Cycling in Christchurch: rides, coffee and earthquake recovery

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On a recent trip to New Zealand’s South Island for a Roadtripping article, CyclingTips’ Andy van Bergen and Jonathan Reece visited the city of Christchurch to discover what the city has to offer for cyclists and how it has recovered from the devastating earthquakes of four years ago.

Riding through the Christchurch CBD, it’s hard to believe that the terrifying earthquakes that rocked this city occurred more than four years ago. But with a soundtrack of construction machinery and the sight of ply-hoarding and scaffolding around every corner, it’s not so hard to understand the devastation these earthquakes caused. Navigating the streets is simple but it often requires a more circuitous route around closed roads.

This is a city that has been changed forever. It is also a city that, despite the veil of construction webbing, appears to have turned a corner.

“Christchurch has always relied on tourism” explains Andy Hunt, director of the cycle touring company Natural High. “Given the compact nature of activities in the area, it was always popular with people coming in for a micro-adventure”.

Christchurch was traditionally the major hub for entry and exit for international travellers to New Zealand, and as the natural springboard to other regions there was a huge focus on tourism. The earthquakes’ effect on visitor numbers to the area was immediate, for obvious reasons.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Among the 185 people that lost their lives were a large number of foreign visitors – a fact that shook confidence in the area. Immediately following the disaster “… everyone was simply focused on the basics,” Andy Hunt told us. “I’m talking shelter, food, safety”. Due to massive landslips in the nearby Port Hills, and the amount of rubble and debris the ‘Nor’wester’ wind whipped up, many roads were closed.

“Sure, riding a bike was good for the soul and helped to clear your mind, but there was a real moral dilemma as to whether I should be indulging in this, or spending my time helping others,” Andy said. “The dust stopped a lot of the riding anyway, and many roads were closed”.

Cycling races in the region were stopped. There was a question of whether it was right to be racing when so many people in the city were just focussed on the basics of survival. And then there was the issue of resources needed to run races — “people simply were not around”, Andy said.

Christchurch’s famous Le Race , to the former French colony of Akaroa, was one of the races put on hold.

Four years on, tourism is playing its part in rebuilding the city, and a large chunk of that is on two wheels. Christchurch has always been popular with cyclists and, given it is an activity that requires only a minimal amount of infrastructure, cycling was naturally one of the first areas to pick back up. After nearly losing his business in the tough years following the earthquakes things are finally starting to rebound for Andy. “We are really at the tipping point,” he explains.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Before we travelled to Christchurch Andy told us about the compact nature of the city and the surrounding hills. That became immediately apparent as we flew into the flat basin of Christchurch.

Only a short ride out of town are the Port Hills, with no shortage of punchy little climbs and ridge rollers. Just beyond this ridge to the south east is the Banks Peninsula, the eroded remnant of two volcanic cones believed to have formed between 11 and 6 million years ago. Like a bedsheet gathered in the middle the entire Banks Peninsula is a series of coves, bays, ridges, and furrows.

Some 100km to the west, and extending to the horizon in either direction, are the towering and often snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. A mere five kilometres from the CBD to the east lies the South Pacific, and just north of the city is the swollen, snow-fed Waimakariri River.

In short, there is a tremendous variety of accessible terrain on offer, enough to easily lose yourself for more than a few days. So easy to access, that there are more and more people taking the three-hour flight across the Tasman for a long weekend.

“We’re seeing more and more visitors heading over for an extended weekend,” says Andy. “I won’t say which club, but we recently had a couple from Melbourne over to do a bit of sneaky hills training for their club champs”.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

It’s the variety of terrain and close proximity of the Port Hills area which has led to the construction of the NZ $25 million (AUD $23.8 million), 358-hectare Christchurch Adventure Park. This world-class network of trails will be serviced by an express chairlift with 400m of vertical gain, all within 5km of the CBD.

In addition to the relaunch of road racing, an emerging interest in cyclocross has popped up over winter, although it is still a young scene in Christchurch. While we were riding CX bikes and taking photos above Evans Pass just outside Christchurch, our photographer was stopped by a local rider who asked “how come we didn’t use actual CX riders, because I haven’t seen these boys racing”.

