New Zealand has been somewhere I have always wanted to visit and when I was young it was one of only 2 countries around the World that I really wanted to see (the other being Canada, which was ticked off in 2014). Despite travelling to many places New Zealand has alluded me and the main reason being that there was no stage race, which has formed almost the sole reason for travel over the previous 5 years.
When the Pioneer New Zealand was first announced around a year ago I was quick to learn more, although dismissed it as being too far and too expensive given everything else that has been going on recently (organising events and expecting a baby!), but last November an opportunity presented itself to travel out and write about the event for MBUK magazine and I jumped at the chance. Finding a team mate was the next step and although I didn’t know Sam Gardner personally, I knew of him and that he had recently moved to New Zealand. Sam is a pro/elite level Xterra racer, winner of many World Cup events and before Xterra I remember him well at British XC races from as far back as 2004 when he smashed he round Eastnor Park with Evans Cycles, winning the overall team prize at a time when that was THE race to win. I knew Sam was going to be fast and I knew I was not.
Fast forward to January and after just 6 weeks or training, I managed to lift myself from being the most unfit I have ever been while actively racing to a level that I would say was not far off my fitness in 2013, my last year racing full-time. I knew I would be a little off Sam’s pace, but hopefully I wouldn’t make a fool of myself.
After a 35 hour trip I landed in Christchurch on the Friday evening with just one day spare before the race start. Somehow I managed to dodge the bullet of massive jetlag and awoke the next morning after a decent sleep feeling pretty good. Saturday was spent registering and getting my bike and kit together and then before we knew it race day was upon us.
Overview and brief stage reports are below.
The Prologue (Stage 1)
25km – 730m climbing
This started with a neutral start to the edge of the city where we were set off in time-trial format every 20 seconds. We were about 5th to go and had all the quick teams ahead, including Kona Factory A and B and Team Danton (Dan McConnell & Anton Cooper). Sam put me in the box from the word go, I was on the limit trying to cling on to his wheel and by the time we reached the start of the climb I was already tired! It took a while for me to recover and get my rhythm back, but by the top of the long climb I was going well and feeling better. We finished the stage 7th overall and 6th in category. It was an OK start, but expected the prologue to be our worst stage, so was not too disappointed.
108km – 2360m climbing
OK so really speaking today should have been Stage 1, if you have a prologue that isn’t a number… but I am going from the official event info here. After the prologue we were transferred to a town about 2hrs drive away called Geraldine. We arrived around 2pm, with nothing really to do, so it was a pretty relaxing afternoon.
The stage started the next day and with an 8am start on almost every morning I was up at 6am for breakfast. After a pretty gentle rollout of the town the pace ramped up as we hit the gravel roads. Kona were setting the pace and it was a tough one to match as the terrain then changed from flat gravel roads to punchy 4×4 track climbs and descents.
We were going well, running constantly in the top 5 with other teams around us having lots of issues, including punctures for Kona A and Team Danton. It was a long and challenging stage with lots of climbing, but none of the descents were too long until the 55km mark. Then the climbing really started and I was struggling at times and we both ran out of water in the high temperatures. We continued to push on, working really well as a team and although we had a few issues of our own, including a popped chain and a puncture, both were fixed quickly and we finished the day pretty tired but 3rd overall. Team Danton had recovered to take the win, but Kona A finished just behind us, so we were in part gifted the third place.
78km – 2400m climbing
After yesterdays long and tough stage, today looked easier on paper. A mere 78km and with the same amount of climbing it should be a shorter day. It was a very different start, with a huge and very steep climbing almost from the start putting me on the back foot. Sam was far stronger on the climbs than I was and having to wait a bit. After the first long, tough climb we hoped it would be easier, but the terrain stayed challenging throughout, with no easy riding at all. We had lost the top 3 teams at the start, but pushed ourselves into 4th overall and managed to hold that position. In the final 10km the heat was intense, with temperatures rising to 34 degrees and Sam was starting to struggle. Luckily I was feeling much stronger and able to do the pacing and again we worked brilliantly as a team. The final few kilometres was winding singletrack and I think we were both relieved to see the finish line at Lake Tekapo. What a fantastic place that is and the lake was perfect for cooling off after the tough day riding. We held on to 4th on the day and were now lying 4th overall, with just the 3 pro teams ahead of us.
