Pre-pandemic, an exodus of sorts would occur every year in New Zealand. The sun hibernates, the sky goes grey and cyclists across the country trade a few weeks of winter for Europe's scorching heat and magnificent landscapes. Armed with custom-built bikes and suitcases full of lycra, they depart for the Italian Dolomites, Swiss Epic, or Spain's Basque Country.
However, last year wasn't like most. Hit with a global pandemic, we were confined to our country, and at times, the four walls of our homes. Lockdowns and travel bans disrupted life and derailed plans for countless Kiwis and we were forced to search for adventures a little closer to home.
According to Sue Clark, a cycle tour guide and gravel rider in New Zealand and abroad, this may not be such a terrible thing.
"There's always good stuff that comes out of times like this and gravel riding is one example," said Clark, who sees our travel restrictions as motivation for Kiwis to appreciate their own country. "A lot of us may have planned to be overseas this year. But we've got similar, if not better, places just down the road."
Hailing from the UK, Clark has been a Kiwi for 25 years, 20 of those spent cycling as often as possible. That was made far easier when, in 2015, she traded boardrooms for bike trails and began guiding for Christchurch-based tour operator Adventure South.
For someone who spends their life outdoors, the novelty of last year's lockdowns wore thin quick. So, as soon as levels lifted, Clark was out the door and back on the road.
"We came out of lockdown and I just needed to get away on my bike," she said. "I took off with a friend exploring all around the central North Island. It was amazing, really amazing."
It was racing through a network of back country roads and forgotten gravel trails when Clark realised now was the perfect time, and New Zealand the ultimate place, for Kiwis to get amongst gravel riding.
Her hunch was proven right last August, after organising a trip with some of New Zealand's cycling enthusiasts. The group of 11 riders, including 2XU founder Jamie Hunt and ironman athlete and high-performance coach Armando Galarraga, travelled to the humble town of Piopio for a two-day, 175km adventure; a trip so successful, it's set to be an annual event.
Nestled in the heart of the North Island, Piopio is a quintessential blink-and-you-miss-it village. Yet, like many rural towns in New Zealand, it sits within an unmarked map of thrilling gravel trails; a biker's paradise if you know where to look.
With Clark booked solid for the next three months, it's clear Kiwis are keen to explore the "gravel mecca" that is Aotearoa.
Like many branches of adventure sports, gravel riding had humble beginnings. With more than a million miles of unpaved roads in the United States, the style of cycling was born simply from American cyclists in rural areas who wanted to make the most of the vast farmland and mountain roads nearby.
So, for decades, pundits self-modified their road, cyclocross and mountain bikes to create hybrids that could traverse various terrains with ease. It wouldn't be until the late 2010s when the industry caught on to the trend and started producing gravel-specific models and running international events.
However, by 2018 gravel riding was the fastest-growing sector of the bike market; one that has continued to flourish in popularity and status.
One explanation for this sudden peak in interest is, according to Clark, the remarkable sense of freedom you simply can't find on a typical road anymore.
"Roads are getting busier; it's becoming less enjoyable to ride when you've got traffic coming up your backside," she said. That often sees city cyclists rising at ridiculous hours to enjoy a safe and peaceful ride.
For those accustomed to riding in silent single file and a constant hum of awareness, the rowdy camaraderie of a gravel trail, where you cycle in packs, free to chat or simply switch off, is another added benefit.
Since the adventure doesn't end when the typical road does on a gravel bike, it's also an unbeatable way to take in some of New Zealand's best scenery.
"We know New Zealand is beautiful and it's got incredible scenery and wildlife and yet there are so many places that people haven't been," said Clark.
"I love finding new places that are off the beaten track and will make people go 'woah'." As we're all starting to realise, after a year of having only our own country to explore, New Zealand isn't short of breath-taking tracks to take your breath away.
So, it should come as little surprise that when it comes to world-class gravel trails, you don't need to trek halfway across the globe for a thrilling ride.
Nine gravel tracks to ride around New Zealand
Whether you're a seasoned gravel rider, passionate road cyclist, or simply up for new adventures; here are some of New Zealand's top gravel riding spots.
Old Ghost Road
No gravel trail list would be complete without mention of Old Ghost Road. Stretched 85km between Upper Buller Gorge and Mokihinui, the historic gold mining track takes riders on a challenging mix of gravel and sealed trails through lush forest, tussock hills, secluded valleys and riverbeds.
Hauraki Rail Trail
Comprised of 5 sections of Grade One cycle trail, the Hauraki Rail Trail is a perfect track for riders of all abilities. Take five days and cruise the full 197km from Kaiaua to Matamata, enjoying a range of landscapes from the salty Shorebird Coast to the stunning Karangahake Gorge. Or enjoy several of the day-trip options like "Section D"; a 23km track that cuts leisurely through farmland between Paeroa and Te Aroha.
Roxburgh Gorge Trail
For a snapshot of Central Otago's natural beauty and history, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail is a perfect one-day ride. A 21km Grade One trail (with a touch of Grade two in the mix), the 5-6 hour journey takes riders along the Clutha Mata-au River, past rugged bluffs, gold rush remains, and of course, the Roxburgh Dam.
Twin Coast Cycle Trail
Take in the beauty of the Bay of Islands from a more dramatic angle and hit the Twin Coast Cycle Trail. Consisting of rural gravel roads, the 87km track sits between Ōpua and Horeke, and takes riders on a journey through native forests, rolling farmland and some of Aotearoa's oldest Māori and European settlements in its infamous sub-tropical climate.
Hidden deep in the Pureora Forest, just west of Taupō, is 82km of premium gravel riding. From Ōngarue to Pureora, the trail traverses some of the country's most diverse environments, with historical spots along the way. Made up of speedy descents and steady climbs, this Grade 2 and 3 track is ideal for the experienced rider.
Carving through the Remutaka Mountain Ranges and around the Southern Wild Coast, with rail tunnels, beaches and wineries along the way, Wellington's Remutaka Trail has it all when it comes to gravel riding. Best ridden over 2-3 days, the 115km track features a mix of Grade Two, Three and Four trails that connect Petone to Orongorongo.
Want to wander off the beaten track? Try journeying the rugged 130km Rainbow Road that connects St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs. Climbing 1,372m high into the remote alpine country on a Grade 3 trail, this terrific ride treats advanced riders to some of the most secluded views and hidden spots in the south island. Fortunately, the trail ends with a downhill to Hanmer Springs, for a well-deserved soak in their famous hot springs.
For a gravel ride just half an hour drive from Auckland city, head to the northern town of Puhoi for 85km loop you won't find on a map. The definition of "off-road", this route is well-known among gravel riders, beginning at Puhoi and travelling northwest to Kaipara Flats via Makarau, before heading west to Glorit and down to Araparera via the Kaipara Coast Highway. From there, riders take the West Coast Road inland to Makarau before gunning back to close the loop at Puhoi. Just don't forget to bring a map and a cycling mate.
Lake Dunstan Trail
Keep an eye out between Clyde and Cromwell, where construction is under way for New Zealand's newest gravel trail. As part of the $26million New Zealand Cycle Trail Project, the Grade One and Two trail treats riders to a unique tour of Central Otago, hugging Lake Dunstan, the Kawarau River and Clutha River Mata-au for 52 charming kilometres.