Q: What do you get when you take an Irishman, his sister, his Canadian girlfriend, a token Kiwi, a campervan, 350 small orange tents, seven days of mountain biking (569 kilometres and 15,235 metres of climbing) and the hottest week of the 2016 New Zealand
WITH A LARGE budget and some mega marketing, it would have been difficult for any New Zealand endurance athlete to be oblivious to the concept that was The Pioneer. The brain child of Dave Beeche and his Lagardere Unlimited crew, who also run the likes of the Motatapu and the Queenstown Marathon, it was evident that The Pioneer was going to be a professionally run event from the first confirmation of entry email.
Having returned from adventure racing in China in October last year, following a bitter winter of training, I was excited at the thought of a summer involving fishing and ‘social' mountain biking. As always, however, when the phone rang a few weeks after I returned and I was offered the opportunity to race under the flag of Leigh's Construction for the seven days of The Pioneer, thoughts of investing in a fishing licence and wearing baggy mountain bike shorts for summer soon dissolved.
I teamed up with Canterbury mountain biker Shane Kennedy. A native of Ireland, Shane had been based in Canterbury for over five years working as a Project Engineer for the local firm Leigh's Construction. Post-earthquake Leigh's has played a significant role in getting the infrastructure of Christchurch back up and running resulting in Shane having a secure job and an opportunity to develop further his passion for mountain biking. Shane and I barely knew each other pre the start of the 15/16 summer, although a few big days training and exploring some Canterbury singletrack goodness soon sorted that out.
The idea for the Pioneer is to showcase many of the natural drawcards that the South Island is known for while at the same time taking in some of the recently developed government-funded cycle trails and finally, to provide a challenging stage race which would test even the most well-conditioned legs. The concept of riding as a pair was not a new one and mirrored other such events such as the Cape Epic in South Africa and the Trans Alps in
Europe. Riders were given a set course each day mostly starting and finishing at that evening's accommodation site. Each stage was to be ridden as a pair with the rules stating you must never be more than two minutes apart. The daily time was recorded when the second team member crossed the finish line. This concept of racing isn't new to New Zealand, however the marketing machine of Lagardere Unlimited was definitely on a mission to solidify this event in the packed New Zealand endurance race wall planner.
STAGE 1: Christchurch Prologue 37 Kilometres, 870 metres of elevation
Christchurch's Port Hills are probably one of the more underrated ‘go to's' regarding New Zealand singletrack riding. However, those in the know and who have experienced the ‘Flying Nun' are aware that this section is to mountain bikers what Wimbledon is to tennis players. It is a track that just ‘works' with each cobbled berm complementing the one before.
The stage began with an early mass rollout from Hagley Park, with everybody looking fresh. However, anticipation and excitement for what lay ahead could be felt within the peloton.
Stage one was a prologue with teams sent off twenty seconds apart. With the top twenty times creating the starting line-up for the following day we were quite keen to knock this stage out as fast as possible so we could get a tow in the leading bunch in the days to come. Being Shane's backyard and well known riding loop I knew for me that I was merely going to be a carriage fiercely holding onto the pain train. Shane didn't disappoint and knocked out the Kennedy's Bush climb without a second thought. Meanwhile, I was sitting in behind contemplating how I was best going to use the coming evening to excrete the substantial amounts of lactate that I would accumulate in my legs. ‘ The Flying Nun' is fun when socially riding and training but even more so when in race mode, and with Christchurch's faithful out in force with cowbells and words of encouragement, it was next level. We knocked out the whole stage in just over an hour, a taste for what was to come. When the results came out and we were listed as fourth overall behind the three professional outfits, my thoughts of what was to be a social ride throughout the South Island were quickly dissolved. Things just got real all of a sudden.
STAGE 2: Geraldine to Fairlie
106 Kilometres, 2,480 metres of elevation
The real race began today. Rolling out of Geraldine in a front bunch that was declaring ignorance to the fact that we still had 500-plus kilometres of racing to go, we were soon all immersed in the Orari Gorge. I am quite passionate about the uniqueness of the Canterbury Foothills and the Orari Gorge is quintessential foothill material; clear rocky rivers, golden
tussocks surrounded by dense green pastures and pockets of black beech, all quite distinctive. We were riding well, justifying our prologue ranking of fourth place. Two of the top teams suffered early mechanicals and I am sure Shane and I were mentally high-fiving ourselves as we discussed that we were sitting in second with no other chasing teams in sight at the 40-kilometre mark.
