Nelson is a bona fide bike town, committed to building cycle trails to suit every age and ability, writes Sarah Bennett
Nelsonians bike to work or school more than anyone else in New Zealand. While the national average is six per cent of local commuters, Nelson nearly doubles that at 11 per cent.
This statistic was proudly relayed to me by the city council's transport manager, Margaret Parfitt. "Nelson has a long history of being cycle friendly", she told me, adding that the city has picked up the nation's annual cycle-friendly town award several times.
Parfitt traces this success back to the repurposing of the old railway line more than 25 years ago into a dedicated cycleway. Linking Nelson, Stoke and Richmond, the Railway Reserve is now the backbone of the city's urban network and connects to a growing web of trails far beyond.
The fellows at Gravity MTB shop are equally keen to tell me of the 400km of singletrack within 45 minutes' drive of town. "The breadth and quality of riding here is unparalleled,' their website claims.
The Nelson Tasman trails trust refers to the wider region as "the Heart of Biking". It's certainly got the mileage to back it up.
The lay of the land
Ever-growing Nelson stretches for miles along the Tasman Bay coast. Happily, the Atawhai Shared Pathway, Railway Reserve and Whakatū Coastal Pathway provide a mostly off-road artery from end to end, linking in with a bunch of other trails.
Many surrounding settlements and attractions can be reached on the Great Taste Trail, nearly 180km of mostly off-road trails across the region. A major visitor attraction in itself, it's a brilliant way to see the sights while avoiding busy highways.
Getting your bearings
The Heart of Biking website heartofbiking.org.nz provides guidance on all major trails from urban to the back-blocks.
A search for 'cycling' on Nelson City Council's website (nelson.govt.nz) brings up lots of practical info along with maps for visitor-friendly forays making the most of the urban cycleway network. These include the Waterfront, Maitai River, Atawhai and the Railway Reserve route.
The free, printed city map could do slightly better on the cycleway front. It's available from the iSITE along with excellent maps for the two Great Rides. More detail on these and connecting Heartland Rides can be found on the New Zealand Cycle Trail website (nzcycletrail.com).
The Nelson Mountain Bike club (nelsonmtb.club) produces good maps, both in print and online. Check out Trailforks too, of course.
A town tour
Noodling around Nelson is very pleasant thanks to well-marked cycleways, clear wayfinding signage, ample bike parking and 30km speed-limit zones.
The free town map will be sufficient for you to scoot around top sights such as the cathedral, Queens Gardens, Suter Gallery and Founders Park. Look for Penguino Ice Cream while you're at it.
To add on an hour or two, follow the riverside pathway up the unspoilt Maitai Valley and enjoy its peaceful and much-loved recreation reserve.
It's only a short distance from the city centre to glorious Tāhunanui Beach. Riding there, however, requires pedalling perilously close to heavy traffic along busy Rocks Road. Fixing this is a work in progress.
One of New Zealand's 22 Great Rides, the Great Taste Trail serves up endless adventures many of which feature a pie and a pint.
One classic day ride is to hare out to Rabbit Island/Moturoa for beautiful Waimea Estuary scenery and beach time before hopping on the weeny ferry for the five-minute ride to Māpua. Our Mapua must-dos are the fabulous hat shop, Golden Bear Brewery, and fish and chips from the Smokehouse.
The inland excursion from Stoke to Brightwater is pretty tasty, too, serving up wine-tasting, Wakefield Bakery and the original McCashin's family brewery. The Ernest Rutherford memorial also numbers among its merits. See the Gentle Cycling Company (gentlecycling.co.nz) in Stoke for ebikes and maps.
One of the benefits of repurposing old railway lines for recreational trails is the chance to explore spooky tunnels. On the Belgrove to Kohatu section of the Great Taste Trail, Spooners Tunnel is an absolute cracker – 1400m long, pitch-black in the middle, and still coated in mid-last-century soot.
Nelson's second Great Ride, the Coppermine winds up to the rocky tops of Dun Mountain via New Zealand's oldest tramway. It offers vast panoramas of Tasman Bay and the surrounding ranges.
The trail climbs to an impressive 878m then swoops back down over 10 exhilarating kilometres of berms and turns. Beyond big views and brilliant riding, the Coppermine also sports some incredible geological and botanical wonders, along with flinty history recalled in a series of storyboards.
The Coppermine begins in the lower reaches of Nelson city's Codgers MTB Park, and finishes in the Maitai Valley. A full loop from town is 43km and will take fit riders a good 4–6 hours and slightly less for ebikers. Ten minutes' ride from the trailhead, Gravity (gravitynelson.co.nz) provides bikes, advice and maps.
Being the home of hops with some humdinger weather, Nelson does a great line in beer gardens. The Free House in downtown Nelson is a good first port of call.
Several beer gardens on the Great Taste Trail include McCashins, a mainstay of the local brewing scene now crafting under the Stoke brand and still housed in the old Stoke cider factory. It's family-friendly, too.
Māpua's Golden Bear brewpub recently revamped its terrace in fine fashion and does LA-inspired Mex food alongside regular live music.
Hazards and cautions
I'm calling them the Hooner Boomers. Retirees riding high-spec ebikes at lightning speed, missing you by millimetres, smirking like the cat that got the kākāriki. Nelson seems to have squadrons of them.
Bike town rating
Nelson is a bona fide bike town, clearly committed to the kaupapa by building new and better trails for more than 25 years. It's now an absolute mecca for riders of every persuasion, from town commuters to mad-keen mountain bikers. You might not just want to ride it. You may want to live it.
Nelson Tasman Tourism, nelsontasman.nz.
Heart of Biking, heartofbiking.org.nz.
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz