It is here. The second Pioneer Mountain Bike Stage Race sets off this Sunday with the opening Prologue at the Christchurch Adventure Park, before we are left to ponder longer stages and plenty of climbing over a further six days of riding that will take them around and over the Southern Alps to the finish line in Queenstown.
Entrants from around the world have been attracted to The Pioneer by a combination of the stunning landscapes and trails and the Kiwi hospitality and welcome that is afforded to everyone by the organisers and the New Zealand riders.
338 riders are lined up to take on the week-long race, an incredible 45% are from overseas (17 countries), testament to the international reputation of the event and the attraction from all over the world. Is there a better way to see the world than by bike?
Race Director Bec Williams is thrilled with the response, especially from the overseas riders.
“The high percentage of international riders is testament to the already strong reputation of The Pioneer in the international riding community after just one amazing event in 2016, but this is not uncommon for high quality events such as this with international visitors perhaps ticking off a ‘bucket list’ trip and event in one go,” said Williams.
“The inaugural Pioneer enjoyed great coverage with a variety of international publications, and all were glowing in their praise of the event and the country as hosts. Plus The Pioneer TV show was distributed throughout the world, capturing the attention of prospective riders keen to come and test themselves on a world class event, while at the same time seeing a stunning part of the world.
“This event is without question going to grow further with the international market, bringing added investment into the local economy as riders and supporters not only enjoy The Pioneer, but stay for a longer holiday with family and supporters and enjoy the tourist hotspots of the South Island in particular.”
The event starts with a prologue at the all new Christchurch Adventure Park and then follows very similar trails (minor changes to some stages but not significant) to Queenstown, visiting Geraldine, Fairlie, Tekapo, Ohau, Hawea and Snow Farm on the way to Queenstown.
Here are some of the leading contenders as they share their thoughts ahead of the race, starting on Sunday at Christchurch Adventure Park.
Open Mixed Category
Kate Fluker and Mark Williams, Team New World
Fluker and Williams were two of the stars of the inaugural event, constantly riding at the front of their category, but also finishing high in the overall line honours each day. Fluker is a gutsy and strong rider who has contended previously at world champs and world cup level and just missed qualifying for the Rio Olympic Games.
Fluker: “Willy and I are really excited about racing The Pioneer again. We don’t have the same expectations as last year and have taken a much more relaxed approach in the buildup this time around. We are mostly looking forward to admiring the places we get to, finishing each day and sharing the stories of the stage with the other races, ideally chilling on the bean bags in the sun! Just being part of the epic atmosphere that was created last year.”
Williams: “I think we all had such an amazing journey last year that we are chomping at the bit to get back out there; all the best experiences of mountain bike stage racing were so perfectly embodied in the Pioneer that we knew we would have to come back.
“I think the competition (especially in mixed category) will be more intense this year, and we are expecting some good battles, but looking forward to the challenge. We know we will have to push hard at times, but are content that we are bound to have an awesome week whatever the result. There is no pressure, only adventure!”
Open Men’s Category
Tim Rush and Kris Rush, from Oamaru, Team Alps to Ocean
Brothers riding as a team and amongst the leading contenders in the open men’s category. Tim is a well credentialed rider on both road and mountain, Kris is new to cycling but already has notched some impressive results in his first year in the sport. Both rode in the Tour of Southland and Tim finished 16that the 2017 Elite National Road Championships.
Tim: “I have done a few events but this is the next level, it is the unknown for both of us, how we go and how we treat things day to day is different to a road tour, we are green on that side of things. It is about being smart about things, taking it day by day and not going into the red too often.”
Kris: “We are in this to win it for sure. We are also being realistic – Jimmy and Scott must be the favourites and it is just some of the climbing that I am unsure of. Tim is a far better climber than I am, but I think with the days being long many of the climbs will be ridden at full intensity anyway.”
Scott Lyttle and James Williamson, Team Watson and Son Manuka Honey
Scott is a former pro cyclist and at 32 the now Boulder based rider will still be in shape to contend in this event. Lyttle was a regular on the pro events in New Zealand and Australia. His partner is Alexandra’s James Williamson (27 years old). The 2012 elite national road champion enjoyed a strong career on the road, riding pro in Europe (including Tour of Britain in 2013 against Wiggins, Cavendish and company) and North America before turning to the mountain bike as he ‘settled down’ and changed priorities with a return to NZ in 2015. Williamson enjoyed success on the road, including 6thplace at the Philadelphia International Classic in 2011. James trained a number of riders in the 2016 Pioneer but this time rides himself and will be dark horses for the overall title.
Williamson: “The mountain biking in New Zealand now is great, there are a lot of events and it is great to do a big one like the Pioneer. Both Scott and I did a fair bit when we were younger before we focused on the road so it is going back to our roots I guess. Lifestyle wise it is more enjoyable and sustainable to ride this way; the pro-dream is a hard road and you can lose some enjoyment. I now pick and choose the events and have more fun that way.”
Mike Blewitt and Justin Morris – Australia, Team Subaru-MarathonMTB.com
That’s us! I’ve racked up a few events like this, a little slower each time. Justin has pinned a number on more times than he knows. But not in a paired stage race. We’re hoping to finish well, and relying on experience to come through better than some friends expect.
Yuri Hauswald (USA), Andrew Young (Wellington), GU-IRide NZ
Back in the open men’s category after a strong showing in the masters 40+ last year, word is this combination might be stronger and ready to challenge for a podium.
Open Women’s Category
Erin Greene (Queenstown) and Ingrid Richter (Nelson), Team Sujon Thermatech
Defending champion in this category, Greene returns with a new riding partner and will be the favourites to take out the women’s open. As with most of the categories, competition however will be much tougher in this category in 2017 with a number of strong teams entered.
Greene: “I’m really looking forward to a week’s adventure, sharing the epic moments and the struggles along with my new teammate Ingrid. It’s wonderful to have a world class event right here on our back doorstep and to see so many internationals entered, the competition across all categories should make for an intense week. Fingers crossed for some more settled weather, I’ll be packing my gummies and overtrou!”
Richter: “For me it’s a big challenge as I’ve never done a stage race before. I’ve done some 12 and 24-hour mountain bike races and adventure racing and long missions and love those kind challenges. So I’m super excited and a tad intimidated by the cheer distance and amount of climbing we will be doing. Having Erin on my side with her vast experience will be great. I can’t wait to traverse the New Zealand high country on my bike.”
Nina McVicar and Reta Trotman, Team Hirepool, Christchurch
McVicar is a former quad bike racer and now endurance and mountain bike athlete. Fellow Kiwi Reta Trotman is a former top road cyclist, competing at the UCI World Championships in 2013 and a three-time winner of Le Race.
Trotman: “My focus has been on fun and adventure and spending time outdoors in New Zealand. The most exciting part of the race is that it does embody the things that got me riding in the first place, the hills and the views from the top and the freedom that goes with that, and best of all a teammate alongside you to enjoy it all. Nina had to work hard on me to convince me to race because I was more focused on the adventure rather than racing but she is awesome to ride with.”
Other notable teams
‘Imparables’ from Spain
Team Imparables is a multi-media project set up by Santi Millan, combining adventure, filming and racing at events around the world. Made up of former and current pro riders from the road and mountain bike communities, Team Imparables have four teams in total entered in The Pioneer, and will be supported by a film crew of five documenting their participation in The Pioneer. As well as the mixed team mentioned above, they have three teams entered in the open men’s category and will present serious contenders amongst their group. Riders include current or former professional riders in Tomi Misser, Ibon Zugasti, Carles Ortet, Miguel Silvestre and Vitor Gamito.