All photos by Tim Bardsley-Smith
Every marathon stage race has a Queen stage – the longest stage of the race. Not always the hardest, but sometimes it is. Today, the Queen Stage at The Pioneer was 116km long and with about 3600m of climbing. It was a real battle falling on Day 5 of the race.
Camped on the shore of Lake Ohau, riders woke early, at about 5am, for the earlier start due to the length and difficulty of the stage. A warm wind blew down the valley, which would end up playing havoc with many riders later in the day.
All morning, I felt pretty apprehensive. In full knowledge that I hadn’t trained for the event, I knew I could wing it for a few days, which I had. And now it was the 5th day, and I was faced with an intense day on the bike.
We rolled out in bunches 5 minutes apart, as soon after the start we entered a section of the Alps 2 Ocean trail. It’s about the width of a quad bike, and it snaked along the valley climbing slightly the whole time. The sun was rising above the lake, and a colourful snake of riders threaded their way along the trail, standing out from the sparse shrubs and grass.
The front group slowly formed, and as riders descended back to the flats of the valley, it was reminiscent of the Mongolia Bike Challenge, pedalling hard at over 40km/h to maintain your momentum from the descent through to the flat.
It was clear already that some riders had managed themselves well yesterday, and others were feeling the effects of four days of racing. It was even noticeable in some teams, with many riders almost dragging their team mates kicking and screaming through the stage.
The route itself was equal parts impressive and tough. The views to the Southern Alps were immense, but they were mostly gained by sneaky looks over your shoulder. The hills we climbed were expansive masses of green. Tussock grass reflected the early morning light, and later in the day rustled in the wind which slowly but surely built through the day.
Team Danton were leading the race with Kona, which is pretty much how it’s been running all week. Cory Wallace and Barry Wicks did break away briefly. But as both are on different Kona Teams, Wallace admitted there was no tactic, it was just something to do.
Much of the racing today came with time. The final climb was about 14km, gaining about 1000m. I know it took me about 2hrs. The wind was strong, really strong. And the climb was long, with many false summits, like every climb we’ve been up this week. I know I was suffering on the climb. Heading out a little slowly is a good idea, but at the same time thanks to cumulative fatigue I was never going to freshen up. I just got slower. As another Mike I was riding with said, “I’m creeping so hard.”. And we were. We were going nowhere fast.
This climb is where Danton rode away from the Kona crews, and just about every one else dug in to get it done. I started the climb at midday, and although it was one rolling hill after another at first, the wind started to hurt. Birds still sang in the grass until about 1000m high, but soon enough we were riding amongst rock formations, and I’m pretty sure I even saw an orc.
The descent was about 10km down, for about 1000m again. At first it was farm trail, but we took a turn onto walking track. Although that involved some gates and stiles, it was another descent which was really reminiscent of descents in remote valleys in the European alps.
Now in Hawea, we’re looking to the finish line. Each team who comes in has ridden a mammoth stage. Today was a really hard stage – and plenty of times I asked myself if it was too hard. Some would say yes, but the reality is the stage details were all there on paper for people to prepare for. It’s another day that has shown that The Pioneer is a force to be reckoned with in the marathon stage racing world.
On the descent, I reflected on what The Pioneer might become. Right now – it’s super hard. And there’s a place for that. It’s hard enough and well run enough to gain a UCI ranking if that’s what the organisers want – it would easily be an S1 event and potentially HCS in time if enough high ranking riders raced.