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

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Glen Cur­rie IMAGES: Spor­tograf and Dun­can Philpott LO­CA­TION: New Zealand

Glen Cur­rie

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.

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