The Pioneer captured the attention of many mountain bikers in early 2015 when the race organisers released a video depicting epic routes across the glorious Southern Alps of New Zealand. The name was suitable, especially for the first year. New Zealand's history is one of pioneers, from the Maori people coming to find new land, to colonial farming, and even New Zealand often being at the forefront of adventure sports.

In February this year, about 250 riders started The Pioneer, testing the waters for a race of this scale in New Zealand, and also to test themselves. Some of the world's best racers were on the start line, from Olympians like Dan McConnell, to seasoned marathon and stage racers like Cory Wallace, Matt Page and Erin Greene. The 7 days held epic climbs, perfect weather, amazing camp locations, and quite a few testing moments.

THE SHAPE OF 2017

With a route that traces a line from Christchurch to Queenstown (well with one coach transfer from the Port Hills), this is an epic point-to-point route, something that is becoming less common in marathon stage races. The Pioneer is a true mountain bike journey that takes you form one destination to the next, and while the course has had some minor modifications with rider feedback for next year – it's not getting any easier.

Starting with a prologue, riders will tackle a 24km loop in the Port Hills outside Christchurch. The area has had new, purpose-built mountain bike trails created, that are opening as you read this. A wise person once told me to start a stage race riding for fun, and to ride harder from half way to finish strong. It makes a lot of sense, but with teams starting at 30 second intervals, that's hard to stick to when you have another team in sight and another breathing down your neck!

THE TRUE TEST BEGINS

With a coach ride to Geraldine, followed perhaps by a cider and burger on the main street and maybe a game of frisbee or cricket at the rider camp...  the real racing begins the next day. Stage 2 is one of 3 days over 100km that sit ahead of you, with plenty of bumps along the way. The coming days take you through remote cattle stations and alpine grazing lands, as you trace a route first to Fairlie, and onwards to Lake Tekapo on Stage 3. Climbs rise up to 1000m from the base, and the views pass to the high peaks of the Southern Alps, with summer snow and glaciated valleys glinting in the hot sun.

Much of this riding is on a mix of farm tracks, 4WD trails and some cycle trails and singletrack. There is some sealed and gravel road in the mix too. This terrain is perfect for paired stage racing. The terrain is open and rarely in forest for these stages. So while you might be riding strongly with your team mate it's worth taking a good look at your opposition, and using the terrain and conditions to your advantage. Why burn energy pushing into the wind in a 2 man time trial if you'll just be left behind on the next big climbs?

HARD WORK ON HUMP DAY

Stage 4 might seem like a break, with 'just' under 2000m of climbing but over 100km of riding. And with a long, easy roll out with only slight climbs, and time to talk to other riders if you're getting on pretty socially, it's a stunning start. But the big climb is a twin-headed monster that doesn't go down easily, kicking on until you think you have no more fight left in you. The descent is a fast mix of open farm trail, singletrack, off camber corners and just about everything else you could imagine as you drop about 1000m altitude. It's reminiscent of an alpine descent in Northern Italy, but it's just a sample of what the Southern Alps holds.

The Queen Stage awaits, and you are best served to have kept something in reserve. 3578m of climbing in 112km is essentially like doing the Highland Fling with another 1000m thrown in. It's tough. It's long – the final climb will test you, your bike, and your friendship with your team mate. But like every hard day – you end at the rider camp. A volunteer will give you some food once you're over the line. Your tent is set up and numbered. You can have a proper shower, and a massage if you have booked one. You might order a pizza or a burger, or a pulled pork roll -  or visit the bar.

The Pioneer is tough – but it is rewarding. Not just in the physical experiences but in what you learn about yourself, and how you get to experience the beauty of the South Island. One of the best rewards is at the start of Stage 6, along Dean's Bank, a popular stretch of singletrack near Wanaka. Riders will pump, weave and smile their way through some of the opening kilometres, but the real test of the day lies on the horizon, with a 1100m climb to Snow Farm – a cross-country ski resort between Wanaka and Queenstown. It's part of your re-entry to the real world though, with the lodge offering tables, chairs and lounges for the afternoon, sitting indoors for dinner with a view back across the Southern Alps.

The final day is a rush from top to bottom, with enough lumps in-between to let you know you're on the tail end of a week-long bike race. Queenstown might feel like the bright lights of the city after a week in the back country of the Southern Alps, and it's worth staying on for a couple of days to let yourself unwind before you step onto a plane and head back to reality.

THE MAGIC MIX

This is a paired stage race, and just like you enjoy sharing rides and stories with mates – racing in a two person team has its own set of rewards. Given the race will last for 7 days, you and your team mate will need to support each other through the inevitable ebb and flow of a stage race, so choose wisely! Pacing is important, both between the two of you, and for the whole week – so you're best to race with someone you know, and spend some time training together.

GET A TASTE OF THE PIONEER

If 7 days of riding, or paired racing, doesn't fit you – why not look at the 4 Day Traverse? The race is for solo riders and follows the first four days of The Pioneer, with its own ranking and categories.