We were not too disappointed when eventual winners Dan McConnell and Anton Cooper rode us down early on in the first major climb as we still couldn't see any other teams in the valley below. We continued to ride strongly and were happy to finally earn some reward for the climbing but our elation was short lived when Shane's tyre started spewing sealant and it was evident that this was a new tube job. Having raced a number of multi-day races previously, I should have known that an extra minute doing a job properly the first time will save you 20 minutes down the track. However, I rushed the process of changing the tyre and convinced Shane he would be sweet to complete the stage on a half inflated tube. We had only been passed by one team and had taken less than five minutes sorting the tyre. No more than three kilometres on and I paid the price for my haste – the same tyre now had a pinch flat. Things were a little more serious now, the CO2 had been completely used up and we had to replace another tube. We took ten minutes to do it properly, cursing at my earlier rush job as I watched what seemed like half the field ride past us. With the tyre fixed it was now time to play catch up, but we had lost our momentum and found it difficult to get back into a rhythm. Trying to regain a few positions probably forced both of us to lift our heart rates ten beats higher than we would have liked. Fairlie couldn't come soon enough, and with our trusty support crew having the now famous Pork Belly Pies from the local bakery ready on the finish line, the hardships of Stage Two were soon forgotten.
Stage 3: Fairlie to Lake Tekapo
74 Kilometres, 2,486 metres of elevation
Burkes Pass often resembles ‘ The
Wall' out of a Game of Thrones scene, separating the lush green easterly-affected east coast from the stunningly barren and dry landscapes for which Central Otago and the Mackenzie District are well known. This contrast in landscape was clearly evident as riders powered themselves from Geraldine to Tekapo, with the day starting off with a serious climb. Any riders who have ridden in the spine of the Southern Alps are aware that when the tectonic plates pushed together to create these majestic mountains they did not take into consideration mountain bikers. Generally, you are either going up on the rivet, or descending on the brakes; ‘mellow, peddley climbing conditions' is not often a description heard when discussing epic South Island mountain bike trails.
Shane and I were again riding well, sitting in fourth overall and working efficiently with the lead mixed team Kate Fluker and Mark Williams, as well as Great Britain riders Matthew Page and Sam Gardner. However, it was now my turn to get a flat tyre and we were soon off our bikes, questioning why we both had decided to invest in new tyres prior to the race. After a quick repair, we were again back into chase mode.
All sections had at least two aid stations. On Day One we had ignored the first station but had gorged ourselves at the second one. It was quickly became apparent that to survive the heat that we were experiencing, a couple of minutes at each station was going to be vital. Riding over Burkes Pass and glimpsing the final aid station was like the last supper before entering the furnace. Race organisers had warned us that today was to be hot, with the Aussie riders scoffing at the forecast of 33 °C, yet many had not experienced the heat sink-like conditions of the Mackenzie Country. The heat was relentless and with not the slightest breath of wind in the bottom of the valleys it created an atmosphere where one couldn't help but feel as if they were being smothered by a heat blanket. Shane was quick to point out that it would be illegal to run such an event in conditions like that in Ireland, (later admitting to the fact that Ireland had probably never experienced such conditions). The heat messed with the mind and when Shane started to tell me that “he was dirty” I thought he had lost it. I explained to him as calmly as I could that I was also dirty and we would wash in the lake when we completed the stage, only to be told louder and a little clearer, that he was in fact "dirsty!" “Oh you're thirsty”, I said. The first of many conversations that were lost in translation.
Tekapo was a welcome sight and never have I sat in that lake for such an extended period of time. There were some scarred faces that crossed the line
‘ It was quickly becoming apparent that to survive the heat that we were experiencing, a couple of minutes at each station was going to be vital.’
that day, and I believe the conditions of Stage Three probably impacted upon some teams later in the race, including us.
STAGE 4: Lake Tekapo to Lake Ohau
111 kilometres, 1,863 metres of elevation
John Mackenzie had seen the potential in the large fruit bowl that is the Mackenzie Basin in the 1800s, and a cycle stage across this terrain should have seemed a mere dawdle in comparison to the Highlander, who managed to steal 1,000 sheep and drive them across this landscape with just the help of his dog. However, the organisers had decided to give racers the opportunity to experience a 360-degree view that no sardine bus tour setup could ever offer. The only problem with this is that to get such views we needed to climb over 1,000 metres in under five kilometres.
Our day started well immersing ourselves into the cycle stampede that followed the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. Developed to take in many of wellknown South Island land features, it did not disappoint. Mt Cook stood proudly on display almost mocking the small mountains that we were to ride up and created some perspective for the athletes. The trail allowed for fast riding and looking down at the bike computer I wasn't surprised to see an early average speed of 45 kilometres per hour. The sun was out, the lakes and sky were blue, the trails were dry, it was a great day to be a mountain bike enthusiast. This stage involved 60 kilometres of semi-flat riding before the main climb and descent of the day. Shane and I were keen to immerse ourselves in the front group and arrive to the climb as fresh as possible. The plan was generally working quite well for the first 40 kilometres. However, having the luck of the Irish our third tyre was to go. It was me again with a torn side wall. How this occurred on a groomed trail is anyone's guess but I swear the peloton let out a sigh of disbelief as most knew that the bright yellow team had already had their fair share of flats. A jammed tubeless valve and dispirited fingers slowed the tube replacement down, but we were lucky enough to borrow some pliers to remove the tubeless valve. Most of the field had passed us by the time we remounted and began a 20-kilometre two-man time trial.
