“If it were easy, everyone would be doing it..”
The 2018 edition of the now iconic New Zealand MTB stage race spanned 6 days, covered 424km with 15,124m of climbing, although I believe the climbing figure was more a product of marketing and less based on the actual course with most people getting closer to 12,000m.
Let me start with the introduction of type 2 fun. As opposed to type 1 fun where you enjoy the experience at the time. This is the type of fun you have where at the time, it is no fun at all, perhaps even painful. But in hindsight, super rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable. In my experience, The Pioneer is 10% type 1 fun and 90% type 2.
This years race was a different beast compared to previous years, with the first three days showing off some of the best single track that Queenstown and Alexander has to offer. This took a lot of returning riders by surprise as previous editions of the race had only a very small amount of technical single trail with the vast majority of the race in previous years was ridden on 4x4 farm trails. The last three days of the 2018 event saw us return to the 4x4 farm trails with long climbs through farmlands, summiting to some of the most spectacular scenery on earth, before a equally long descent, some of which would leave many reaching for a new set of brake pads.
Returning with me to the Pioneer for the second year was my race partner Mitch Hayward, who I met road riding many years ago. Looking back at that first race together now makes me realise just how naïve I was. We hopped on the plane with 5 or so rides on my new MTB under the belt and hit the stages as best we could. Mitch only recently told me that he wasn’t sure if I would finish the race when I had a little laydown at the last aid station of the second day. I replied that I didn’t even remember coming into the aid station, let alone laying down… but we did manage to finish and we took home the many lessons that can only be taught through experience.
Lesson one was correct bike setup. My 42T cassette just wasn’t big enough with a 30T chainring. By day 3, I was struggling to produce enough power to keep the pedals turning and I envied those with the big 50T eagle at their disposal. So, the switch to 12 speed (50-10 cassette) was first on the list. This year with the eagle onboard, the 30T chain ring felt like the right size for 99% of the time. Mitch was running a 34T chainring and found it tough going on some of the longer/steeper climbs. I also switched my brakes for bigger rotors and heftier callipers. The new setup was well suited for a rider of my weight, with ample power and lots of capacity for heat, this was especially nice on the 1000m+ descents when I didn’t have to worry about cooking brakes.
With the amount of steep and technical single track in the race this year, the only change I would have made would be to add a dropper post. It wouldn’t have made it much faster, but it would have been more enjoyable.
My bike setup for 2018 Pioneer:
2017 Specialised Epic
95mm rear (brain)
100mm Rockshox Reba
Tuff Cycles 929 Carbon wheels
2.2” Maxxis Ardent race on the front with 2.2” Maxxis Ikon on the rear
4 Piston Shimano XT Brakes
SRAM GX eagle 12 speed 50-10T cassette with a 30T chain ring.
Prologue – Coronet Peak 20km, 1260m, (our finish time 1:43.49)
One week before the start of this years race, the prologue course at Coronet Peak was still 40cm under snow. Warm temperatures and a few course changes had the course mostly clear for race day, but it was still extremely muddy and challenging conditions for the first day of racing.
Stage 1 – Queenstown to Queenstown 69km, 2245m, (our finish time 4:06.28)
More single trail! Highlights were riding along the precarious moonlight track and descending through the skyline bike park on XC bikes.
Stage 2 – Alexandra to Alexandra 101km, 2664m, (our finish time 6:19.38)
So much single trail! Absolutely gorgeous riding through the hills of Alexandra including a dedicated 6km of XC uphill track to the top of flat hill (switchbacks for days!) as well as some of the most technical (read rocky, steep and exposed) descending of the week.
Stage 3 – Alexandra to Bannockburn 79km, 2300m, (our finish time 5:03.12)
Classic farm trail transfer day. This was the perfect example of the 2017 pioneer, easy tracks, long climbs and not too much hike-a-bike.
Stage 4 – Bannockburn To Bannockburn 70km, 3563m, (our finish time 4:47.43)
Hooooo boy, looking at the amount of climbing and considering it was supposed to be all done by the 53km mark we were worried about the grade of what we were to face.. thankfully (unfortunately?) they overestimated the amount of climbing for the day by almost 1000m and as we paced it with big expectations, it turned into one of our easiest days.
Stage 5 – Bannockburn to Queenstown 86km, 2946m, (our finish time 5:09.48)
Leaving nothing on the table, we gave it the beans on this final stage, 1200m of climbing right off the bat in some of the muddiest conditions off the week had people getting off to clear the mud that was acting as a brake on the inside of their chain stay. After and amazing descent, and jetboat, we finished with easy rolling hills all the way back to Queenstown to get one of those coveted finishers medals.
One of the scariest aspects of the week was seeing at the end of the day more and more people sporting plaster casts or arms in slings. Talking amongst the other riders, it was said to be due to the challenging technical riding that most were not expecting after riding last year.
Having done the race twice now, it's probably not on the cards again for next year. The experience was amazing, as was the scenery and riding, but its time to try a few other events. The shortlist for 2019 is:
The Crocodile Trophy
Cape to Cape
Port to Port
If it still sounds like fun and you're keen to join the fun next year, entry fees range from $2500-3200 depending on how early you were to register. As part of registration, you receive:
110L marmot duffel bag, all your equipment to be transferred must fit into this
Small day bag for start line gear drop
Tent city accommodation for 4 nights
Dinner and breakfast while at tent city
Bike wash facilities
On site mechanics (captive market prices - $100 for a new spoke, truing and sealant)
Live race GPS tracking
6 days of fun and friendships that will last a lifetime
During registration you need to present all of your mandatory and emergency gear for inspection as per the race rules. This wasn’t overly comprehensive, but still, there were many people walking into Queenstown to buy a whistle or replace a cracked helmet. It was staggering how many people failed to have all their mandatory gear.
There were 3 aid stations per day, each a well-oiled operation. Coming in, your chain was lubed by a mechanic as your bottles were filled by a volunteer, meanwhile there was plenty of food to snack upon, lollies, brownies, fruitcake, oranges, bananas, pretzels and baked potatoes with salt.
Food was provided for the mornings and evenings at camp.
Breakfast was a selection of cereals, Bircher muesli, porridge, bacon, eggs, toast, baked beans etc, while dinners were quite varied, and nobody complained about small servings.
Lunches were either bought from the food trucks on site, the cafes in nearby towns or if you were fortunate enough to have supporters, made for you!
The 2 man tent provided per competitor was plenty big enough to set up your bed and have your duffel bag inside. It was tough to get changed towards the end of the week as the legs put up more resistance. There was rain through the week, but the tents all remained thoroughly dry inside. For the nights not in tent city, our own accommodation must be provided. We opted for a bigger place shared with another team which was lots of fun resulting in great banter.
Midway through the last stage, I turned to Mitch and said ‘don’t let me enter another one of these…’ yet here I am, less than 2 weeks later looking at what race to do next. If you haven’t tried stage racing before, the pairs format is the perfect way as you know you’re never suffering alone.