Seven days of racing, 569km of cycling, 15,273m of climbing and one suspect mountain-biker. New Zealand’s newest MTB stage race, The Pioneer, is on track to become a pinnacle of its type, writes Huw Jack Brassington
“Injured wife? Fantastic! Count me in,” I said, without thinking. I’d been on the phone with the organisers of a new mountain-bike race across New Zealand’s South Island. They’d had a last-minute drop-out and someone needed a riding partner.
I’m a road biker, not a mountain-biker but they’d gone and said the magic words: all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. I was in.
The Pioneer is a 569km MTB stage race that traverses the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island. Between Christchurch and Queenstown, it climbs almost twice the height of Everest. This was the inaugural event with more than 300 riders taking on the course. Amongst them a world champion, a Commonwealth gold medallist and me. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
I was a sore thumb in that starting paddock, reeking of lost road-biker in my Giro d’Italia replica. Amongst the carbon fibre stallions, the rental bike I’d picked up the day before looked like a Shetland pony at the Grand National. Having never been on a mountain bike in anger, I was blissfully unaware, enjoying the calm before the storm. Those first days were a steep learning curve.
The magnitude of the challenge soon struck home. Climbing was hard, traction whimsical and wheel-spins plentiful; and I discovered a hidden talent for surprise wheelies.
The flats we’re no better – smashing elbow to elbow through river crossings, over narrow wooden bridges and along the rims of deep blue gorges. This close quarters wrestling match only came to an end at a climb. I came to welcome these monster slopes, even though the gradient often won and I’d join the field in a blister-bound group march.
From Mickleburn Saddle on Day Two I witnessed an astounding geographical transition; behind and below me, stretching to the horizon, was the pan-flat patchwork of farmland of the Canterbury Plains, ahead the gaping maw of the Southern Alps. Wild and terrifying. This race was about to plunge me into their midst.
Snow-capped giants tower above foaming rivers whilst the fluorescent blue waters of the lakes pool at their feet. Majestic doesn’t even come close. The unfortunate thing is that to complete this race you have to either go up them, through them or into their freezing depths.
The third day hit 40°C, a hard dusty slog climbing 2500m, but ending in the glacially fed waters of lake Tekapo, with Aoraki (Mt. Cook) in the distance more than made up for it. In fact, whenever it got tough, there was always something to keep you going. All you had to do was lift your head and look for a reminder of why we were here.
Day 5: The Queen Stage
Even more sadistic than usual. With 100km and almost 4,000m of climbing done I grind my way up the last pass. We’re high above Lake Hawea and the view is staggering; truly a wild place. Within seconds I’m torn back to task. It’s unreal, they’re sending us straight down this mountainside. It’s a rocky shelf, carving its way down at a fantastically unreasonable angle. Boulders and grassy tussocks combine forces to try and steal my wheel in the most nerve-wracking game of hide-and-seek I’ve ever played. The view is the most dangerous part.
By the bottom my hands have locked into claws, pincering my brakes and refusing to let go. I fell on the feed station at the bottom, a sweaty lycra-clad T. rex fumbling jellied sweets into my mouth with dysfunctional claws.
By the end of every day I feel mentally and physically battered. With a road bike, at least you get some down-time. Not here. Switch off for a second and you’re in a gully.
Between seven and 10 hours of this a day was draining, and the sight of our festival-like campsite was welcome, a God-sent piece of solace and respite; the carrot to my donkey.
Day Seven: Last Legs
”Gnarly” is what the Kiwis call this stuff and it fits; knobbly, rough, through patches of Giant Spaniard (a fierce native speargrass, weirdly a member of the carrot family) and a battle for every centimetre, even downhill.
The technicality, the fatigue and eagerness to finish were a dangerous combination. In the first 10km I witnessed two big crashes and saw the remnants of another half dozen. Alongside the preferred line (I won’t say path) down this mountain were the walking wounded; dazed and battered, they were either fishing bikes out of bush or bog or in some cases just sitting, waiting to be picked up. I’d long since hit tortoise pace; I was finishing this. In fact, I came down that entire 23km descent (some of the hardest terrain of the week) and stayed on my pedals, cycling down sections so steep that a week earlier, I’d have sworn needed a belay. I felt very pleased with myself.
Just as I was smugly preparing for a flat 20km run into the finish, my nemesis reappeared. This last muddy ditch claimed its fourth and final somersault but, on the plus side, made me look like a proper Pioneer rolling into the finish head to toe in caked mud. Posing for my finishing photo in Queenstown, my pearly whites and sunglass-protected patches made me look like a deranged, happy panda.
The Kiwi/Aussie Rio Olympic Games combination of Anton Cooper and Dan McConnell took the inaugural title, their names etched into the pounamu (greenstone) trophy. These guys are more ninja than bike rider. It was inspiring watching them go. These stage races are the grand tours of their domain, and while the Pioneer may not yet be the Tour De France if this first event is anything to go by, it’s well on the way to being a pinnacle of the sport. Just give it a year or so.
The organisation and the logistics of this event are immense. The South Island of New Zealand is 10 times the size of Wales and has only a million people living there. The Pioneer sought the most remote areas, opening up sections of the southern Alps that have been closed off for generations; and what did we find at the top of the furthest climbs and the bottom of the most inaccessible valleys? Jelly Babies and bananas on tap. How they managed this is a mystery, something to do with off-road buggies and New Zealanders’ unyielding mentality probably had something to do with it.
If you come into this race with minimal MTB experience, you are certainly at a disadvantage, but it does not make it impossible. Like the original pioneers, roll up your sleeves and go at it up the guts.
– When: Mid Feb
– Cost: $2500 for 7-Day Epic (All inclusive). Other options available from one to three days.
– Bike rental: Cyclone Cycles Christchurch
– Note: For the 7-Day Epic you have to ride with a partner.