The money has been allocated and, this month the Prime Minister hopped on a bike himself to try one of the rides that make up the New Zealand Cycle Trail. So what did taxpayers get for our $50 million and was the money well spent? First up, it's not John Key's original vision of a route from Cape Reinga to Bluff. That idea was given up when it was realised it would send the country broke and also because it would bypass too much of the best scenery.
The plan soon became to make the most of the bones of what we had, and so the "Great Rides" concept was born.
What we've got is a series of 19 "Great Rides" - with the possibility others may be added - which will show off some of the country's best scenery in all its remarkable variety. Well, hopefully. A few of the trails have hit brick walls in the form of land access problems that may well mean they will not be completed in the foreseeable future. In this category are: the Twin Coast Trail (Hokianga Harbour to the Bay of Islands), the Great Lake Trail (Taupo) and the Roxburgh Gorge Trail (Alexandra to Roxburgh).
But the man who knows most about biking the country's highways, byways and rugged backcountry, Jonathan Kennett, says the country has got good value for the investment of public money. Author of cycling guidebooks and adviser to the Government on the trail, Kennett reckons it puts New Zealand in a good position to reap an economic windfall from the fourth cycling boom (first came 10-speeds, then BMX, followed by the mountain bike boom and now it's biking holidays). "We are witnessing the start of a boom being led by the United States, where people take their bikes on holiday. It's not a sporty thing, it's a holiday thing."
The Great Rides range from grade one (easy peasy) to grade 5 (sadistic), so have something for everybody.
The $50 million has gone on trail construction with extras - such as huts at $60,000 a piece built on the Old Ghost Road route - paid for by private fundraising. "Fifty million is chip change for a project like this," says Kennett. "You couldn't get more than 1km of highway for that money."
With all but $100,000 allocated, NZ Cycle Trail (NZCT) staff have been reduced from seven to three and by the end of this year - when all construction is expected to be finished - the trails will be overseen by an advisory board of seven (four from NZCT and one each from the Department of Conservation, Tourism and the Ministry of Business and Innovation).
The idea of a world-class bike trail came out of Prime Minister John Key's jobs summit in February 2010. It was soon realised that the original vision of a Cape to Bluff trail was too costly. But if you do want to knock the country off end to end, then Kennett and his brothers, Simon and Paul, are at your service.
They have come up with an "Ultimate NZ Ride" that uses eight of the Great Rides and links them with other trails and quiet roads. The route - reproduced on the map on this page - appears in their book, Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails.
The brothers realised that the country is rich in back roads hardly used by vehicles, roads many cycle tourists didn't know about. Cyclists would instead put themselves at risk on major highways. It made sense, says Kennett, to let people know how to link up those roads with our network of trails. The Government plans to produce signage (as funds allow) to help cyclists find their way on a route that may one day grow into a must-do of world adventure tourism.
The biggest disappointment for Kennett is that land access problems have compromised trails in some of the most beautiful spots. Issues with the Twin Coast Trail may cost the Far North a much-needed economic boost, while the Roxburgh Gorge Trail to Alexandra could have been part (together with the Clutha Gold Trail) of an iconic multi-day ride following the Clutha River through the area's golden schist-strewn hills but for a farmer declining to provide access. The Gorge trail will still be do-able (assuming it is completed - the trail's status on the NZCT website is "planned") but it comes with the inconvenience of having to arrange a boat ride to skirt the stretch where land access is denied.
Kennett knows every metre of the country's bike trails. He has picked out for Herald readers a couple of standouts in each island from the 19 Great Rides that make up the New Zealand Bike Trail.
The Timber Trail, Pureora village to Ongarue (85km) - Most of the trail is "damn well made" and, as a trailmaker himself, Kennett doesn't give such complements easily. He rates the first 5km from the Pureora end through the podocarp forest as "perfect" and suitable for family riding. The trail through the Pureora Forest Park, takes in four ecological areas and showcases the remnants of the great forests that once dominated the area. The trail takes riders into an original "cloud forest" of twisted and gnarled trees before descending on old logging roads and tramlines over some impressive swing bridges including the country's second-longest, at 141m. Grade 2-3, easy, intermediate.
Hawkes Bay Trails - All trails are easy and because there is such a network of them it has normalised cycling in the Bay, says Kennett. All levels of cyclists use the trails.
Clutha Gold Trail Roxburgh Dam to Lawrence - Easy riding on the route of a major gold rush. The trail follows the Clutha, the country's biggest river, through stunning scenery on a trail made for cyclists by a local cyclist, Tim Dennis. "There are virtually no straight lines, it is always curving and because of that it has a sense of discovery about it. It is really engaging but at the same time it is easy. Dennis has taken the beautiful element of flow that you get from riding a good mountain bike trail but applied it in an easy grade setting. A lot of people are going to love this one. All bar one section (that requires a small detour on a quiet road called Millennium Track) is open. Grade 2, easy.
The Old Ghost Road, from the ghost town of Lyell to Seddonville - Twenty-kilometre sections at each end are now open with completion of the full 88kms expected late this year. Pristine West Coast wilderness but at the other extreme from the Clutha Gold Trail. Kennett describes it as an iconic mountain bike trail for advanced riders. "It is the most stunning landscape of any bike track in New Zealand, which is saying a lot. It is competition for the Heaphy Track, which is a wonderful multi-day mountain bike ride that is a bit tough. The Ghost is going to be not only a spectacular multi-day mountain bike ride, it will be open all year around and it has more huts." Two existing DoC huts have been upgraded and four new ones added, paid for by sponsors and built by volunteers.
Nearest to Auckland:
The Hauraki Trail - Follows the historic railway line across the Hauraki Plains and through the stunning Karangahake Gorge. That area has a tunnel, bridges, forest and a great cafe. Local authorities are keen to extend the trail to Miranda and the bit through the gorge to Waihi to make it a multi-day ride. Grade 1, very easy.
• Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails by The Kennett Brothers.
• See next Saturday's Weekend Life for a round-up of rides the kids can enjoy.