New Zealand is a bucket-list destination for cyclists, with its incredibly diverse — not to mention jaw-droppingly gorgeous — Lord of the Rings landscapes that include jagged alpine peaks, gentle wine regions, rugged coastlines, lush rainforests, glacial rivers and brooding volcanoes. Timid riders be warned: there’s a good bit of topography here, to be sure. And, since New Zealand is one of the world’s least densely populated countries, towns — and therefore refuel points — are sometimes few and far between, and routes forced longer than they would be in a more confined countryside. But that’s the beauty of hitting the road in this fairytale landscape: every ride has the potential for outsized adventure, and gives you one more chance to prove to yourself that whatever lies around the next bend or (more likely) over the next hill is worth the price of pedaling.
Lake Taupo Lap
Distance: 95 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,957 feet
Starts From: Taupo, Waikato
Fuel Up: Top off the tank at Bodyfuel Café, a breakfast and lunch spot where even the free-range bacon and eggs look healthy, garnished by fresh, organic fruits and vegetables.
Road Notes: This loop sets off from the resort town of Taupo — the home of world-famous Huka Falls — and takes in the undulating topography that borders Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. Survive the first 60 miles, where most of the climbing happens and there are no refuel options, and the rest is a cakewalk…relatively speaking.
Mt. Taranaki Circuit
Distance: 77.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,628 feet
Starts From: New Plymouth, Taranaki
Fuel Up: Down a recovery drink or two at The Hour Glass, a beer-lover’s bar that serves tapas alongside New Zealand craft suds.
Road Notes: This straightforward ride traces the shortest route from New Plymouth around Mt. Taranaki, the towering, 8,261-foot stratovolcano that dominates this region of the North Island. Keep its perfect, snow-flanked cone over your left shoulder as you pass through a rural landscape of lush dairy farms and, within Egmont National Park, a protected broadleaf rainforest.
The Forgotten Coast
Distance: 67.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,941 feet
Starts From: Opotiki, Bay of Plenty
Fuel Up: Top off your caffeine buzz at husband-and-wife-owned Two Fish Café, a local joe shop with breakfast standards and legendary muffins.
Road Notes: This out-and-back from Opotiki to the crossroads of Omaio skirts the remote eastern shore of the Bay of Plenty. This isn’t a beachy cruise, though. The coast is rugged, and numerous headlands — featuring steep, punchy little climbs — separate a series of smaller bays along the road. Your work is rewarded by forever views that stretch over the water to the billowing steam of volcanic White Island. Turn around at the general store in Omaio, where they sling a solid burger.
Grape Big Loop
Distance: 63.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,832 feet
Starts From: Blenheim, Marlborough
Fuel Up: Relax post-ride on the deck at Rock Ferry Wines with a glass of single-vineyard pinot gris while your seasonally inspired gourmet meal is prepped.
Road Notes: Cycling through Marlborough’s Wairau Valley is sort of like riding around Napa, where vineyards wrap the landscape like Technicolor corduroy and wineries offer more than enough temptation to derail even moderately ambitious rides. Here, though, a 10-mile jog north through the Robertson Range drops you onto the emerald-watered shores of Queen Charlotte Sound at Picton. Save the vino tastings until the tail end of this loop ride, and you’ll be rewarded with a diversity of landscapes that’s hard to find elsewhere.
A Tale of Two Summits
Distance: 60 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,803 feet
Starts From: Christchurch, Canterbury
Fuel Up: Akaroa’s 175-year-old French heritage lives on at The Little Bistro, a cozy place that turns locally sourced ingredients into rich and satisfying meals — think spiced rack of lamb with crème fraiche, rustic summer stew and rib-eye steaks with truffle butter.
Road Notes: Christchurch and Akaroa are considered by many the heart and soul of South Island cycling, and this route joins them over a metric century and two massive climbs, closely following the route of the annual Le Race cycling festival onto the volcanic Banks Peninsula.
