Pro rider Matt Page is taking on the punishing 500km New Zealand stage race, The Pioneer, and is kindly blogging about the beating he's taking for MBUK (that's BikeRadar's sister mag, if you're reading this outside of the UK and need to get to know).
The opening two stages took Matt from Christchurch to Queenstown, after which his Team EpicCymru.com team were lying in fourth behind the big players. Team Danton – consisting of U23 world XC champion and Commonwealth gold medallist Anton Cooper, plus Aussie champion and World Cup winner Dan McConnell – led, with Kona Factory teams A and B in hot pursuit. What happened next, you ask? Read on…
Stage 3: punishing climbs and rugged ground in sapping heat
Despite being 30km shorter than the previous day, Stage 3 of Pioneer New Zealand was no easier, with tough climbs, rough roads and high temperatures all taking their toll.
Team Kona Factory A were keen to claw back time, pushing hard from the start to try and test overall leaders Team Danton. After a fast initial 6km, where Cory Wallace pushed the tempo, the first and biggest climb of the day was looming ahead.
The 4x4 track was steep and relentless all the way to the top: 12km long, rising over 1000m it proved to be a challenging ascent. All but the top few teams were forced to walk on a couple of sections.
A stunning 360-degree view greeted all those were able to take a moment to look around, with snowcapped peaks away to the west and wide flat valleys and rolling mountains to the east. We rode a steady climb, watching the top three teams disappear ahead into the distance and found ourselves fighting with three or four other outfits around us.
Views were amazing as always in New Zealand
At first, the descent off the ridgeline was welcome, but soon the roughness took its toll and I was pleased to see the feed station, which marked the end of the majority of the descent. With both Kona Factory teams and Team Danton well in front, we assumed position as 'best of the rest' and pushed on into fourth on the road. The terrain was no less punishing, with multiple short, sharp climbs and other more gradual, energy sapping rises.
The second feed station was a welcome sight at the 50km mark as the temperature had risen to 34 degrees and fluids were being taken on board at high rate. We had hoped for a steady final 25km, but although the profile was relatively flat, the terrain was very rough and difficult to navigate. A section along a river bed was perhaps the worst, especially riding a hardtail.
The 10km to go and 5km to go signs were great to see and we were pleased to find that no teams were visible behind us. Team Danton won their third stage of the race, but Kona Factory A made them fight for it, with a sprint finish in an incredible time of 4hrs 11min. Kona Factory B finished third, 8mins back, and we rolled across the line in fourth after 4hrs 48mins.
The Kona Factory Team A were keen to claw back time
The stage might have been 30km shorter in distance, but it was only 5 minutes less time wise, proving just how tough todays terrain was. The hot, dry weather has really taken it out of many teams, with several having to pull out and many others heading straight into the medical tent suffering from heat exhaustion.
Stage 4: sketchy downhills lead to a sprint finish
The ride today for Stage 4 couldn't have been more different to the previous stage: 111km, with 1800m climbing, almost all of it coming in a big chunk towards the end.
After a neutralised roll-out the first 60km was almost completely flat, on a mixture of tarmac, gravel roads and the Alps to Ocean bike path. The Kona Factory Teams controlled the pace on the front again, setting a steady pace that meant a huge group had stayed together.
It wasn't until the 60km mark, as the bunch rolled through feed station 2 that sparks started to fly. Overall leaders Team Danton, who are riding with big packs, were able to roll through the feed station without stopping, which put both Kona Factory teams on the back foot and needing to chase.
Relief to arrive at the feed station
A long and steep – and for many unrideable – climb was next, following a 4x4 track up into the Ben Ohau mountain range. Team Danton continued to lead up the climb, but Kona Factory A were in hot pursuit and slowly bridging the gap.
What many thought to be the top of the climb dropped down sharply, before climbing back up again and even higher, reaching a peak of 1400m. The descent that followed was fast, rocky and often loose, and didn't relent until riders reached the edge of Lake Ohau, 1000m below. We took it steady, not wanting to puncture on the rough terrain, but it proved hard on the arms and hands and we were both relieved to reach the final feed station at the bottom.
Lake Ohau was a stunning sight and our campsite was in eyeshot on the other side of the lake, probably less than 5km as the crow flies – but since we can't fly or float across, everyone had to ride 25km around the circumference on mostly flat gravel roads, with a final stretch on the Alps to Ocean bike path.
Its dry, very dry!
Kona Factory A had managed the seemingly impossible, catching Team Danton on the sketchy downhill and shadowed them on the final 25km. Both teams were keen to take the win and sprinted it out. Cory Wallace crossed the line first, followed by both members of Team Danton and Spencer Paxton the fourth rider.
Since the timing is taken on the second of the pair to cross the line, Team Danton took their fifth stage win to maintain a big advantage in the overall competition. Kona Factory B were third across the line, followed by ourselves, riding with Team New World, the leading mixed team who rode a very impressive stage, continuing to dominate their category. In the womens race, Torpedo 7 have what must be an unassailable lead, now well over two hours ahead of second place.