The rest of the ride went relatively smoothly and climbing up the
Ben Ohau Range was testing yet unbelievably rewarding – a view usually only reserved from above. This was followed by descending an old 4WD track, which was steep and technical enough to be asking yourself why someone would bother putting a track there in the first place other than with the future vision of The Pioneer. Back to the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail and it was more fast riding around the shores of Lake Ohau, which translates to ‘ Windy Place'. Today, however, the only evidence of wind was my accelerated breath from another big day on the bike. Lake Ohau was nature's version of an ice bath today and a welcome release for legs now four days deep.
STAGE 5: Lake Ohau to Hawea
112 kilometres, 3,578 metres of elevation
Four days of consistently-depleting glycogen stores and suffering in the unrelenting heat, combined with the thought that the ‘hardest' day was yet to come meant most athletes focused on merely packing in more calories. The body is a crazy beast. Standing on the start line at Lake Ohau, merely riding a bike seemed a ridiculous ask with every muscle of the quadriceps pleading ‘no more', let alone putting it through 107 kilometres of further punishment. At this stage of the race the brain takes over, sending subtle messages to the legs such as ‘Shut up and get on with it'. I'm still unsure if they managed to hear this message each morning over the morning music ritual of Fat Boy Slim's ‘Right Here, Right Now', however when the hooter went each morning, they seemed to join the party, so something must have got through.
For me, this was the most enjoyable stage of the entire event. I do enjoy to suffer, and it doesn't get much better than suffering in the mountains of Central Otago. The stage began on the Alps 2 Ocean Trail before veering off into the Ahuriri Valley and it was during this section that it occurred to me that this was the first time we had encountered a head wind. New Zealand cyclists are well aware that one will have to face the inevitable head wind grind that living on an island in the Pacific Ocean presents, so not to experience this for four and a half days was unbelievable. From the Ahuriri Valley, we climbed in and out of lost valleys to eventually hit the Lindis Highway, a welcome sight and a good way to clock up some kilometres. Leaving the highway it was then onto the final climb to the top of Grand View.
Grand View was just that: Mount Aspiring, Lake Wanaka and Hawea providing hashtag-worthy views. The descent was epic and riding into camp that afternoon knowing that we had ‘ broken the back' of the race was a great feeling. Shane and I had an enjoyable day's riding and we were both happy with how we had approached the stage, and not a puncture in sight!
STAGE 6: Hawea to Snow Farm
67 Kilometres, 2,022 metres of elevation
With the largest day of the event now behind us, it would have been nice to think that this stage would roll out at a gentlemanly pace, but no such luck. With most riders acknowledging the early section of singletrack may have a large influence on the day's placing, it was all on from the start. Wanaka's much-loved Dean's Bank was included in this stage and after five days of severe riding-induced chafe, a few well linked fast berms was just what I needed to remind me how much I love the simple concept of mountain biking. Grins were plenty as 400-odd battleweary mountain bikers found that flow state around the track.
The Pisa mountains soon returned us to the reality of being in a multi-day stage race and the grind was back on.
Again we were presented with views, hills and heat. This stage was one of survival for us and five days of racing were most definitely taking their toll. Dehydration hit Shane quite hard and he found himself in a dark space for most of this stage, eventually crossing the line happy in the knowledge there was only one day left to go.
Snow Farm was the base for night six, the first evening that we were not eating under canvas. The panoramic sunset again created promotional material organisers could only dream of. There was a sense of ‘one more to go' amongst participants, and maybe some let their guard down with a supposedly final day of downhill. Those who did opened themselves up for a bit of a sucker punch!
STAGE 7: Snow Farm to Queenstown
62 Kilometres, 1,974 metres of elevation
Even those without an appreciation of geography would have formulated that considering we were staying ‘way up here' and finishing ‘way down there' that the final day should be a brakeburning last full stop to seven incredible days in the saddle. It was a warm down that allowed competitors to take in the sights that make Queenstown one of the most ‘must-visit' locations in the world; a chance to enjoy riding your bicycle with a mate and reflect on the previous seven days of hard labour, or at least an opportunity to not redline for one day in the entire race. How wrong they were! The final day was a tease of exhilarating descents and threshold climbs, one after another that seemed relentless. In saying that, it was once again a spectacular day and personally, I found the terrain in the Pisa's technical yet fun! It was a mentally testing day for team Leigh's with Shane being in ride-to-enjoy-the-moment mode and me being in a the-quicker-we-get-thisdone-the-better process. Hence, when I was to turn around at one stage and see my Irish teammate casually drinking out of a stock trough I was quick to point out one of the many reasons why the Irish would never beat the All Blacks! All part of racing in a multi-day race in a team situation.
Crossing the finish line was the usual mixture of relief and satisfaction.
We had both considered top ten as a realistic goal with little experience in stage racing, so considering our mixed bag of luck, we were content with seventh overall and fifth in our category. Lagardere Unlimited couldn't be faulted for their organisation of an event of this enormity; it was incredible. For me, it created a new bug of multi-stage mountain bike racing and has had me hammering the web in search of more events just like this.