Central Otago’s love affair with the bicycle began with the ten-speed, which arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s. The region’s quiet and picturesque roads proved perfect for getting some speed up.
In 1990 a group of local enthusiasts formed a road cycling club. Meeting every Sunday in summer, it lives up to its motto of ‘more fun in the sun’ for its spectacular courses, family-friendly social events, and fine weather.
Encouraged by parents who were early members, James Williamson grew up in the club, eventually becoming a pro rider abroad. As his generation has reached adulthood, so the cycling scene has matured alongside as mountain biking, BMX and other types of riding have gained momentum.
The biggest change has been the growth of Central Otago as a mecca for leisure cyclists. This was kick-started by the creation of the Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand’s original ‘Great Ride.’
The trail was born out of tough times. Back in the 1990s, the rural community was doing it hard, the economic downturn in farming meaning towns were losing shops, garages, post office and schools.
When the pin was pulled on the historic railway between Middlemarch and Clyde, the locals hatched a bold and ambitious decision to repurpose the 150km line as a cycle trail. After six years of hard graft, the Otago Central Rail Trail opened in 2000.
‘The rail trail was a first for New Zealand’, says Neville Grubb, the Alexandra bike shop owner who founded tour company Trail Journeys. ‘Cyclists could ride for four days in a row without going on the road. It was a whole new perspective on cycling.’
The trail steadily gained in popularity as word spread of its gentle terrain, stunning scenery and warm welcomes from the locals – farmers, publicans, shopkeepers, everyday folks on the street. Two decades on, towns have been rejuvenated and countless new friendships forged as visitors have enjoyed authentic hospitality alongside a kaleidoscope of Central Otago life.