For the 2019 edition of The Pioneer, Sam Fox has teamed up with Sebastian Jayne to race as the MarathonMTB.com Team. Sam will be reporting each day. He’s also the youngest rider in the race at just 19 years of age.
And then it arrived. The final day of The Pioneer. After two shortened stages due to adverse weather, the volunteers and organisers of the event pulled a miracle to allow us to complete the planned stage.
Stage 5 began with one last early morning of 5:30AM, which by this point in the race required 5 coffees to awaken my usual pre-race smile. With inclement weather approaching I began the stage with my school-bag sized pack, that included all the compulsory gear to ensure our safety, I quickly realised that the over-jacket I was wearing was in fact over-kill, and stopped to remove it part way up the first climb.
Feeling comfortable with the pace I slowly rode back across to the leading pack, from which Seb promptly attacked out of. I was forced to follow, and with no recovery Seb shut me deep in the hurt locker, almost fulfilling his promise of making me cry on a stage… With our roles well and truly reversed Seb powered over the climb, through the crosswinds, with myself clinging to his pack at times. By the top of the climb we were sitting in third position, with the Winger Hamilton team not far behind us. As always we attacked the descent, and were promptly thrown about by the gusting winds that were surging over the mountain.
After this sedate start to the stage we crossed through a creek and into grassland with a winding goat trail that shortly disappeared, from there on we chose our own trail, following the markings that the course marshals had set. This felt as wild as any mountain biking I had done in the past, with no trail to guide us, gusting crosswinds that left us 20 metres left of where we had been, and huge mountains either side of us, it was a real pioneer experience.
From there we climbed a short fire trail, and by this point my legs had recovered from their first beating, Seb and I attacked the Winger Hamilton riders over the top and began the fast, rocky fire trail descent. We had decided before the stage that it would be an “all in” stage, and so with little heed for our equipment or personal health we hung on and hoped for the best (potentially some skill was involved). Thankfully both our bikes held up, with the Maxxis Aspens not skipping a beat, as we emerged from the bottom we saw the two Giant Australia riders not far up the trail, and began the chase.
Along more untamed fire trail descents and climbs, all through stunning scenery, with picturesque mountains on either side that almost caused me to crash as I admired the view. Seb and I worked hard after catching the Giant Australia riders, and managed to execute the same tactic as previously, attacking over the final climb before making time on the descent.
To finish the stage was a 20km rail trail that is normally enjoyed by tourists as they take in the sites of Central Otago, who enjoy the many wine tastings along the way, all I tasted at this point was lactic acid and far too many gels. Sitting in second place, with a large gap to the strong men Michael Vink and Tim Rush in front, and a very small gap to Jon Odams and Brendan Johnston I knew we had no time to enjoy the final kilometres. By this point Seb and I were both struggling, I sat on the front and drove the pace as high as I could, knowing Brendan would do the same behind. At every corner I would see the pair behind us, and it seemed they were slowly making their way closer, it was only in the final three kilometres that I knew we would take second place on the stage, Seb and I crossed the line after a huge week of racing in 4th place overall.
Final standings at The Pioneer
Rush and Vink won the stage again to repel the strong challenge of Brendan Johnston and Jon Odams (Giant Australia Off-Road) by just under 15 minutes on general classification, with Ryan Sissons and Sam Osborne (Winger Hamilton) rounding out the podium with fourth on stage five.
“That means a lot, I had a lot of pressure coming and a lot of people wrote us off with the Aussie boys coming over, especially as they have won so many races,” said Rush. “That is good for me and Vinky to get this one in our home nation, it has been amazing. Thanks to all the supporters, marshals and volunteers on course, we tried to thank them all as per my mother’s instructions, but it was tough for me at times breathing through a straw behind Vinky.”
Vink paid credit to his teammate and the nature of the final stage.
“Tim was incredible all week and I suffered the first few days so I know what he has put into it and the way he has suffered in the weeks leading up to this to be in the condition to be competitive, he deserved to win this and I was motivated to finish it off for him.”
