The Pioneer - 7 days in New Zealand, a beautiful country that makes for a brutal test

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There were times that I actually thought I would be better off sat at my desk at work……luckily hindsight is a wonderful thing and I can now say that the time I spent in New Zealand’s South Island, racing the inaugural Pioneer stage race, with friends and newly made friends, in an amazing environment, and enjoying the hospitality and culture was full of unforgettable moments and enjoyment.

I’m pretty sure that Minter (Warthog) brought the Pioneer to my attention back in March ’15. I’m sure most of you will be familiar with the drill, an email lands in your inbox from a friend mentioning a race, there’s a link to the race showing postcard pictures with promises of amazing trails, vistas and experiences. If I recall correctly the catchphrase the Pioneer organisers used was ‘Find Welcome, Find Character, Find Stunning’ and this was all built around a ‘pioneering’ journey from Christchurch to Queenstown over 7 stages, 570kms and what was originally shown as 25,000m of climbing.. I quickly shared this with my Sxc Racing teammates, stating in no uncertain terms that this was ‘one for the climbers’.. oh how little did we really know!

So emails went back and forth and within a short space of time Wayne (Dicko) and I had decided to team up for the adventure.. entries were in. Wayne and I had ridden the Hellfire Cup together in 2014 and did pretty well, we are well matched in terms of fitness and our strengths complement one another. Minter and Ian had also entered so we already knew that we had someone to chase. Pete and Nathan from Cyclery Northside were there, as were Garry James and Mike Israel so we were in some familiar company and looking forward to some good times.

Little thought was given to the race for the next few months, winter came and went, Wayne headed off to Europe to take part in TransAlp and one or two other races. There was one eye on the Pioneer but not wanting to start training to early and risk overtraining, gladly the organisers had rechecked the elevation and settled on about 15,700m, some 10,000m less than originally stated, but still A LOT. We’d decided on a campervan instead of using the tents and our friend and Sxc teammate Craig (Craked) had agreed to drive and be there in support, this was great news, flights and accommodation were booked and plans made. I had in mind that I would train for the Fling and continue to build from there. Needless to say plans don’t always work out, a new Specialized S-Works Epic World Cup was bought when my old frame was found to have developed a crack around the bottom bracket.. my first ride on the new Epic and the 720mm bars it came with caught me out and I managed to fracture my elbow, this was in mid-October, slap bang in the middle of training for the Fling. My first consult with the Doctor scared the life out of me, ‘you won’t be mountain biking again until January’, shit! I called Wayne and told him the news, the last thing I wanted was to let him down before we’d even reached the start line! Surely it wouldn’t be that long? The fracture wasn’t displaced, I was already moving my arm and didn’t need painkillers from 3 days after the accident. Still, it was going to be the trainer for me in the meantime and so Zwift became my friend for a few weeks whilst I started undergoing physio. In short, I was off the bike for 4 weeks, and returned to riding the mountain bike on the road. I’d missed the Fling and the Hellfire Cup, however I was back on the bike and SO happy to be riding again, that was Monday 16 November, about 10 weeks until we were due on the startline in Christchurch. Training started almost immediately, from my first ride back (16/11) to 24 Jan when tapering started, I rode 4,593kms and climbed 72,235m, over this time I was using PureEdge whey protein to recover from my training efforts and I have to say that having never used any additional nutrition before I was grateful to be able to ride day after day and feel that added benefits of the product. Friends were asking how I was feeling and whether I felt fit, the reality was the training was tiring and I didn’t really feel strong as there was a continued ache in my legs however, being able to put out power when you’re fatigued is the goal. There was no more I could do now, I was about as ready as I thought I could be given the time I had after the elbow fracture, but was nervous having never raced for 7 days and had to climb so much elevation in a week.

We arrived in Christchurch the Friday before the race start on Sunday, we enjoyed a couple of beers and talked about the race. Saturday was registration day and they’d sent out detailed plans and mandatory kit requirements, first aid, hat, windproof jacket, tool kit, tubes, etc. all this and more had to be checked at registration. Luckily it all went smoothly and we’d received our race pack, bags and other paraphernalia that we would need (and some we wouldn’t) for the week. From there we headed off to ride the first stage and get a feel for what we were in for. This was probably a bad idea. Rain in the preceding day or 2 meant that the trail was greasy and muddy in places, Wayne fell a couple of times and this increased the nervousness. We rode back to our hotel and cleaned the bikes ready for the next day. There was nothing more we could do but accept that the following morning we’d be racing.

I would love to say that our race went exactly to plan but sadly that’s not the case. Over 7 days and 30+ hours of riding you expect that you are going to face some bad luck. We’d gotten the nervousness of stage 1 out of the way and finished some 3:00 back on team Leave Pass 2 (Minter and Ian) who were lying 2nd behind an international iRide team by a further 30 seconds. Garry James and Mike Israel were also riding in Masters and started strongly and were sitting 4th. The next stage started some 100kms south of Christchurch in Geraldine, so this involved a drive to the first camp location. From here on however we would be racing ‘point to point’ so the finish location became the start for the following day. This was when the ‘real’ stages started. Long days all with over 2000m of climbing and was the test of endurance to come. We were going reasonably well for the first couple of long stages, some bad luck with a sidewall cut (stage 2) and then a poor day from me on Stage 3 when I suffered in the heat meant that we were sitting 4th in Masters but still in a good position to compete for a podium spot.

