Our man on the ground and pro racer, Matt Page is still battling away out at the front of New Zealand's The Pioneer Stage race for MBUK (sister mag of BikeRadar). Stages 5 and 6 involved tough climbs and unbearable headwinds as the race reaches its penultimate day.
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Stage 5: 3500m of climbing makes this the dreaded day
The day that almost all riders were dreading was the Queen stage: 112km with 3500m climbing. Ouch!
Of course a few masochistic riders will look forward to the prospect of a tough day, and perhaps even use it to gain back some time. We went into the stage hoping for the best, but not exactly sure of what would happen after four days of tough racing already in our legs. From the start, the top three teams set a good tempo up the first climb, and it wasn't long before riders were being shed out of the back of the group.
We managed to hang onto the back and as everything regrouped after a short descent and approached the second of five major climbs. The pace at the front slowed right down, with none of the three pro teams keen to take up the speed, so I got myself to the front and pushed at my own pace, not wanting to ease up at all.
The second climb suited me perfectly: 5% gradient, gradually climbing on rocky double track for 5km or so. Sam was right with me and of course both Kona Factory teams and Team Danton were along with us. After the climb a really fast, dusty track took us alongside a river with a wicked tailwind pushing us the whole way.
After a feed station we crossed a river and turned 180 degree, into the headwind! It was savage and pace slowed, with no one wanting to put in too much effort after only 40km. We rolled through the next 10km and into the steepest climb of the day.
As soon as we hit the lower slopes Team Danton upped the pace, with Kona Factory A in pursuit and Kona Factory B not that far behind. Sam was probably able to keep the pace, but I dropped off right away. From here it was just a case of getting to the final climb of the day, the one that everyone was dreading. It seemed to take forever and we were both relieved to reach it.
With 85km done, we now had a 14km climb up to 1450m, the biggest single climb of the event. It started well enough, but after 20-30 minutes we hit a horrible headwind that must have been blowing at around 40mph and slowed progress to a walking pace and almost pushed us off our bikes. The climb went on and on, not really easing at all with both of us having good and bad points as we climbed. Sam was quite vocal about the wind, shouting at the top of his voice.
The top did eventually come after 1hr 45min of non-stop climbing. Neither of us really cared what the descent was like, we just wanted to finish. As it happens, it was perhaps the best of the week so far, but neither of us was fresh enough to enjoy it.
The descent dropped 1000m of 12km to the edge of Lake Hawea before one final 300m climb up into the finish arena. The winning team on the day were Team Danton, making it five in a row – and in a time of 6hrs 17 minutes. Kona Factory A and B were both around 10 minutes back and we finished clear in fourth in 6hrs 40min. All other categories remained unchanged, with the Masters Male category being the closest with around 15 minutes between first and second places.
Stage 6: Legs left at the bottom of the hill
With the week drawing to an end everyone has one eye on the finish line, but with two days and 130km left to ride, finishing is far from certain. Many categories are sewn up baring major issues, but things can and do happen in stage racing.
Anyone towards the top 20 teams overall and expecting an easy first 40km on the flat terrain was very quickly disappointed today as Barry Wicks (Kona Factory B) shot to the front and put the hammer down, trailing riders in his wake behind him. A tailwind to start made it possible for riders to stay in touch, but as the course turned 90 degrees and Barry and his team mate positioned themselves in the gutter, it split the race up completely.
After another 20km of fast riding only the top four teams, which included us, were still in the group – but shortly after hitting the singletrack of Deans Bank it was Anton Cooper that put himself on the front and set a pace that neither I nor Spencer Paxton (Kona Factory A) were able to match. By the end of the really tight and twisting singletrack it was just two teams, Kona B and Team Danton riding together. The first feed station arrived after 40km – with Danton carrying on and Kona B stopping to fill up, they pushed on up the final 25km climb alone.
We hit the climb with both Kona teams just in sight, but with no realistic chance of catching them we settled in for the long ride. The climb was gradual at first and we managed to find a good rhythm, but as it steepened and turned to a rough dirt track my legs disappeared and I was left properly suffering for the first time in the race so far. Towards the top it did ease off, but we were passed by fifth-placed Team Flint Cycling at feed station 2. I pushed hard to try and close them down, but realised it wasn't going to happen and we settled to limit losses.
Crossing the finish line at Snow Farm, a cross-country ski resort in winter less, than 2mins behind them still left us with almost 50mins lead. Team Danton took their sixth straight win, with both Kona Factory teams rolling across together 11mins behind the overall leaders. No major changes happened in any other categories – Team Torpedo 7 have over 6hrs on the second place Open Women's team and Team New World lead the mixed category by over 2hrs 30mins.
Matt will bring us our final update over the weekend – you can then read all about his experience in a copy of Mountain Biking UK soon!