“That was beautiful it was nice to have a classic pioneer stage today, one of those backcountry climbs with almost unmarked tracks, quite rough but stunning scenery and just a beautiful place in the world to race a bike.”
Johnston cut an exhausted figure at the finish line, after one of the toughest riding weeks he has ever faced.
“It has been a challenge for sure, today particularly, Jon and I rode pretty well up the first climb but from then suffered a bit, that was a big day. We had a couple of flashes of brilliance early in the week and then held on for the rest of it. Michael and Tim were super strong.”
The Winger Hamilton team knew endurance would test them in the end, with Osborne coming from an XTERRA background and Sissons ITU triathlon racing. That proved the case today but did not dampen Osborne’s enjoyment of his first Pioneer.
“I have loved every minute of it, even that suffering today and boy, did we suffer. I was probably the opposite of Ryan today, that first hour and a half I was in a world of hurt over the top, for some reason I came good and was keen to ride down the Giant boys. I got a split and it was only 25 seconds, but Ryan was not keen to come with me, he looked at me and said ‘these legs are no good’.
“It has been an amazing week, everything we thought it would be and so much more. It has been a bucket list race, we have talked about this since the second year, now we finally have we have the bug and already we are throwing ideas around about next year.”
McIlroy and Hollamby were supreme in taking out the women’s category for a second year, winning all six days of racing and the overall title by over two hours from 2017 champions Nina McVicar and Reta Trotman (New World St Martins) and Hannah Buchanan and Sarah Gilbert (Tike Wine and Vineyards).
McIlroy reflected on one of the toughest days in the history of the event.
“That was a big, big day today, I think when we thought we had reached the top we still had a climb to go, it was raining and cold and we were in the middle of nowhere basically. We were happy to see that second aid station when we knew it was the end of the climbing and only had the river trail to go.”
Hollamby said the temptation of the passing wineries through the Gibbston Valley was very real.
“We did joke about stopping and getting a photo of a bottle of red and sending it through to the finish.”
The mixed category promised to be one to watch and so it proved throughout the week, with Joe Skerman and Josie Wilcox winning back to back titles, but not without a fight as nearest rivals Holly and Michael Harris (SRAM MToss Australia) took it to them on today’s final stage. But while the Aussies won the stage by almost ten minutes, the Kiwis had enough up their sleeves to win the overall race by just under 14 minutes.
“That was very tough for Joe today, he was in some very, very dark places for a long time. The last 10k felt like a marathon but I am super-proud of him today, he dug super deep today and this week,” said Wilcox.
“This will be sweet, we had to work very hard to get home, I was suffering from the start really, but Josie supported me all the way and we got there, I am really proud,” said Skerman.
The men’s masters race also went to the wire, with Gene Marsh and Jeremy Forlong (Off The Chain, NZL) riding superbly on the final two days, winning today to confirm their victory over fellow Kiwis Kris Snow and Hamish Lane (Cycle Obsession) and previous leaders Anthony Chapman and Andy Hagan (Optimal Performance), with Chapman incredibly riding the week with a fractured thumb.
Kath Kelly and Peg Leyland (Earnscleugh Express) simply rode away with the women’s masters category, winning every stage to establish an amazing two hours and 42 minute margin over the Outlaw Sisters of Jackie Blay and Sara Prince, with Kim Johnston and Christine Wright (Cycleways) in third.
The Swiss combination of Marc Baechli and Daniel Christen were similarly dominant, taking out every stage to defeat the founding rider pair of Kent Wilson and Graeme Young (The Hub Cycle Centre) by 55 minutes on GC, with Allan Killick and Greg Thompson (Cycleways) in third overall.
The Pioneer has been one of my favourite experiences while living in New Zealand, and easily tops the list as my favourite race of all time. The stunning views, phenomenal trails, welcoming company and challenge of the six day stage race all combined to deliver an incredible experience, that has opened my eyes to stage racing.
I simply can’t thank everyone who had a part in the event, but to the MarathonMTB crew for having me on board, all the sponsors, Pioneer organisers, and most importantly my partner for the week, Seb, thank you. I will definitely be back.