Ready for a New Kind of Epic Endurance Challenge?

3 September 2018

Add these two New Zealand mountain bike races to your Bucket List now. (And leave plenty of time to train on the region’s renowned trails.)

by Luke Yates

New Zealand is home to some of the most remarkable and diverse landscapes on the planet. In a country barely half the size of California, you’ll find alpine mountains and lakes, glaciers descending into sub-tropical rainforests, and volcanic valleys steaming with sulphur plumes. Criss-crossing this incredible terrain are thousands of miles of trails, which is why this little gem of a country is home to two of the world’s most iconic mountain bike races. The Macpac Motatapu is a one-day classic traversing backcountry stations that are only open to the public for the event, while The Pioneer takes this concept to another level, with seven days of stage racing across incredibly challenging gravel trails, true singletrack and four-wheel drive tracks. Exceptional aerobic fitness is essential for these races, but there is a bit more to it than that.

"I’ve seen a lot of people come unstuck," says Chris Arbuckle, executive committee member for Mountain Bike New Zealand. "They’re not used to the variability of terrain and the fact that your wheels are trying to throw you off your bike. On these tracks, you burn through your brake pads and will break a chain if you don’t ride smoothly."

In terms of preparation for Cape to Cape, there is no substitute for logging off-road miles on the bike. This is how you build fitness, and also develop the technical riding skills required to really master events of this style.

According to Dougal Allan, pro IRONMAN triathlete and mountain biker, and reigning Motatapu XTERRA champion, New Zealand is superbly set up to give you a training edge. "You can assume there’s going to be mountain biking options everywhere you go."

All of the major towns offer opportunities to go off-road. Cyclists rave about Makara Peak mountain bike park near Wellington, with its extensive singletrack network and testing climbs, and the Christchurch Adventure Park, the first four-season, lift-access bike park in the world. Riding these parks will undoubtedly help develop your fitness and bike handling, but among local trail networks, one option always gets mentioned above all others. "The Redwoods in Rotorua stands out as some of the best all-round mountain bike trails I’ve ever ridden," says Allan.

Additionally, the Whakarewarewa Forest, commonly known as the Redwoods, includes more than 100 miles of purpose-built trails, with enough diversity to delight any rider. A shuttle takes riders to the top of the tracks, but for the purpose of training, we recommend riding up the fire roads to access the singletrack descents. There are some wonderful beginner trails to get you comfortable riding off-road, and once you’re ready to push it a bit, the options are endless. You’ll build strength endurance riding up, then develop high-speed technical skills on the way down, with flowing man-made trails with berms and jumps, or more traditional tracks winding through the trees. If you can confidently ride in the Redwoods, you’ll be prepared to tackle a day race like the Motatapu.

Just inland from the rugged west coast of the South Island, Old Ghost Road is a 50-mile trail traversing some spectacular and unforgiving terrain. The most popular way to tackle the Old Ghost Road is over two days, with an overnight stop in a hut midway. Sections of the trail are wide and easy to ride, but there are some also brutal climbs, thrilling descents and some truly gnarly sections of singletrack hanging over precipitous drops. All the while, the scenery is sure to blow your mind, and according to Arbuckle, “If you can ride that, you can ride the Motatapu.”

On a trail like the Old Ghost Road, you’ll need to carry all your supplies with you, including first aid kits, food and clothing. This is great preparation for racing events like the Motatapu and Pioneer. “You’ve got to be pretty self-reliant,” says Arbuckle. “I’m not sure if many people take that seriously.” Indeed, many athletes fail to realize just how remote the Motatapu and the Pioneer get. The Motatapu is one of the best supported and most inviting mountain bike races around, but you need to carry a mandatory gear kit in case of sudden weather changes, mechanical issues or injury.

The Timber Trail, near Taupo on the North Island, takes you deep into the heart of the subalpine forest in this region. Again, you will need to be self-sufficient, and have good fitness before you set off, but if your goal is to crush a single-day race or complete a stage event, it’s hard to imagine better training. This trail is less technical than some of the others mentioned, but still packs some serious rewards, including the chance to cross deep gorges on the longest mountain bike swing bridges in the world.

Heading back south, we come to the Heaphy Track. The Heaphy is one of New Zealand’s great walks, but in the winter months, it is open to mountain bikes. The route takes in dense beech forest, limestone cliffs and expansive plains, and in the right conditions is utterly exceptional. It’s another multi-day ride, with huts along the way, and is a considerable technical challenge. When preparing for the Pioneer though, this is exactly the kind of riding you need. “It’s about riding stuff as fast as you can, but never quite knowing what’s around the next corner,” says Arbuckle.

Other options for putting in the training miles include the Great Lake Trails, around Lake Taupo, at the heart of the North Island. These trails are flowy and scenic, taking in sweeping vistas of this magnificent lake. On the South Island, check out Alps 2 Ocean and the Central Otago Rail Trail. Both are (mostly) non-technical and pass through some small towns and villages. The wilderness is all well and good but who doesn’t love finishing a ride with a cappuccino or a beer?

Getting a bit more technical, the trails around Craigieburn in the Arthur’s Pass region of the South Island will blow your mind with their combination of lung-busting climbs, exposed singletrack and flat-out descents. This high-alpine day loop is possibly the perfect combination of strength and endurance training, combined with a challenge to your technique. It’s a formula that will serve you well in both of our Bucket List races.

"You need to build confidence riding downhill at quite high speed, and controlling your speed through corners," says Allan. "Once you get to that Soho descent (the big downhill in the Motatapu) when the finish line is tangible, it’s pretty hairy, pretty fast, rough terrain to navigate through."

In Central Otago and the area around Queenstown, classics include Rude Rock and Seven Mile. It’s also worth checking out the final part of the Motatapu course from the bottom of the Soho descent into Arrowtown, which is open year round. There are numerous river crossings, so if you want to be competitive, you need to be able to ride through fords or cross efficiently.

The Motatapu and the Pioneer are two of the best mountain bike events in the world. With stunning courses and the organizational expertise of IRONMAN, the opportunity to tackle these epic races shouldn’t be missed.

Luke Yates is an adventurer, triathlete, and journalist.