Today was the last day of the first Pioneer mountain bike stage race. Final stages are different beasts in every stage race I’ve done. In shorter stage races, there’s no need for a parade, or gifted wins. In some longer stage races, the race leaders might grace a stage win to other teams, if they can ride hard enough. The last stage of The Pioneer was from up high at Snow Farm down to Queenstown, and a quick query with Dan McConnell last night as to whether he and Anton Cooper would let a Kona team take a stage gained a fast response, “Not if we can help it.”
Snow Farm is a ski resort without the fun parts, in the same way that cross-country skiing is like skiing without any of the fun bits. There are no bars, cool restaurants, attractive people swanning around, or huge alpine vistas (ok the view to Mt Aspiring was ok). But there are lots of kilometres of XC ski trails that are open to mountain bikers in summer.
With 62km ahead, and a curious 1974m of climbing on what looked to be a downhill stage, we waited in the start chute ready to go, set to fire up for one last stage. While Cory Wallace was the last rider into the start chute with about a minute to go, and was lubing his chain with 10 seconds to go, he was one of the main protagonists who forced the pace hard on the start loop away from Snow Farm. A split occured pretty quickly with both Kona Teams, Team Danton, EpicCymru.com and myself wondering what I was doing, besides getting ready to blow up.
The sun was to our left, and the first few fast dirt roads were super dusty, making picking any hazards difficult when you’re dangling at the back of a fast moving group. Crossing to double track, it didn’t get any easier, with the sun at a low height but quite bright making vision pretty hard. We descended to Roaring Meg singletrack, a lumpy singletrack section that was hard to negotiate at times, and hard to race. there were lots of hidden holes and narrow creeks that had created 50-80cm wide channels. Real collarbone breaking territory. I shut it down as I planned on getting home in one piece.
We took a long descent to a farm and the one aid station. While I wasn’t hungry, it seemed worth stopping for a piece of cake. It was the last stage afterall. I heard over the radio in a vehicle there reports of a rider with a broken collarbone.
The route turned to ascend to the Kawarau face, which was beautiful at first, with the Kawarau river a turquoise blue below. But it soon turned to torture, with one sharp pinch after another, some steep or loose enough that we had to get off to walk, or stumble, upwards.
A fast, and at times confusing, descent through some steep farm trails and paddocks took us to the Queenstown Trail, where we had about 20km of gravel cycletrail to the finish. We ascended a climb then skirted the river, at times with a headwind, but always closing in on the final target.
The finish was a little out of character, as the trail winds around the back of Queenstown Airport, and some patchy marking did have a few people going astray for a few hundred metres. At the front of the race though, it was Kona A of Cory Wallace and Spencer Paxson who took the stage win, but Dan McConnell and Anton Cooper still won overall. Cooper commented on how the week treated him.
“That is just such a great week and great riding. I must admit that after three or four days we were feeling it and wondering if we might be here at the end of the week, but we kept on riding through each day,” said Cooper. “The Kona boys were great competition, a real coup for the event to have them here and they raced strongly all week. This is a great way to lay down a base of miles with World Cup races to come and of course Rio later in the year, but The Pioneer has proven this week to be a great event in its own right, a really tough but stunning ride through incredible countryside, it has been a huge challenge but we have loved every moment.”
Like Cooper, Kate Fluker is focused on Rio but first New Zealand must qualify a spot and then she must be selected, with a top 16 at the opening World Cup cross Country race in Cairns in late April amongst the targets she has to reach, but the 28 year old believes The Pioneer has put her in just the right space.
“I don’t think I could have got a better base session in than this, from here we need to work on the speed in my legs for the shorter sharper racing, but I am feeling really good, I am feeling strong and just want to build on this now. We are relying on Australia maintaining their top 17 world ranking and that gives New Zealand the Oceania spot for Rio, and then I need to meet that criteria in Cairns and earn selection.”
There was high drama in the Master’s Men’s category as Team iRide won the stage when Team Leave Pass 2 (of Minter Barnard and Ian Chitterer) had a flat and lost a few minutes. But with this team also going off course at the end there were some stressed South Africans at the finish – but they didn’t lose their GC lead and Ian and Minter have won their category, possible the most hard fought of the race.
We’ll have an event rundown and full gallery in the coming days, but if you like hard week long stage races – put The Pioneer on your bucket list.