The Tour of New Zealand, now in its third season, is a cycle race with a difference. Open to riders of all abilities, although they need to be comfortable riding for three to four hours a day, the tour offers two direction choices – from the top of the North Island to Wellington, or from the bottom of the South Island also to Wellington.
The tours both start on the same day (11 April) and finish in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, eight days later.
“We call it a race like no other on the planet,” says Tour organiser Peter Yarrell – the inspiration behind the event who has seen his dream develop into an international event within the space of just a few years.
“If you’re a local weekend warrior type and think ‘I’ve always wanted to ride the length of New Zealand but I can’t really afford the time or ride on State Highway 1’, this is the ride for you.”
The field is limited to 200 cyclists and Yarrell says there are 80 riders coming from overseas especially to take part. “They’re coming from England, Finland, Russia, America – all over the place. Even Australia – the head of Bicycling Australia is coming.”
Riding the back roads is a great way to get a feel for a country, according to Yarrell. And, as he points out, it’s tarmac all the way, which tends to surprise people.
“By about the third day, they’re saying ‘Where did you get these roads? Just one truck has passed us all day!’ We’re off the beaten highway, but we’re in very beautiful country. And of course, in April it’s autumn here so we’ve got these amazing colours.”
North Island stage
Those opting for the northern leg push off at the very tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. The first three days are travelling through Northland, famous for its native forests and beaches which there’ll be time to enjoy as each day’s ride is expected to take between three and five hours and completed by lunchtime.
The route carries on down through the centre of the North Island, including a stop at the iconic National Park Chateau, before crossing through to the Wairarapa region and thence to Wellington.
South Island stage
At the same time, the southern contingent starts at the very bottom, Bluff, and heads for Central Otago taking in Queenstown and Wanaka along the way.
There’s time to relax in the pools at Hanmer Springs and watch the whale-watchers at Kaikoura before arriving at Picton and catching the ferry across to Wellington.
The added bonus for the South Island riders and a world first is a cycle tour of Stewart Island, the day before the race proper starts. While not all riders will opt for the event, and it doesn’t count as part of the race, Yarrell expects many will jump at the chance to ride around beautiful Half Moon Bay and Oban, the island’s main settlement.
On arrival in the capital, both teams will take part in a criterium – a short course race – around Parliament and the Beehive – before the winners in the several categories are announced.
Overall winner in 2012 and 2013, Dan Underwood has ridden both courses and this year is tackling the northern leg again. 2012 Oceania Championship winner Paul Odlin is also taking part so competition, at the top end at least, will be fierce.
But the Tour is open to everyone – from experts to enthusiasts, and families.
“There’s a couple of family groups coming back from last year and new families as well,” says Yarrell. “We even have a group called the Six Brothers. They’re from all over the world - the oldest is 44 and the youngest is 22 – and they’re riding as a team in the North Island.”
One of the objects of the Tour of New Zealand is to raise funds for charity. There are six for entrants to choose from and support. Riders who raise over a certain amount [NZ$250] will go in a draw to win a car, and there’s a prize pool for anyone who raises any money at all.
The Tour wasn’t held in 2014 – Peter Yarrell says organising the event is a huge task.
“The road race can only be held every two years simply because it’s so massive. There’s so much to do, it’s unbelievable,” he says. “And we want to do it well, which is why we didn’t run one last year. “
He says the Tour will probably become a biannual event, and his team is looking at running a mountain bike tour in the off years.
“That would bring in people who wouldn’t normally come here to ride,” he says. “If they came, they wouldn’t know which mountain bike rides to do so we’d get them on four rides down south and another four in the north. It’d be a race but also a ride for cruisers – we’ll be looking at that once this race is over.”
In the meantime there are hotels, ferries and a myriad of other things that need to be arranged for this year’s Tour of New Zealand.
Tour of New Zealand quick facts:
Tour dates: 11 - 18 April 2015
Two start lines – Bluff in the South Island and Cape Reinga in the North Island
Special prologue event held on Stewart Island for the first time on 10 April, 2015
Participants can enter as individuals or teams
Daily average cycling distance is 100km
Special tour packages offered by Adventure South
400+ riders expected across both North and South Island routes
All riders finish in Wellington for a final showdown criterium race in the capital.