The 2017 Pioneer 7 Day Epic race is a 7 day mountain bike race from Christchurch to Queenstown along New Zealand's Southern Alps. In its second year, the event must be completed by teams of 2, with team members keeping within 2 minutes of each other throughout the entire race. Team PSC consisted of Stephen Butler, a PSC Engineer based in Scotland and Phil Murphy, a Marine Engineer on a boat for Paspaley Pearls off the coast of Darwin. It was Phil's idea to enter the race and Stephen didn't take much convincing to come over for the ride.
The race started off with a Prologue in Christchurch's new Adventure Park. This consisted of 2 laps up to the top of the park on with steep climbs (up to 27% gradient) and a fast decent through some excellent purpose built single tracks. With all of the adrenaline pumping, Team PSC were struggling to hold back and keep a low heart rate to preserve themselves for the days to come and finished 20th in the Prologue, which was the last seeding positon for Zone A (the fastest start group of five) for the next stage.
Following on from the Prologue:
Stage 2 – Gearaldine to Fairlie, Distance = 106km, Elevation Gain = 2,480M
This was a tough day with a big climb at the 60 km mark. The weather for the day started out overcast but it didn’t take long for the New Zealand weather to turn and we were faced with up to 31 degree heat as we ascended up long grassy climbs, Stephen was not well prepared for all this heat coming from the Scottish winter. Nonetheless, Team PSC improved on their General Classification position from the Prologue and moved up into 15th position overall keeping the team in the prime start zone, Zone A.
Stage 3 – Fairlie to Lake Tekapo, Distance = 80km, Elevation gain =2,747M
Today started with the team awaking in their tents to wet cold weather and the forecast showing snow showers down to 1300 meters. With severe wind and rain contributing to unsafe conditions the race was diverted via a back-up route to miss the most exposed places. This diversion cut about 8km off the stage and also missed a steep climb up onto the Albury range, instead we climbed more gradually on gravel roads around the side of the range. With both team members putting in a consistent effort Team PSC placed 7th in open men and 10th overall for the day.
Stage 4 – Lake Tekapo to Lake Ohau, Distance = 104km Elevation Gain = 1,915M
Today was a fast start, with the first 18km on flat gravel roads alongside turquoise river canals before getting into some very rough and undulating farm tracks which broke the main pack up. We then headed around the edge of lake Pukaki and onwards towards the massive hills of the day. Reaching the top of the Ben Ohau range was a great feeling knowing that we had 1000 meters of elevation decent in front of us, it was a very fast and rough decent and after holding on to the brakes for that period the hands we definitely getting sore and needless to say looking forward to reaching the bottom. The finish was fast on a flowing flat windy section on the Alps to Ocean trail which made for a burst home. The stage was yet another successful one placing us 4th in our grade and 6th overall for the day.
Stage 5 - Lake Ohau to Lake Hawea Distance = 112km Elevation gain = 3,578m known as the Queen Stage it was truly Epic, a claimed 112km (Stephen’s GPS measured 116km) and over 3500 vertical metres of climbing, it was definitely tough
Starting out on the Alps to Ocean trail again, we wound up a hill and over into some undulating valleys crossing a few rivers - the chilly start and now wet feet made Phil feel the cold. Once the sun finally came out and things warmed up we finally got into a good rhythm and were making good time. the last accent and longest one of the day was challenging as the legs made the hour long climb feel like 3 hours, once over the top we got amazing views down to Lake Hawea/finish line and it was all decent from here. On the way down we were pushing hard and Phil's bike got a rear puncture, with great team work the issue was fixed and we were back up and running within a couple of minutes luckily this was the only notable mechanical issue faced by the team during the entire event, which can be put down to our rigorous bike maintenance.
Stage 6 – Lake Hawea to Snow Farm, Distance = 64km Elevation Gain = 2047m
Today started out fast on some flat gravel roads before heading into a tight single track leading us alongside a river and into the well-known Deans Bank track of Wanaka, before heading up the main hill of the day on the Criffel Range leading onto the tops of undulating terrain and into Snow Farm. With Phil knowing the tightness of the Deans Bank track the plan was made to get to the front early and this worked well as we lead the whole field around the tight single track section and even opened up a gap back to the main field of riders leading on to the first hill, the accent was long and tiring but we held a good pace and finished 5th in our grade and 11th overall for the day.
Stage 7 Snow Farm to Queenstown Distance = 59km Elevation Gain = 1451m
The final stage of the event, we headed around a few of the cross country ski lanes before making our way down a steep valley via a zig-zaging track that eventually lead into a high valley floor, the going was tough as there was no existing track here and the valley was full of long grass and tussocks making navigation awkward. Once we climbed out of this valley we had more fast decent on open farm tracks leading into another climb and some more undulating riding before a final decent to get us to the Kawarau river, we boarded jet boats here for the 30 second trip to the other side, then it was all undulating gravel cycle trail to the finish. The Team was sitting in a good position and it being the very last stage we pushed hard, leaving everything on the track, claiming 2nd in our grade and 3rd overall for the day.
The highlight was the podium finish on the final stage being the third team to finish, which left Team PSC in 8th position overall in the Pioneer and 5th in the Open Mens age-grade with a finishing total time of 29 hours 37 minutes for the 7 day event.
Thank you to PSC for their sponsorship and helping to make this all possible. It was a journey and endurance feat of a lifetime.