And then Stage 4 happened.. this was billed as an ‘easy’ day, a day where you could recover before the queen stage. The stage was essentially 60kms of fairly flat gravel and roads, then climb for 2 hours, descend, then another 25kms of flattish riding around Lake Ohau. Firstly, I crashed about 30kms into the stage, not on singletrack or anything technical. We were on the Alps2Ocean trail and some genius had decided that wooden bollards would be a great idea. The track is gravel and loose and riding at 30kmh meant it could be sketchy. It was single file only, I looked over my shoulder to make sure Wayne was close. The rider in front of me drifted left and I saw the bollard microseconds before and smash, my right hand hits it. I was sent flying to the ground, my entire left side taking the brunt. Wayne pulled over and helped me off the track. I’d managed to lose a lot of skin from my ankle all the way up to my back. In fact the only limb that wasn’t affected was my lower right leg. I think we lost about 1 minute to the fall but I was lucky, one other rider hit a bollard square on and broke ribs! I was able to ride and we pushed on solo, sharing turns towing one another. We knew that the lead group was long gone and there was no point going deep with the climb ahead of us. We’d been warned about the severity of the gradients on the climbs and the lack of traction on some sections. Wayne had come good and was climbing well, picking off people that had passed us or ridden away from us when I’d crashed. Unfortunately the lack of traction on one section caught Wayne out when he was riding close to the edge. When you see anyone fall, friend or stranger, you look for signs that they are ok, a hand going up, a shout of ‘I’m ok’, anything. This didn’t happen, and the 10metres I had to make up felt like it took minutes, something bad had happened. It was clear that Wayne was in a bad way, from his position on the bike to the ground was probably a fall of 2metres, straight onto his shoulder. After getting out of the bike he was cradling his right arm like when a collarbone is broken. We managed to get onto the trail and started walking up to the next checkpoint for help, we’d managed a couple of minutes but the adrenaline must have started to wear off and the pain too much so we waited. It’s now that you realise why the mandatory kit is required, if it had been even the slightest bit cold sitting exposed on a mountainside could get seriously risky. Luckily it was hot, probably too hot and dehydration and exposure was more of a worry. The race Doctor arrived and diagnosed a fracture in the collarbone. Wayne and I chatted and he was adamant I ride on. Despite my reluctance I rode off after about 30 minutes, riding on alone felt odd, I didn’t really feel like riding and was deflated. I really wanted to finish this race as a team. I rode on but my mind was elsewhere. On the flat ride to the finish I heard helicopter blades overhead, I wondered then if it was Wayne and hoped that it wasn’t as it was some time since his crash and was hoping that he was already being treated. As soon as I crossed the finish the race Director came over to me, he’d already been in touch with Wayne’s wife and let her know the situation. Wayne was in the helicopter and was being taken to Queenstown hospital. Craig was also there and invaluable at the time, it was good to have someone to talk to and rely on. He was able to help out Wayne with his bag as, somewhat unbelievably, the pilot had agreed to drop into the finish so that Wayne could get his phone some clothes before heading off. I realised now that the people running this event truly cared for the racers. They would do everything in their power to get what Wayne needed. His bike was returned later that evening, they would keep us posted with what they knew and offered Wayne a lift back to the race after being discharged from hospital. Gladly x-rays showed no major break and Wayne was able to spend the night in Queenstown enjoying a beer or two, he also got to see the next day’s stage from the best possible vantage point, the air!

From that point on I was all about surviving and getting to the end. My own injuries were cleaned and patched up and I started the next day pretty sore. This wasn’t good as from the outset, stage 5, at 112kms and 3800, of climbing was always going to be a brutal test. Gladly I teamed up with Mike Blewitt of Marathon MTB for the stage as to ride alone would have been a complete slog and I probably would have pulled the pin. The best outcome that day was to see Wayne cheering alongside the finish line, it was good to see him on his feet and no doubt on some pretty good painkillers. As for me, I was just broken!

Mike and I rode on for the last couple of days and he was good company, he has a vast amount of stage racing experience and it was great to hear some stories. We hit a great section of singletrack near Wanaka on Stage 6 and this was a welcome break from what seemed like some endless climbing.

Finishing the event was a bittersweet experience. I was glad to have made the finish but without Wayne was disappointing for both of us. These types of events are more than the racing, they’re shared experiences, trusting in your team mate and helping each other out. It’s pretty rare that you’ll both be feeling good at the same time so knowing how your partner responds and knowing the signs when they might not be in a good place. It was also pleasing that Craig got to enter the day ride into Queenstown so got to experience both the first and last stage.

You may have already read Chitt’s blog on the race and I have so much respect for the both of them in winning Masters and placing 6th overall. They rode brilliantly from start to finish.

In terms of the organisation of the event it was pretty much perfect, the food was tasty and plentiful, all the people associated with the event were friendly, helpful and created an amazing atmosphere to be in and around. We rode through some amazing scenery and pretty much found everything that the race had said we would. It may not have resulted in the outcome we hoped for but it was great to be part of the first Pioneer.. will I do another? I guess only time will tell.