Distance: 11.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 847 feet
Starts From: Palmerston, Otago
Fuel Up: Pickings are slim in these parts, but Station Café serves coffee and a full breakfast, as well as sandwiches and baked goods for the jersey pockets.
Road Notes: This short roller coaster route that circles 1,050-foot Mt. Royal is perfect for time trials with its smooth pavement and adequately rural setting — grazing sheep and cows will be your only audience. Save some kick for the final climb, which ramps up to 10 percent, between Royal and Puketapu (Maori for “sacred hill”), the slightly taller volcanic hill that dominates the tiny town of Palmerston. The little circuit is so ripe for riding that the national road race championships often traverse it.
Distance: 42.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,104 feet
Starts From: Dunedin, Otago
Fuel Up: The 130-year-old Speight’s Brewery still makes its traditional English-style ales, now under the guise of The Speight’s Ale House, a warm public house that serves hearty fare like fresh-catch (local) fish and chips with salad. It’s worth risking post-ride saddle sore on one of the bar stools.
Road Notes: This tame out-and-back ride to the end of the Otago Peninsula — a craggy finger of land that points out to sea from Dunedin — takes in spectacular coastal scenery for relatively little effort. At road’s end is Taiaroa Head, a wildlife refuge that’s home to the world’s only known albatross colony on an inhabited mainland, as well as seals and yellow-eyed penguins. For a better vantage point over the peninsula’s isolated beaches and rolling farmlands — and, honestly, for more of a challenge — we’ve routed you over Highcliff Road on the return trip, which is every bit as grueling as it sounds.
The Cardrona Challenge
Distance: 58.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 7,553 feet
Starts From: Wanaka, Otago
Fuel Up: Before hitting the road, take care of breakfast at Café Gusto or Federal Diner in Wanaka. At the end of the challenge, should you succeed, refill the tank at Fergburger, a beloved Queenstown joint whose “burgers as big as your head” are a huge hit with drunk — er, late night diners.
Road Notes: Welcome to the Southern Alps, where every grueling mountain pass can easily become a fail, if you’re not ready for it. The Crown Range Road between Wanaka and Queenstown rises 2,500 feet before dipping back down to the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Somehow that seemed easy, so we added the titular “challenge” — the winding 8-mile, 3,640-foot climb to Cardrona Ski Field — near the midpoint. The views are most definitely worth the work, to be sure (we promise). Real men will earn their Fergburger by jogging south outside of Queenstown for the lung-busting gravel road Remarkables Climb.
Solid Gold Century
Distance: 100.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,847 feet
Starts From: Palmerston, Otago
Fuel Up: See Goodwood Circuit.
Road Notes: From the Shag River plain, this ride takes you up and over Macraes Road past Macraes Mine, New Zealand’s largest gold mine. Catch your breath at the historic Stanley Hotel pub in Macraes Flat before rolling down to the Strath Taieri, a wide glacial valley where rural farmland is studded with otherworldly rocks. Cross back over the gold-bearing hills via Nenthorn, a ghost town that speculators once hyped as Otago’s next big city. Dip your sore legs in Dip Creek near Bucklands Crossing, then spin it out north to Palmerston.
Down to the Sound
Distance: 74.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,592 feet
Starts From: Te Anau, Southland
Fuel Up: Before leaving town, swing by La Roulotte, a little red-and-white camper that makes savory galettes and the island’s best crepes.
Road Notes: Everywhere you look in the pristine fiodlands, snow-capped mountains swan dive into the cobalt depths of impossibly narrow fiords and sounds, the most famous of which is Milford Sound. This route heads north from Te Anau along the Eglington River before crossing west over and through the Darran Mountains via Homer Tunnel. On the other side, it’s a gorgeous 3,000-foot thrill ride down to the sound. From here, you could hitchhike back over the Homer Saddle, but smart travelers will book an overnight cruise on Milford Sound with Real Journeys for a chance to see every waterfall and bay.