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Bicycle touring is a breathtakingly fresh way of seeing New Zealand, and it's an increasingly popular choice, especially on the South Island, where traffic densities are lower and the scenery is spectacular. There are numerous companies offering guided cycle tours - everything from short day tours through vineyards to more serious challenges like a month-long tour of the whole country.

The best news for many cyclists and tourism operators in May 2009 was Prime Minister John Key's announcement that the government, through the Ministry of Tourism, would spend NZ$50-million over 3 years to build a new national cycleway, running the length of New Zealand. Rather than being one direct north-south route, though, it is being designed as a network comprising existing cycleways with new sections to create a linked Great Rides passage through provincial New Zealand - similar in concept to the already-established Great Walks network. This means riders will get a much more comprehensive overview of New Zealand than they would by riding State Highway 1 from Kaitaia in the north to Bluff in the south.

The first stage of the development has identified seven key routes - five in the North Island and two in the South Island. These will build on existing cycleways, facilities, and tourism attractions. Track One will be in the Far North, linking the Hokianga on the West Coast to Opua and Russell on the east coast. Track Two will focus on the Hauraki Plains, linking Paeroa to Waihi and Thames. Track Three will be created around two Waikato River Trails near Hamilton and Lake Karapiro. Track Four will see the creation of the Central North Island Rail Trail linking Pureora to Taumarunui. Track Five, Mountains to Sea, will also be set in unique central North Island landscapes; and Track Six, the St James Great Trail, will focus on the very pretty Hanmer area in the South Island. Last but not least, Track Seven, in the Southland-Queenstown Lakes area, will take cyclists around the Mountain Rail Trail, through Walter Peak and Mount Nicholas Stations, along the Von Valley, and from Mosstown along the old railway line to Lumsden. At time of writing, the St James Trail was open and construction of 15 more sections was well underway. It is hoped that 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of trails will be open by the end of 2011. Check the progress and find out much more about Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail at www.nzcycletrail.com.

The new cycleways are expected to create many new jobs, both during the construction phase and in the resulting tourism operations that spring up in their wake. Those riding the trails will gain access to many remote landscapes and small towns and villages that would normally be bypassed on traditional tourist schedules; and for those who have always been nervous about cycling New Zealand on the main highways, the development of the Great Rides tracks will be welcome news. The tracks will also appeal to those who may only want to ride through one or two scenic sections.

Safety Tips -- Regardless of where you bike, always wear your helmet - they are mandatory in New Zealand, and you will be fined for not wearing one. Also, remember the following: Cyclists are not permitted on motorways (freeways); they must always ride on the left side of the road; and all traffic turning left gives way to everything on the right. At night, make sure you have a working white front light and a red rear light and reflector. It doesn't hurt to have pedal and jacket reflectors. A few cities - Christchurch is the standout in this regard - have designated cycle lanes within city limits, which makes pedaling safer.

Rentals -- If you're not interested in an organized tour and want to rent a bike when you get here, Adventure Cycles, in Auckland (tel. 09/940-2453; www.adventure-auckland.co.nz), offers rentals throughout New Zealand and sales with a guaranteed buyback plan. It is also part of an association of 24 operators that can arrange organized activities. Nelson Bike Rentals (tel. 03/548-1666; www.nelsonbikerentals.co.nz) has a huge range of road and mountain bikes available for short- or long-term rental. They also have a buyback scheme for long-term rentals, which is much more economical than bringing your own bike to New Zealand. City Cycle Hire in Christchurch (tel. 0800/343-848; www.cyclehire-tours.co.nz) offers short- and long-term cycle hire, along with mountain biking riding adventures.

Tours -- There's an increasing number of organized bike-tour companies in New Zealand. New Zealand Pedaltours, in Parnell, Auckland (tel. 09/585-1338; fax 09/585-1339; www.pedaltours.co.nz), offers both North and South Island trips on 12 routes lasting from 2 to 37 days, on- and off-road. It creates customized tours of moderate exertion level, and a support van is always around to take the load off your pedals. Adventure South (tel. 03/942-1222; fax 03/942-4030; www.advsouth.co.nz) offers a range of 6- to 21-day cycle tours, mainly in the South Island, that may also include some walking excursions. They are geared to all fitness levels and are backed up by support vehicles. Tuatara Tours , in Christchurch (tel. 0800/377-378 in NZ, or 03/962-3280; www.tuataratours.co.nz), has two excellent cycle tours for people who want to focus on fun and comfort. Their 4-day Hanmer Cycle Trail covers 170km (105 miles), taking you through the Waipara vineyard region to the alpine village of Hanmer, where you can end your journey in hot pools; and their Tekapo Canal Trail (140km/87 miles) introduces you to the South Island's dramatic landscapes. The Hanmer trail does have some small hills to cover; and you may have to battle against strong winds on both trails if you strike an infamous "Nor'wester."

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.