With an impressive number of cycling options and trails to suit every inclination, Alexandra could easily be pitched as New Zealand's cycling utopia, writes Sarah Bennett
'Such is the sheer number and variety of cycling options that Central Otago rightly stakes a claim as New Zealand's best place to ride.' So says the Central Otago Cycling Story, a potted history of biking in Central, commissioned by the district council, and written by yours truly.
Evidence for the region's supremacy is compelling. Central has a ridiculous range of ride options on- and off-road, and including four Great Rides. It sports many longstanding cycling clubs, has produced numerous pro and medal-winning riders, and is the birthplace of seminal events including the legendary Gold Rush and South Island secondary-school MTB champs. This summer, the international Crankworx adrenaline-fest is rocking into town.
The town is Alexandra, the undisputed hub of the action where trails lead off in every direction. In its fertile ground has flourished a particularly bike-mad community, along with a healthy cluster of tour companies and bike shops, and even a locally owned, world-renowned bike suspension engineer, Shockcraft.
Liz Williamson, active in the local cycling scene for 25 years, calls Alexandra "a cycling utopia".
"The variety of terrain allows cycling in any mode, whether road, mountain, gravel or e-bike," Liz says. "You can potter along rail trails and river tracks, speed along back roads, or ride nicely cambered singletrack. And there's so much freedom to roam, right from your doorstep."
The lay of the land
Alexandra lies at the junction of the Clutha Mata-au and Manuherikia rivers, smack-bang in the classic Central Otago landscape of big skies, rolling plains and shapely mountains.
Between the Raggedy, Knobby, Dunstan, Hawkdun, Cairnmuir, Pisa and Old Man ranges, there's certainly no shortage of mountains nor trails among them. Early Māori pathways, pack tracks, water races and disused railway lines are just some of the byways repurposed for two wheels.
Getting your bearings
Clearly produced by cyclists for cyclists, the Tracks and Trails section of the visitor website (centralotagonz.com) is an exemplary online guide with detailed descriptions, maps, operator listings and off-site links for all significant trails, including the Great Rides.
Other essential guides include DoC's Alexandra Cromwell Tracks brochure, and the excellent Central Otago Touring Route fold-out map that pinpoints top sights and attractions between Queenstown and Dunedin.
A town tour
The loop ride to Clyde is a must-do for its terrific vistas. Ride the River Track one way and the Otago Central Rail Trail the other, crossing two notable bridges over the Clutha Mata-au River. At Earnscleugh Tailings, have a wee wander around the moonlike mounds of spoil left by the old gold dredges.
Wide streets and light traffic make cycling around Alex a pleasure. For an extended town tour, head over Shaky Bridge and into Graveyard Gully or push further on towards Butchers Point via the grade 2 track along the Clutha Mata-au.
The rocky hills behind town are home to the hot, new Matangi Mountain Bike Park, the result of longstanding good-faith arrangements between landowners and local riders. This will be next-level, rough-stuff for tough nuts. I will endeavour to ride it and report back.
The town's mini-MTB park is Boot Hill. Fun for the whole family, it features a signposted loop with gentle climbs, flowing singletrack and a few tricky bits to keep you on your toes.
The four Great Rides on Alexandra's doorstep are the Roxburgh Gorge, Clutha Gold, Otago Central Rail and Lake Dunstan trails, all must-dos and mostly graded easy. Local tour companies such as Bike It Now (bikeitnow.co.nz) and Trail Journeys (trailjourneys.co.nz/) offer all sorts of ride options.
On the edge of Alexandra is Flat Top Hill, rated one of New Zealand's top 10 rides by the Kennett Brothers, which means that it's mountain bikers' territory.
We biked there from Alex via the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, which winds along the most striking section of the whole Clutha Mata-au River.
Around 9km in, the Sphinx Rock Track climbs steadily for an hour before reaching Flat Top's rocky plateau. There, the Purple Haze trail loops through the reserve's striking landscape of monolithic boulders. Stupendous panoramas stretch over Butchers Dam, the Old Man Range and Alexandra Basin.
Returning the same way gave us a thrilling Sphinx descent. The whole mission took the best part of a day and easily worked its way into our own top 10. For advice, bike hire and tours, check out Altitude Bikes (altitudebikes.co.nz)
Another new adventure for us was the Airport Loop, a mostly easy 10km cruise in big-sky country, which proved particularly enjoyable in the late afternoon light. Reach it off the Otago Central Rail Trail, around halfway between Alex and Clyde.
Be sure to give Alexandra's town clock the big tick. Built in 1968, the 11m-diameter timepiece is set into a rock face high above town. You can walk up to it via a short but steep track starting at Shaky Bridge.
The views from the town clock are pretty epic, but Observation Point is better still. It lies on the crest of Little Valley Rd, a good 15-minute granny-gear climb from Shaky Bridge and well worth it for the vista and freewheel back down.
Alexandra's Courthouse and Tin Goose cafes are both excellent. Offering red-hot competition, however, is the very on-trend Industry Lane Eatery alongside Willbike cycle shop. Sticky treats such as cinnamon brioche, lemon meringue cheesecake doughnuts and salted caramel square advance my theory that southerners are New Zealand's best bakers.
Bike town rating
As a "hub and spoke" destination, Alexandra is hard to beat with memorable ride options in every direction. For this we can thank a community that seems to live for cycling, with every woman, man and his dog working together to build more and better trails for local and visitor alike. The competition for NZ's best bike town is getting hot, hot, hot!
Tourism Central Otago centralotagonz.com
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