Words: Lester Perry
Photography: Chris Chase

The Volcanic Epic is NZ’s newest and longest multi-day cross-country MTB event. After a storied journey to the start, the inaugural edition kicked off on 23 March 2023. Riders competed as individuals or two-person teams, across either two or four-day options.

Every rider came to the Volcanic Epic start line with their own story. For some, it was overcoming cancer or mental health struggles just to be there on the line, the event being the culmination of hard work and persistence, putting a cap on their recovery and proving they could overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges just to be there. For others, it was an opportunity to get away from ‘normal’ life and simply ‘Ride, Relax and Repeat’ (the tagline of the event), a twisted holiday of sorts.

It wasn’t just the competitors who’d climbed metaphorical mountains to be there – the event organisers, Nduro Events, headed by Tim and Belinda Farmer, had to tackle equally as large challenges just to make the event happen.

Winding the clock back to 2019, Tim was headed to the Port-to-Port stage race in Australia. Training in the bank, he was eager for the experience. Early in the first stage, a rider wiped out Tim’s front wheel, taking him down and in the process smashing up his shoulder. Whilst laid up in the hospital, a seed was planted.

“Why can’t we have more stage racing like this back home in the North Island?” Tim pondered. The Pioneer (at the time NZ’s only MTB stage race) was touted to be heading north from its home in the south, so Tim parked the idea of creating one himself.

Covid-19 took a scythe to events – literally overnight it completely shredded almost every event promoter’s plans. The owners of the Pioneer didn’t just postpone their event, but completely shelved it, opening the door for Tim and his crew to create their own stage race.

“There were people who wanted to do stage racing and couldn’t because Pioneer was gone,” explains Tim. “We wanted to fill that gap.”

The ‘Epic’ name came about whilst scouting for event venues. Every site visit culminated with the narrative, “this is going to be epic”. The phrase stuck and, when combined with the volcanic nature of the areas the stages would visit, the ‘Volcanic Epic’ name was coined.

Covid’s grasp on the community loosened in late 2021, and events slowly returned to the calendar (albeit under hefty restrictions). Spirits were high heading towards a rescheduled late January 2022 date for Nduro’s premier sin- gle-day event, the Whaka 100. Unfortunately, numerous pandemic-related issues brought a last-minute cancellation, leaving the upcoming Volcanic Epic as the organisation’s final – and only – event for the summer. Again, Covid drew its sword. A fresh spike in COVID numbers, and a change in government regulations, meant they wouldn’t be able to deliver the event anywhere near the level they needed to, and the difficult decision was made to push the event out to the following year.

Reflecting on the postponement, Tim explains: “We were passengers in the whole process, but we were committed. When you enter, forty percent of your entry fees are instantly committed to an event, so there was no option to pull out.” Belinda adds, “We were still 100% committed to running the event after we got through the Covid period, to do it for the participants.”

With the commitment to go forward, new staff were hired, and a full crew was assembled. “There are six full-time staff in the team now, and we had 28 to deliver the event. We originally had 31, but we had people get Covid just before the event started, and family bereavements and emergencies and all sorts of stuff. Volcanic Epic had 28 paid staff on it, with six full-time in the end.”

The 2023 date was locked in and the entire Nduro Events team set to work preparing to finally deliver their first Volcanic Epic.

Everything was rolling towards the event as planned, and it looked like the major hurdles had been overcome and wrinkles ironed out. The weather gods didn’t want it to be that easy though, and a month out from Stage 1, Cyclone Gabrielle flexed its destructive muscle, felling a huge block of pines and closing the trails in the Craters MTB Park (Taupo), where Stage 3 was to take place. Yet another hurdle the team would have to overcome to deliver their event.

Fast forward a month and over 500 hardy souls lined up at Te Puia, in Rotorua, ready to kick off the first of four stages. It wasn’t just locals boarding the Volcanic Epic train though – post Covid, international riders were once again lining up for NZ events.

“They came from Seattle, Mexico, Canada. We had people from England, Scotland, New Caledonia, Australia. A guy from France. We’d almost forgotten about our international community since borders had been closed, but it’s fantastic to see their return,” says Tim.

The opening day was set in the hallowed lands of the Whakarewarewa trails, covering many fan favourites and setting the tone for the days to come. After a briefing and welcome, newly crowned National XC Champ, Matt Wilson, alongside a host of Australasia’s top endurance racers, accepted a Wero (Maori challenge) and it was game on. Riders headed out past the Pōhutu geyser to do battle on the trails.

“Especially in Rotorua, the cultural narrative should always be part of mountain biking. It’s not a public forest – we’re actually riding on private land that belongs to a collective of central North Island Iwi. It’s important we honour that.”

Although the event was in play, the logistical challenges continued to come. Arriving in Tokoroa after Rotorua’s opening stage, the event team dis- covered all the course markings for the following morning’s race had not only been tampered with, but the steel waratahs used to secure course arrows and marking tape had been stolen, effectively destroying their entire course. Once again, the Nduro team swung into action. Taking advice from local police, and with help from the Tokoroa MTB Club, a revised course was quickly put in place, ready for action the following morning.

“And so that’s one of the cool things with the event… we can expose a whole new group of riders to the hard work the trail organisations do. I think the benefit of this event, for Tokoroa, is we’re just going to get more bikes on their dirt, which will be better for their trails and the area in general.

“I think the biggest thing for the riders, and the biggest bit of feedback, is that Tokoroa is a revelation – they didn’t even know it existed!”

After Gabrielle had turned day three on its head, Tim’s team swung into action once again and, in a tight time frame, pivoted to a ‘Plan B’ option. The rejigged day would now see riders take on a section of Taupo’s Great Lake Trail, including two laps of the Otaketake, Orakau and K2K loop, beginning and ending in Kinloch, right on the stony shores of Lake Taupo. Post-ride swims, and ice creams from the dairy across the road, topped off a stunner of a day. Riders were pleasantly surprised that Nduro’s ‘Plan B’ ended up being an ‘A’ choice!

The fourth and final day saw riders return to the pumice-based soils of Rotorua. Rising steam and a crisp, clear morning greeted riders at the entrance to the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, where they assembled for their final departure. A local cultural group kicked things off, performing for the entire field as they left the start line.

“That was a farewell from their lands, and sort of a departure and cultural performance in one. That’s part of the whole experience. It’s really hard for them to go on for 40 minutes, so they did well to try and get most of the riders through a cultural experience as they embarked on their final stage.”

The Volcanic Epic uncovered new ground for many participants; be it simply getting to ride new areas, ticking off a bucket list item, or riding with a mate each day. Four days, four stages, and a lifetime of memories not only for the riders but the event team too.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #111

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