New Zealand's The Pioneer 500km MTB stage race gets off to a brutal start

From Christchurch to Queenstown, in searing heat

The Pioneer is the first race of its kind. It covers over 500km of trails, with participants set to climb over 15,000m during the seven-day stage event.

Raced in teams of two, the course takes is riders through New Zealand's Southern Alps using farm tracks, NZ cycle trails, double- and singletrack. Racers will pass through soaring mountain peaks, skirt crystal clear lakes and traverse golden backcountry. All in all, it looks like being awe-inspiring, challenging and truly epic.

Professional cyclist Matt Page is well versed in endurance events and is known as being one of the best all round riders in the UK. He joins forces with his team mate Sam Gardner riding as Team EpicCymru.com and will be bringing us daily updates from the inaugural race. Read on for his first instalment…

Stage 1 (Prologue) 

The inaugural edition of The Pioneer New Zealand started on Sunday in Christchurch with more than 300 riders from all around the world and all kinds of backgrounds, from the pro riders, including Team Danton – consisting of U23 world XC champion and Commonwealth gold medallist Anton Cooper, who's teamed up with Australian champion and World Cup winner Dan McConnell – to the hundreds of riders who are here to get a taste of New Zealand's South Island, with its stunning scenery.

Hundreds of riders take off at the start line:
Hundreds of riders take off at the start line:

Stage 1, the prologue started from within Christchurch Centre, a neutral start taking riders out to the foothills of the surrounding mountains for a 25km time trial, with riders set off at 20 second intervals. First to head off were Cooper and McConnell, who set a blistering time of 57 minutes around the fun, mixed terrain course.

After a fast start the course headed uphill with a savagely steep climb to the highest point, 450m above the city below. Without a rest the it then headed into the 'Flying Nun' section of singletrack, a fun, twisting track with multiple lines and jump options on the way down. This rolled into Dyas Track and onwards to Victoria Park where one final loose descent took riders to the finish line at the bottom.

There is plenty of amazing scenery to be enjoyed from day one:
There is plenty of amazing scenery to be enjoyed from day one:

It was Team Danton who took the win, with a 4min advantage over Kona Factory A (Cory Wallace & Spencer Paxson), with Kona Factory B (Kris Sneddon & Barry Wicks) in third. In the women's race, Team Torpedo 7 (Erin Greene & Kath Kelly) hold a 16 minute advantage. What about Team EpicCymru.com, you ask? Well, we started well, finishing in seventh overall, and sixth in category with a time of 1hr 7mins.

The pioneer is raced in teams of two:
The pioneer is raced in teams of two:

Stage 2

With the relative formality of the prologue over, riders were bussed to Geraldine to the start town for Stage 2. The short, fast intro was just a taste of what lay ahead. Stage 2, Geraldine to Fairlie was a whooping 106km with a tasty 2500m of climbing. As riders set off, a relatively steady start at the front saw Kona Factory teams controlling the pace until the track turned to gravel and the teams upped the speed, spitting riders out the back pretty quickly.

It was unrelenting for the next 30km, with Kona keeping the pace up high and Team Danton happy to sit in the group and let others do the work on the front. After the first feed station the course turned rougher and started to climb with the top team taking advantage and pushing ahead. One notable team missing were Kona Factory A, with Cory Wallace suffering a severe puncture that required a major and time-consuming fix. They were not the only team to suffer a puncture, with Anton Cooper getting a flat, but luckily for them it was fixed quickly and they were back chasing. Front running team were the Kona Factory B team of Barry Wicks and Kris Sneddon with several teams in pursuit behind.

Teamwork keeps the spirits high on tough climbs:
Teamwork keeps the spirits high on tough climbs:

At the 60km mark the first big climb of the day started and Team Danton had bridged the gap and put the pressure on, gaining a small gap over Kona Factory B that they slowly extended up the long climb. We had the top teams in sight all the way up, but in the heat I started to suffer and was getting low on water. By the top of the long climb we were in fifth, with still no sign of Kona Factory A behind.

The terrain was very spiky up to the 75km mark, with lots of steep punchy climbs that were really taking their toll. Both myself and Sam had run out of water and were pretty desperate for the next water point, which did thankfully come soon after. We both knew that the worst of the riding was done, but the finish was still a long ride away. 15km of flat gravel roads was followed by 12km of twisting, relatively flat singletrack to the finish line at Fairlie.

Double track snakes into the distant hills:
Double track snakes into the distant hills:

Winning team today was again Team Danton, with a time of 4hrs 26mins – 10mins ahead of second place, Kona Factory B. We managed to haul ourselves to third on the day (4hrs 53mins), and up to fourth overall – but both pretty whacked at the finish – with Kona Factory A recovering to finish fourth. Leading mixed team, Team New World were an impressive sixth overall and leading womens team Torpedo 7 extended their lead with another category win. Stage 3, we are told, is even harder than today, despite being shorter at 76km. The heat is a shock to my Welsh body, but hopefully I will be able to acclimatise to the dry heat over the week.

Time to freshen up!:
Time to freshen up!:

Check back on the BikeRadarMountain Biking UK blog tomorrow for an update on Stage 3 – and read all about Matt's experience in Issue 328 of MBUK magazine on sale 5 April. 

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