As the inaugural NZ The Pioneer stage race draws to a close our reporter Matt Page is relishing a rest. With another 2000m of climbing and some injuries to contend with the final stage was never going to be easy! Matt raced on behalf of our sister magazine, Mountain Biking UK – you can check out the full story of this epic race and see some more beautiful photos in issue 328 (out 5 April 2016).
Stage 7: A walk in the park?
The final stage profile made the day look like a walk in the park: a mere 62km with it looking like a 20km downhill, then 40km on flatter terrain. Looking at the details though there appeared to be 2000m of climbing. Surely a mistake?
As had become the norm for the last few days the start was fast with Teams Kona A and B rocketing off the start, keen to push ahead and use the downhill to their advantage. I pushed hard and clung on for the first few km, but a mixture of taking a few too many risks on the fast, loose downhill and a long term leg injury that flared up meant I had to knock it back a touch and watch the top three teams disappear ahead.
The track turned into a rough, barely visible singletrack with big holes hiding in the long grass just waiting to swallow a wheel. It was after Bevan Spratt of Team Flint Cycling passed me and then almost immediately lost his front wheel and went over the bars that I decided to really ease up – the chance of a broken collar bone along here was rather high.
We ending up riding with the top mixed riders, who were going well but in a steady manner as the track continued to get even more vague, with several sections where we either lost the track or had to stop and check ahead through the tussocky terrain. The trail undulated quite a bit, heading downhill to the first and only feed station of the day at 23km.
By this point I'd only had one sip of a drink, so there was absolutely no point in stopping. After the leg problem at the start, I was now also suffering from a numb right hand and arm and my hipflexors were in agony on the descents, the week had really taken its toll on me and I was just hoping for an easy ride and to finish.
Team Kona Factory B were just ahead of us, after some sort of trail repair, which spurred us on as we hit the next climb. Pushing hard for a while we kept their pace and the gap to around a minute, but the terrain changed again, back to a rough 4x4 track with super steep climbs mixed into the occasional flatter or downhill section. Although the profile looked like it was heading downhill, this section racked up the climbing metres and really dragged. I was suffering and for the first time in the week Sam was getting frustrated, which I can hardly blame him for as I was moaning quite a bit.
The rough section last for around 20km, unrelenting and with no sign of easing up. Towards the end of the section I pushed myself to stick with the Team New World and it wasn't long after that we hit a bike track, which marked the end of the killer middle section and the beginning of the end. From here it was a flatter, fast ride along the Queenstown trail all the way back to the finish at Queenstown.
I seemed to find a new set of legs in the last 10km and we pushed ahead, into fourth on the road and finished the stage again in fourth to seal our position overall. I think we were both over the moon with that, but personally I was particularly pleased as a late entry meant I'd only started to focus on this event six weeks previously – and in November after a long period of not training, my fitness had been at its lowest ebb in over six years of racing.
Team Kona Factory A had managed to do what had eluded them all week and take the stage win ahead of Team Danton. The tough final stage may have taken it out of the the XCO specialists, who rolled across the line in second place, but they were well clear overall to take the win.
Team New World finished a little after us, taking the mixed-team win by over 2hrs and an incredible fifth overall. They were perhaps the outfit of the event, with superb team work and pacing on display. In the Masters 40+ race it was Team Leave Pass 2 who took the win in the most hotly contested category of the week. Team Torpedo 7 dominated the Open Women race, winning by over 6hrs and Masters of Mud Plugging Mayhem won the Masters 50+, again with another dominant performance from the team that included local multi-sport legend Steve Gurney.
Overall the first ever Pioneer NZ proved to be far tougher than most riders expected. The stage distances were on par with many other stage races around the world, but a mixture of challenging terrain with some incredibly steep climbs and barely any easy or “free” kilometres meant riders were pushed to the limits every step of the way. The organisation proved to be superb, with logistics, catering and support all proving to be excellent. Pioneer NZ will only go from strength to strength, and with a solid event plan and support from regional and national government it has what it takes to become one of the iconic stage races around the world.