Almost as soon as cycles arrived in New Zealand enthusiasts began racing them. In 1869 the first events included two-, three- and even four-wheeled ‘boneshakers’. But riding on rough roads with wooden wheels and no suspension could be uncomfortable and hazardous. Better bike design, including the invention of pneumatic tyres, boosted the comfort of the ride and the popularity of racing.
At newly established sports grounds, such as Lancaster Park in Christchurch, cycle racing events joined rugby and cricket as favourite spectator sports.
Through most of the 20th century there were separate races and clubs for professional riders (or ‘cashies’) competing for money and the amateurs competing for trophies. The distinction between these two groups – and the rivalries between them – continued until 1994 when the International Cycling Union (UCI) directed the New Zealand Amateur Cycling Association (NZACA) to set up a single organisation to include both classes of racers.
In the 1930s the newly formed NZACA affiliated with the International Cycling Union and New Zealand riders became eligible to compete in the British Empire (later Commonwealth) Games. Amateur riders were also eligible for the Olympic Games, but it was not until 1996 that professionals were included too.
The main road cycling events are point-to-point (and single lap) races. Racing is often handicapped – riders start at intervals based on their abilities, with the fastest ones leaving last. Ideally, all riders should cross the finish line close together.
Since the 1950s, stage races, which take several days, have also become popular. In the early 2000s major events attracted New Zealand and international racers each year, such as the Tour of Southland in the southern South Island.
Track racing was exciting in its early days – with bright lights, international stars, use of pacers (non-race cyclists, motorcyclists or cars driving in front of racers to increase their speeds) and the large crowds it drew. But it depended on paying spectators whose numbers dwindled with the arrival of television.
Since the 1990s interest renewed with the success of New Zealand track and road racers in international and local events.
Bicycle motocross (BMX)
In the 1970s, young people in the USA began modifying and racing bikes as a pedal-powered alternative to off-road motorcycle (motocross) racing. A decade later BMX clubs began to spring up in New Zealand and major events were set up in 1980. The craze took off and by the end of 1981 there were 70 BMX tracks throughout New Zealand. The clay-based tracks are around 300 metres long and have many jumps and tight corners. Races last about 30–40 seconds.
In 2008 BMX became an Olympic sport. New Zealander Sarah Walker came second in the women’s final at the 2012 Olympics.
Mountain biking (MTB)
A growing interest in off-road adventuring in California in the 1970s filtered through to New Zealand and by the mid-1980s many off-road recreational riders were keen to race.
The Karapoti Classic event kick-started New Zealand's mountain bike movement. It was first held in 1986 and has been contested every year since.
In 1996 mountain biking was recognised as an event in the Olympic Games and Kathy Lynch took eighth place at Atlanta. New Zealand is now an active participant in the international mountain-biking community. Local racers regularly compete in international events and overseas riders race in New Zealand.