Cycling in New Zealand: A Guide’s Perspective

Written by Bethany McAtee on 29th January, 2020

They say an adventure on two wheels is always around the corner in New Zealand. Curious to know more, we spoke to Sue, who guides our cyclists along the numerous cycle trails for a living. Like many outdoorsy Brits, Sue was drawn to New Zealand for its unspoilt beauty and friendly (albeit tiny) population. Now, after 26 years and a new accent, Sue has made her home there. Likewise, she has become an expert on cycling in New Zealand. During our chat, we explored why New Zealand is unique, what routes there are and why you should choose a guided trip. 

Why is New Zealand unique?

In Sue’s eyes, New Zealand is unique in more ways than one. What the country lacks in population (currently 5 million), it makes up for in a variety of breathtaking landscapes. Therefore, Sue’s first reasoning for New Zealand being special is the incredibly diverse geography. Nowhere in the world can one encounter such diversity in a country as small as New Zealand. As Sue put it, “you only have to travel 50km and you’ll have a new climate and geography to enjoy”.

birds eye view of the alps to ocean cycle trail in new zealand with snow capped mountains and glacier lakes

In addition to a unique landscape, New Zealand boasts a fascinating bi-culture between the Maori and European cultures. The Maori people are the indiginous ancestors for New Zealand, whilst European settlers colonised the country 300-400 years later. As a guide, Sue believes it is important to feed her guests with a wealth of information about Maori culture. For her, cycling in New Zealand is one of the best ways to learn about the vibrant culture. En route, she’ll speak phrases of Maori language, retell myths, explain traditions and describe the sometimes turbulent history. In doing this, the cycle trip turns into an immersive experience, where the landscape is placed into context 

What are New Zealand’s cycle routes like?

We asked Sue to choose her favourite route between the Alps to Ocean, Great West Coast and Otago Rail Trail. Her response was, “That’s like asking who your favourite child is!”. According to Sue all the routes are fantastic, and as a result of their differences, each route suits different needs. For example, the Great West Coast is a road cycling holiday and rated intermediate to advanced. On the other hand, the Alps to Ocean and Otago Rail Trail are off-road, with ratings of moderate and introductory. Additionally, all are scattered across various regions of New Zealand’s Southern Islands, adding to the differing geography and terrains.

road cyclists on a tarmac road on the great west coast cycle ride in new zealand

First up let us introduce you to the Alps to Ocean cycle trail. As the longest cycle trail in New Zealand at 300km, it’s no stranger to nearly every landscape under the sun. Sue describes the beginning couple days as surrounded by snow capped mountains, known as the Southern Alps. If that’s not enough, there are also Turquoise glacier lakes that lie peacefully next to the cycle trail. Astounding beauty trickles down with the trail to the Waitaki Valley, which is chockablock full of limestone rock formations. Remember the Maori rock art? You’ll find the old artwork imprinted on these limestone rock formations, as it has done since 1400AD!

two cyclists on the alps to ocean cycle trail with mountains in the background

Another traffic free cycle trail, the Otago Rail Trail, winds on hard packed shingle through the Otago region. Sue paints us a gorgeous picture of the trail, surrounded in vivid colours patched onto mountain ranges and valleys. As the name suggests, the trail is built atop a disused railway line for 150km, and as a result, has flat terrain. The 2% average gradient makes the Otago Rail Trail perfect for less experienced cyclists. Although Sue and the other guides are experts on the area, there are also frequent information huts explaining the area’s gold mining past. Look out for remnants of old gold mines dotted beside the trail, along with revived towns home to possibly the most welcoming people out there!

the otago rail trail built for cycling in new zealand on disused railways in the mountainous countryside 

Why choose a guided over self-guided trip?

So we’ve got you this far, and you’re wondering why a guided cycling trip is better than just doing it yourself. From a guide’s perspective, Sue sums it up as, “missed opportunities”. When you book into a guided trip, you’re getting access to experts who know New Zealand like the back of their hand. Knowledge about the country, history, geography, flora, culture and people are only a quick question away. Most importantly, guides know the best cafe’s and swimming holes! Sue admits that cyclists still have an awesome time cycling self-guided. However, with a guide, guests will, “learn, see and experience so much more”.

a group of cyclists ready to begin their guided trip cycling in new zealand

A typical day cycling with a guide involves a hearty breakfast with an overview of the days route, a lunch that is often a picnic, and dinner at the next accomodation. A support vehicle always follows behind the group of cyclists, doling out snacks and prepping picnics. It can also act as a refuge for those who need a break. A guide, for which there are 2 if the group is more than 7, doesn’t live it as glamorous as some may think. Sue lets us know that she’s actually up at the crack of dawn (6:30am) to prep the day’s ride. Then, at 9pm after dinner, she has paperwork to do before nodding off. Although, the incredible landscapes and people she meets makes up for it.

group of cyclists eating dinner at a restaurant in new zealand

What amazes Sue on every trip she runs, is how well the group of guests get along. Right from the beginning conversation flows, with topics usually based on cycling and travel. As a guide she meets intriguing people from all walks of life. Yet anyone doing the trip in her eyes is a cool person, due to their interest in the active outdoors. And the views never get boring, no matter how many times Sue cycles on the same trails. This is simply because her guests always bring a fresh perspective. Because they’re blown away by cycling in New Zealand, so is she.

Where can I book into a guided cycling trip in New Zealand?

If you’re like us and are convinced you want to go cycling in New Zealand after reading Sue’s perspective as a guide, contact us! We can help you choose the routes best suited to you, and get you booked in without hassle.