Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith

The Pioneer hit the global stage race scene in 2016, wowing the first riders who chose to take on this 7 day journey along the Southern Alps of New Zealand. The views were immense, the riding was tough but the reward for finishing each stage to the relative comforts of camp to share stories and revel in what you achieved made it all worthwhile. Plus, it was a week riding your mountain bike in New Zealand, from bike park trails to raw backcountry trails and everything inbetween. It was better than a week at work.

After the 2017 edition, the organisers of The Pioneer looked to change the route for the event. Thje point to point nature of the Christchurch to Queenstown route had to prioritise making the distance, and therefore bypassed some quality trails that the routes could take in. It was hard on bodies, bikes, and the event crew.

With a new date for 2018 scheduled - a new course plan was laid out. The race would start and finish in Queestown, ther race would now cover 6 days, and while there were about 120km less to cover - climbing stayed around the same. The big difference was the trails that would be within the route, including Ride Rock, Flat Top HIll, and numerous trails we've ridden on in Central Otago

You can now find the full course details for the 2018 edition of The Pioneer on the event website.

The course for The Pioneer in 2018

In a nutshell - it's hilly. With 424km to cover in 6 days, you will climb 15124m. No this isn't based on an inaccurate GPS upload, the routes have been tested and proofed by the event team. They just have big hills in New Zealand.

For the full details of the course you're still best to go to the event website. But here's a little bit of what to expect based on the trails, and the ebb and flow of stage racing.

Prologue: Coronet Peak

It's short at 21km when compared to the other stages, but with 1148m it has a lot of climbing - and that's a similar distance to what you might cover in a local XC race, just with more climbing. Coronet Peak is high at 1200m, and weather could be freezing or boiling, and just about anything inbetween. A small climb should settle your nerves before a long descent, including Rude Rock. Download the profile so you know what's coming.

This is a trail used for hard and fast gravity runs, and everything has a rollable line. If you're on an XC bike it would be silly to get caught up in the pressure to go as fast as possible today. Be smooth, be efficient - and be prepared for the next 5 stages which could have 30 hours on the bike. Don't end your race in the first 1.5hrs by trying to save 10 seconds. If you really want to nudge the overall ranks, pace yourself on the final climb so you finish strong, and not broken.

One of the key things to remember on this stage is watch your time. You'll have a set start time. Don't miss it. Don't faff around after the race, get back to your hotel and get cleaned up and sorted for the first big day tomorrow.

Stage One: Queenstown to Queenstown

This is one big loop which will likely start with a bang, heading onto the Queenstown Trail once out of town. This is gravel shared use path, so expect skatey lines at speed, and small climbs that don't really show up on the profile actually making quite an impact on your legs, and trimming the top 100 riders into 3 or 4 groups.

It's worth staying fresh for the main climb, which starts on singletrack and ends on farm trails and 4WD trails. Up top you're on a mix of mountain bike trails, Department of Conservation boardwalk and trails, farm trails - and just about everything. It's never truly flat and there are plenty of climbs before the end.

This day will really let you know where you stand. 2245m in 69km is steep and hilly, and with a mix of demanding trails and nervousness with the first mass start it will be easy to overcook it early. Don't stress on the vertical and strip back to minimal spares or race food - the high load of climbing will have you burning fuel - keep something in the tank for the final climbs and print out a profile so nothing comes as a surprise.

Stage 2: Alexandra to Alexandra

After the bus transfer at the end of Stage 1, your legs probably feel awesome... or not. Rest assured most people will feel the same after two days of racing. With 101km and 2664m on the agenda for this stage it will be a long day in the saddle, but relatively flatter than the previous days. Flatter, not flat. Download the profile here.

This day combines part of the Otago Central rail trail, classic Alex trails, the Clutha Gold and Roxburgh Gorge trails - there shold be plenty of variety. When you're on the singletrack, you'll find there's a fair bit of loose rock, and roll overs you might not be able to completely see over. Scan for small rock cairns, tape markings or even some paint to guide you as to where the best line is.

Alex is a cool town, don't miss rolling into town after the stage for a coffee and cake. Or beer and pie - whatever suits.

You'll really have a mix of singletrack and prepared tourist bike path today. Work with your team mate on when to open it up, and when to just let it flow and ride with low stress.

Stage 3: Alexandra to Bannockburn

A true point to point day! Get up early to pack your things, you're finishing somewhere else tonight. With a slight climb towards the tail end of the opening 25km, there might be a moderate start further down the field, but expect a fast and very hard start at the front of the race as some teams will have a point to prove. Download the profile here.

Climb towards a dam on good quality dirt roads, then loop around (and through) the lake to a 15km climb up the range. You'll be on barely used double track so pick your line and watch a long way ahead for erosion gullies and big alpine rocks ready to tear your tyres apart. A long descent follows, with a steady climb to town.

Don't let fatigue get the better of you today, and it's worth doing a bit of a warm up to be ready for what will no soubt be a fast start.

Stage 4: Bannockburn to Bannockburn

The Queen Stage, and it's a little cruel that it calls on day 5 of racing. This 70km loop covers 3563m of climbing. That's more than Port to Port or Cape to Cape have in their whole 4 days, just to put it into perspective. Grab the course profile and cry.

With a couple of mild climbs and descents (withint the scale of the day) to start, the serious business starts at about 25km. The Nevis Range starts with climbing Mt Difficulty, it is a big climb and starts on super steep switchbacks. There's another descent and climb on top, and these trails will be littered with alpine rock with sharp edges.

The descent is fast and leads into some aquaduct trails to finish an epic day.

Stage 5: Bannockburn to Queenstown

The finish! You've made it! But there is still a sting in the tail - this is no parade lap for those who have conquered The Pioneer. 86km has aclose to 3000m of climbing, The Pioneer keeps you working until the finish - grab the profile.

After a fast road start, you'll hook onto a trail and face Mt Michael - a 1100m climb on totally rideable surface. Just be warned it's a false summit, the high point lies after the top of Mt Michael.

The trail descends towards the Roaring Meg trail, similar to the finish of The Pioneer in 2016 and 2017. A descent takes you to a jetboat crossing and the final stretch to Queenstown. It feels drawn out on tired legs but don't keep pushing - you're almost there.

The final push takes you to the heart of Queenstown, right back where you started on Stage 1.

So that's the course - but how do you train for The Pioneer?