112km – 1900m climbing
Although today was long, it did sound like an easier day when we were briefed. As usual, it wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded. The first 60km was almost pan flat and on wider gravel roads and wide bike paths like the Alps to Ocean, but because of this a huge group of around 50-60 riders stayed together and lets just say some riders need to brush up on their group riding skills. Physically it was easy but mentally it was tough as I was concentrating at all times, watching out for the choppers in the group. It was a relief to hit the big and only climb of the day to be honest, but now the really hard work started.
We were in 4th, but had a chance of catching the 3rd place team on the day, Kona B as they seemed to struggle a little but the incredibly steep climb really slowed me down and I was wishing for a double chainring for easier gears. The climb was a long one with multiple summits and it led to a 1000m descent off Ben Ohau mountain to Lake Ohau below. I’d love to say the descent was a good one, but to be honest it was just point and shoot and after 1/2 way down my hands were hurting and I just wanted it to be over. With the risk of a puncture being high I was more cautious than usual and by the bottom we were joined by the top mixed team, Team New World. The final 25km was fairly flat on bike paths and I was feeling good, so pushed hard and the 4 of us worked well together, crossing the line together 4th and 5th. We extended our lead over chasing teams, but were loosing time to those ahead and realised that we were now “best of the rest” outside of the pro riders.
120km – 3700m climbing
This was the queen stage and I think Sam was dreading it. I was a little nervous too, unsure of what my endurance is like these days but I was quite looking forward to the test and the chance to really see where my fitness was. To now I had really surprised myself, but I knew that sooner or later the lack of training miles would start to catch up with me.
The day started at a pace that was OK and not at the limits of what either of us could do, but still hard enough to be a worry considering how long today was going to be. By the start of the second climb there was some funny business at the front of the race there was some funny business with no team willing to take it up, so I decided to do just that, keen not to be too up and down with my effort. The tempo was steady and I was confident that I could keep it up, but was surprised to see that by the top the big group of 10 or so teams had whittled down to just 4, with Kona A and B and Team Danton joining us. We stayed together for around 20km of moderately easy riding and I tried to stay out of the wind whenever possible and save energy. Up one nasty, very steep climb I lost the top 3 teams ahead who all decided it was time to start racing and we settled into what had become out usual position of 4th team on the road. After another 20km of undulating terrain we hit the final climb of the day. It was a MONSTER! 12km long, 1000m vertical from bottom to top, but by no means up all the way. The hardest part was the wind, with a really harsh westerly wind making it hard to ride in a straight line and progress was slowed to a walking pace at times. The whole climb took us 1hr 50min. I don’t think I have done a climb that long since Iron Bike! While it was a relief to hit the descent and it was fun in places both of us just wanted to finish and wanted the stage to be over. The descent took over 30min in total, with a few gates to climb over on the way down and we rolled into camp near the edge of Lake Hawea, both very tired after 6hrs 45min of racing. Recovery was absolutely crucial, so we ate plenty, drank lots of water and I got a massage ready for what I knew was going to be another 2 tough days on the bike.
67km – 1800m climbing
Todays stage profile didn’t seem too interesting. 40km of flat terrain, then a long climb to the finish at 68km. It turned out to be one of the most fun stages of the race. Kona Factory B tore it up at the start, causing problems for loads of riders, but luckily I had placed myself near the front and stayed out of trouble. After just over 20km it was down to just the top 4 teams, but soon we entered singletrack and Team Danton pushed hard and I dropped off. I think Anton knew the track, but even so the speed those guys can ride singletrack blew me away. Sam had to wait for me and we re-grouped to tackle the final climb together.
It started well, a nice 5-6% gravel road, absolutely perfect for me and we were keeping pace with Kona B, who were just a minute ahead of us. The track then changed and turned into a steeper, rougher track across a wild area of tussock grass and I was struggling. A lack of low gears and being on a hardtail were my excuses, but I think the week was starting to take its toll on my body. We were passed by the 5th place team close to the top of the climb and although I gave it everything, they took a few minutes out of us by the finish. We still had almost 50 minutes over them overall, so were not too worried but I think Sam was a little disappointed as he had good legs and could have easily beaten them.
