The Pioneer Stage 4 – Mt Difficulty and other difficult climbs

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Click.

Beep.

Click.

Beep.

Click.

Beep.

Ok I’m definitely in my smallest gear, but how is that possible? I’ll just check again.
Beep. Yep. Shit.

MarathonMTB Pioneer NZ Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Getting going again

Today Mike and I started Stage four of The Pioneer with the goal of making it to the first feed zone, then reassessing things after our nightmare day yesterday. We’d done everything possible to have a better stage, including the evening camp stretch class and eating an obscene number of bagels for breakfast, as well as managing a great night’s sleep in tent city.

Tent city is nothing if not orderly from afar.

While the queen stage might be behind us, on paper, today’s stage four of The Pioneer look set to be the most difficult, with 3,600m climbing squeezed into a 70-kilometre loop around Bannockburn. The day started well for us. We sat with a slow-moving front bunch from start block B, controlled by the leading women’s teams who were eyeing one another off before a long day’s climbing and not willing to attack during this prelude – a 20-kilometre section of rolling hills.

We were happy to sit back and let the bunch go when things heated up a bit and roll back through town to the first feed zone, enjoying the encouragement from the locals and grabbing handfuls of tasty brownies on the way. One of the joys of ‘just riding’ is that you have time for things like brownies. A few creek crossings (farewell, dry feet!) and we were back on track. We didn’t consider pulling out, and it was on to hill number one.

Splash down!

Mt Annoying, Mt Stupid… Mt Difficulty

All the talk had been about the aptly-named Mt Difficulty, so it was kindof awful to start the first climb – not Mt Difficulty, but something that should have been named Mt Shite or similar – and begin to suffer in a way that was really not okay. If this was not Mt Difficulty, and nobody had even bothered to give it a  name, how the hell was I going to get up something whose name means ‘effing hard’? Mike and I distracted ourselves with a bitter argument over whether my rear tyre was going flat (it wasn’t, for the record), then didn’t talk at all for several kilometres. This climb dragged on for about 12 kilometres and included steep, loose, and muddy ramps that had a lot of our group off and pushing. Mercifully, the gradient dropped a little towards the top, and even more mercifully, there was another feed zone there where I could stock up on brownies again, followed by a great descent where we caught a few other teams.

Climbing higher – the Master’s leaders stayed in front again today.

Then it came, Mt Difficulty, and what an anticlimax it was. Mt Difficulty took us through the land of the long lumpy tussock, but apart from being maddeningly bumpy, it wasn’t really that bad at all, as long as you had the patience to creep along chewing your stem while being bounced around for a good hour or so. The descent down the other side, also incredibly tussocky, was harder in many ways, leaving blisters on my hands, although we caught a couple more teams by the feed zone at the bottom. Until now, I’ve not really stopped much at The Pioneer feed zones, carrying enough food for most of the stages instead. I must say, they’re up there with the best I’ve encountered, volunteers rapidly filling and recapping our bidons in less than 15 seconds in most cases, and a good range of snacks that never run out.

MarathonMTB Pioneer NZ Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

There followed a lovely stretch of fast, downhill bitumen, where everyone started cursing their 30t chainrings, a short section of climby singletrack, and a four-kilometre run along the bitumen before the finish line, which we crossed with a friendly mixed team we’d been battling with since Mt Difficulty, ending with an exhausted, relieved truce. While a few of us marvelled to have 1,000m less climbing than anticipated on our GPS, nobody complained.

Michael Vink and Tim Rush again won the men’s event, and Brodie Chapman and Briony Mattocks the women’s in a nail-biting sprint finish. Full results are available online.

Tomorrow is the final stage, and while mentally it feels like a downhill run into Queenstown, it’s anything but. In fact, tomorrow may well be one of the hardest stages, with 2,900m climbing forecast over 86 kilometres. But we get a jet boat ride, so that’s something.

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