Structured racing on the road and in the MTB scene is blossoming once more, and this is paralleled by the growth of club and group rides. It doesn’t take much chatting to local riders to find some of the more popular group hit-outs to jump on.

There are a number of rides that leave from ‘PMH’ (the Princess Margaret Hospital) including the ‘Tuesday Worlds’ which departs Tuesdays at 8:30am. It’s a solid 85km ride from the city out to Sumner via Evans Pass. Things are a little more sedate on the weekend with more casual rides leaving PMH on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Looking down over Sumner from Summit Road.
Looking down over Sumner from Summit Road.

North of Christchurch, the Bicycle Business shop ride is popular on a Thursday, kicking off at the post-work-friendly hour of 5:30pm. If you are on vacation, then meet at Zeroes on Tuesdays at the pro-hour of 9:30am for a 50km flat ride before hitting the Port Hills.

There are plenty of other group ride options out there, but whatever the ride the common theme seems to involve finishing back at a cafe, and given the strong coffee culture in Christchurch this is no surprise. It is difficult to find bad coffee in the supposed birthplace of the flat white, however there are some cycling-friendly stand-outs worth visiting – many of which roast their own beans.

Our favouite is C1 Espresso, which picked up a cafe-of-the-year award no doubt due, in part, to the amazing breakfasts they punch out. In the summer months the outdoor area is perfect for working on a razor-sharp tan. The former post-office pneumatic messaging system has been kept alive post-earthquake, and is now used to deliver sliders directly to your table.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Worth checking out (and conveniently located at the base of the Port Hills) is the cycling-friendly Fava Cafe which has a great healthy menu, fantastic smoothies, and of course the obligatory coffee. One of the best coffees in town has to be C4 Coffee. These guys roast their own beans, and take their coffee seriously (although without pretension), and even have a cycling-themed six-bean blend called Krank. On regular rotation is a bunch of single-origin goodness served a dozen different ways (the aeropress and cold drip are sensational).

With the post-ride fuel sorted, it’s really just a matter of spreading out the map and deciding on which route to take you to your NZ flat white of choice. It’s certainly not difficult to get to any of the rides around the city, with the popular Port Hills and Banks Peninsula only a handful of kilometres away.

With so many options once you hit the Port Hills and enticing side-roads, you are best to head into any solo ride with a bit of an open plan. For example, one of the most popular routes is The Kiwi Loop (also known as Le B*stard) which can be ridden in either direction, but you really want to link it up with something like Dyers Pass which climbs out of Cashmere.

A great alternative to Dyers Pass and The Kiwi Loop is found by skirting the harbour into Sumner, and then heading up Evans Pass. From the ridgeline, Summit Road along to Mt. Pleasant is a must. At the time of our visit, the road was open to hikers and cyclists following a series of massive landslips (some of which destroyed homes). Barely half a lane wide and strewn with debris, the freshly-hewn section of clifftop more than a kilometre long is a humbling reminder of the scale of the devastation to the region.

A section of Summit Road that's only open to cyclists and pedestrians.
A section of Summit Road that’s only open to cyclists and pedestrians.

Summit Road provides incredible vistas up the eastern-beach coastline, and west toward the Southern Alps. The wind can whip up along here (that infamous ‘Nor-Wester’) with a fairly biting chill, but thankfully there are plenty of pinches to help warm the blood.

There are too many nice climbs to list here, and even a few days would leave many roads unexplored, however the Mt. Pleasant and Gebbies Pass climbs are more than worth a look. In fact a bit of adventuring into the Banks Peninsula is highly recommended.

With so much packed into such a small place, and with flights from the east-coast of Australia only three hours (and pretty cheap these days too) Christchurch doesn’t need to be on a bucket list to tick off; it’s far more accessible than that. As with any destination it is worth spending a little bit of time in Christchurch to truly get a feel for the place.

“To really get to know the real New Zealand you have to scratch the surface,” Andy Hunt explains. “It’s a two-way street, but people here are really open and warm if you spend the time to get to know them”.

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