66km – 1550m climbing
Most of the time I reach the final day of a stage race and wish that it could go on and on. That certainly used to be the case, even on the 9-day Crocodile Trophy in 2012 I was getting better and better each day but right now my endurance is not as good and I really just wanted the race to be over. The high temperatures, rough tracks and steep climbs had taken their toll on us both and I think we were both looking forward to getting to Queenstown and seeing the race through.
The stage profile made it look easy, but when you looked in detail it was showing 1950m of climbing (not quite what my GPS showed at the finish). That meant that there was a lot of climbing hidden within the route that the profile was perhaps not detailed enough to show.
Once again the Kona Factory A and B teams shot off at the start, both wanting to try and get a stage win from the totally dominant Team Danton. The pace was so high that even though much of the start was downhill my old leg injury (iliac arterial endofibrosis) flared up and my left leg started to go numb so I had to ease off and the top 3 were gone. A little later he hit a rough singletrack trail and although my leg had returned to normal, my right hand then went numb, something that had been happening and getting worse for the last few days. I blame it on switching away from Ergon grips just before the race, which was perhaps not the brightest of ideas!
Lots of riders then caught me up as I tried to re-gain my feeling in my hand over the difficult terrain. The lumpy grassy terrain was a challenge with lots of big wheel sized holes, ditches and little streams hiding in the long grass that covered the course and the sides of the vague track. It was quite honestly dangerous and I commented to riders around that it was somewhere that other riders might get injured, so it was no surprised to hear that 3 riders had to be airlifted out later on with broken collarbones.
As we descended to the first and only feed station of the race another pain appeared in my body, with my hip-flexors becoming really painful, especially when going downhill and staying out of the saddle. The only way to relief them was to sit down, which wasn’t really possible on the lumpy downhill. At the feed station after 23km of mostly downhill I’d only drunk one sip so there was no point in stopping, slightly poor placement of a feed station given it was the only one of the day.
A short flat section was painful and it was only once we started climbing again and I could climb out of the saddle, giving me a chance to stretch my hip-flexors that the pain eased. The remaining 40km I hoped would be easy, but it proved to be some of the hardest of the race with a lot of steep, nasty climbs mixed in with a few short, lumpy descents. Overall it might have looked flat from the race handbook profile, but on the ground it felt completely different. For the first time in the race Sam was visibly fed up with me and to be honest, given I was moaning so much I can’t blame him. We were knocked into 5th overall during the stage, just behind the top mixed team but thankfully we hit flatter terrain and over the final 10km I pulled myself together, found some energy and we pushed ahead to take yet another 4th stage place and cement out 4th place overall.
What was it like?
It was such a relief to finish the Pioneer and it proved to be much tougher than I expected and I kept surprising myself with how I was coping with the tough riding day after day. It will definitely go on to be ranked as one of the tougher MTB stage races in the World and another that I am so glad that I did. Since it was the first one, no one really knew what to expect but I guess everyone had some expectations. I had thought that we would ride lots of technical singletrack, but that didn’t quite happen. In fact true singletrack was a rarity and something I only really rode after the race while on a local ride in Queenstown (one amazing place!). The race itself was mostly on 4×4 tracks and steep ones at that. Don’t expect easy contouring fireroad climbs like TransAlp or other european stage races.
That is not to say it wasn’t good, just a little different to what I expected. What the race did provide in bucket loads was superb vistas, a brilliant camp atmosphere and great food, logistics and organisation. It was a way of seeing New Zealand, but away from just the usual tourist spots and the race that I have been waiting for and would absolutely recommend.
Speaking to Cory Wallace after the race, he summed it up pretty well.
“You can ride good singletrack any time and ride it with friends and at a pace where you can really enjoy it. Here you get to see places that you wouldn’t normally see and journey across the country on 2 wheels”
The ride I did in Queenstown after the race was absolutely magic, but stick that singletrack in a race and it would be plain scary. For anyone who wants to see New Zealand, do this race and spend some time in Queenstown after sampling the riding on offer and you will get the best of everything.