The Pioneer mountain bike stage race is built upon three pillars: Find Stunning, Find Character, Find Welcome. Through the first four days, I think I’ve ticked off each one already. I found my character yesterday, realising I much prefer to race than just ride. And I found welcome early on, given the friendly event vibe and how easy it is to meet new people and hang out in the social area.
But today, more than the other days, I found stunning. The day started at Lake Tekapo, as we were camped on the shores after a long hot day. Plenty of riders slept out of their tent, on the lake’s shore, as the cool evening temperatures were slow to arrive. The race start was moderate, as were rolled under neutral conditions through town.
The first 60km were almost flat, as we rode on sealed roads and cycle trails along irrigation canals and around Lake Pukaki, with views right up to the Tasman Glacier to the low peak of Aoraki. And while the South Island could easily have turned some terrible weather on for us – instead it was another blue bird day of clear skies and low wind.
But nothing lasts forever, and in this case, the easy riding slowly came to an end. For some it was on the Alps to Ocean trail, as they collided with posts to stop vehicles coming onto it. You can never let your guard down in a mountain bike race – even on gravel cycle paths.
But it was after the 2nd aid station that the race really started. I spoke to Cory Wallace and Dan McConnell on the way in, and it seemed both were pretty happy just rolling for the first half of the day. With about 1500m of climbing in 111km, you could say today would be easy. But with about 60km flat at the start, and 30km flat at the end, it put the double-headed monster climb into a pretty sharp focus.
The pace was on out of the feed though, with teams heading off alone, or with one or two other teams with them. It was another relatively hot day, and while Team Danton shot off with Kona A in pursuit, It was then Kona B and EpicCymru.com, with the Mixed leaders of Team New World after them. The it was the Master’s Battle Royale. While Garry James and Mike Israel took an early lead, they soon split, and Minter and Ian (current leaders) came to the fore. Their team work is incredible, and while Ian jokes that Minter tows him around, and he just washes the bottles, it’s clear that this is a pairing that is used to riding and racing together, and while they might give each other a hard time – they’re racing very strongly.
Unfortunately, Wayne from SXC Racing had an accident and ended up in the helicopter. But it was Team IRide in second for Masters, about 4 minutes back.
Kate Fluker and Mark Williams are riding a stunning race, and crossed with 4th placed men’s team EpicCymru.com. Danton gained a couple more seconds on Kona A, but it shows that there’s still plenty of fight in the Kona boys.
Erin Greene and Kath Kelly defended their open women’s lead, and built it even more, clearly a good day for the leading team.
But the real highlight today was the course. It had time to race hard on the flat (if needed), but a true alpine climb to really show climbing prowess. The climb took you from farmland, into a remote saddle with plenty of loose rock and steep, steep grades. The views back across the valley was immense. The first descent had images of exploding bikes on land speed record attempts running through my mind, but it was the second descent after the next arduous climb that was truly epic. It was exposed, it was rocky, loose – and downright difficult. The rough doubletrack had one rideable line and plenty of big things to hit, or a steep slope to fall off. The terrain was reminiscent of high alpine trails in the Alta Valtellina area, and even like descending off some big passes, like the Idjoch.
Lower, we raced down the same trail with some grass covering, and the fatigue through your arms, hands, feet and neck is not unlike the reactions your body gets finishing off the descent at the end of the Grand Raid. But here, we had 30km of hard riding to go afterwards!
Another camp on a lake is a winning move by the event crew – and probably a great luxury before the Queen Stage tomorrow. All the race leads may seem certain, but with possibly the 3 hardest days to go – The Pioneer is still pretty open. And it’s proving to be an excellent paired stage race, with racing and services on par with the world’s best events.