amount), but packing needs will be similar wherever you cycle.
Aim to layer up so that you can easily take off or put on clothing as you warm up or cool down, which won't be dictated just by the weather – climbs generate heat, while mountain descents can be numbingly chilling.
Light, cycling-specific rain jackets are far more comfortable than restrictive hiking-style jackets, while knicks (padded cycling shorts) will take much of the sting out of hours in the saddle.
Fingerless cycling gloves provide more feel on the brake and gear levers, but full-fingered gloves will keep out the cold in the mountains, on chilly descents, or on rainy days, so consider bringing both.
Physical preparation is also key to comfort and enjoyment while cycling in New Zealand. If you're planning to ride any further than about 30 kilometres in a day, you should try to get in some training before you set out. If you haven't cycled much, or in a while, begin slowly and aim to build towards at least one training ride that's equal to or longer than your planned longest day of cycling in New Zealand.
Aim also for a few practice rides in similar terrain to that in which you'll be cycling in New Zealand. The bulk of the country is mountainous, though many of the Great Rides tend to iron out the gradient since they follow old railway lines or riverbanks. The Great Rides website contains elevation profiles for each of the trails as an indicator of what to expect.
If you're crossing the Southern Alps, or cycling a more challenging Great Ride, such as the Old Ghost Road or Queen Charlotte Track, get some climbing and off-road cycling into your legs before you begin.
Transport along, and between, rides is a simple matter in New Zealand. On many linear trails, such as the Hauraki Rail Trail and Otago Central Rail Trial, bike-hire operators run shuttle services that will pick you up at ride's end and return you to the start. Some can also organise daily luggage transfers between your hotels or B&Bs if you're on a multi-day ride.
If you've brought your own bike, InterCity buses will carry it for free as part of your luggage allowance (one bag plus bike). Wheels should be removed from the frame, the handlebars turned sideways (so they align parallel to the frame) and the chain must be covered. Bikes not collapsed down this way incur a $10 charge and can't be guaranteed to travel on the same bus as you. Budget, Europcar and Britz have vehicles with bicycle racks.
STEPPING UP THE PACE
Cyclists looking to add a dash of challenge to their visit will probably want to bring, or hire, a mountain bike. On top of stunning dedicated mountain-bike trails at the likes of the gondola-accessed mountain-bike parks in Queenstown and Rotorua, Great Rides such as the Old Ghost Road, St James Trail and Queen Charlotte Track provide an opportunity for true off-road bike adventures.
A good way to create a longer journey on New Zealand's ride network is to string a few Great Rides together. In Central Otago, near the southern end of the South Island, the Clutha Gold Trail, Roxburgh Gorge Trail and Otago Central Rail Trail can be linked to create an unbroken 257-kilometre ride. From there's it's a short skip across to the Queenstown Trail and Around the Mountains if you still have pedalling energy.
Similarly, across the central North Island, there are only short gaps between the Te Ara Ahi, Waikato River Trails, Timber Trail and Mountains to Sea Great Rides, creating a network that could have you pedalling for up to a couple of weeks from Rotorua to the ocean at Whanganui.
This article brought to you by Tourism New Zealand.