The Pioneer Stage five – Final stage brings a few surprises

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Tired legs roll out of Bannockburn

This morning we got up before dawn and munched through breakfast in the dark.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

It’s always unbelievable to me that, given my usual appetite, when we get into the depths of a stage race I find myself completely without interest in food, so that eating is stripped of any pleasure and feels like an intellectual exercise at best (I need to eat x grams of carb right now), and like hard physical labour at worst. Breakfast endured, we had a quick turnaround in front of us to get to the start chute before 7am.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

While a great position in the start chute had been paramount on Stage 1 (and we’d messed it up), as the week’s worn on the point of getting a great position nice and early has waned. Nobody’s attacking from the gun anymore, preferring to roll out in a bunch and warm up a bit before things split up naturally. Today was no different, everyone just riding their own pace into the final, 86-kilometre, 2,950m stage.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

We rolled out towards the base of a monstrous climb, Mt Michael, which rose about 1200m over 12 or more kilometres. But it was a nice climb. A well-graded farm road which, at the beginning at least, provided a break from the crushing gradients of other climbs we’ve tackled in Central Otago. And I felt better, rolling through the B block field and, eventually onto the back of start block A. A little surprised, we just kept the momentum up, even when the course (inevitably) turned to squishy, tacky, tussocky, steep mud (again!) for the final four or five kilometres.

Sink holes and more tussocks

We came up on a couple of mixed teams and pushed on through a feed zone and across the top of the mountain, before finally reaching the Roaring Meg descent where we’d been warned, in a first for our stage racing careers, of falling into sink holes. After stopping to inspect a noisy BB we hurtled downwards. I was a bit wary of the sink holes but happy to pass two mixed teams before the bottom, where, our bottles still nearly full, we rode through another feed zone, sat up, and thought ‘now what?’

Well the answer was, of course, more mud, more climbing, and more mind-bendingly awful tussocky grassy steep stuff. Mike and I lost concentration a bit, letting a mixed team pass us and ride away. I think with so long out of the race, we’d not really been prepared for a good day, and found ourselves alone, suffering, and, in the heat of the valley, out of fluids, and 20km from the next feed zone.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

Womping and wandering

After two of these long climbs we hit a switchback descent where I nearly crashed on the last bend because I was distracted by an immense roaring noise. Of course! The jet boat.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

The jet boat ride was kinda tricky, bracing against the low side of the boat on a slippery surface and trying to hang onto a bike, through the womping accelerations, before backing off in bike shoes. Awkward. Even more awkward is the fact that I had no idea of proper protocol at the other end and let other teams, who had been behind us, back on course first, then wasted a bunch of time disrobing, before ditching Mike and running off up the steep bank. The other teams got away. You just can’t let your concentration drop, and I had, and we lost a good bunch for the flat section, and a whole lot of time because of it.

Bunch riding the Queenstown Trail

So we were on our own again through kilometres and kilometres of the Queenstown Trail, a curvy, gently undulating cycle path. We had a huge train of riders approaching us, so we tried to stay in front until the feed zone so we could do a rapid refill and carry on without traffic. Soon after the feed zone, Mike no longer able to pull on the front, we were caught. I sat third wheel, and settled in for the run into town. It was mercifully clean, and great to sit in a bunch that looked out for one another and kept the pace even and high, smoothing it out over the climbs and descents. With 82 kilometres on the clock I knew that, pretty much no matter what happened, we’d make it. And we did. The final hairy kilometre through car park negotiated, we rounded a final corner and crossed the line.

I really can’t believe we finished. We started The Pioneer tired, broken, and nowhere near as fit as we’d normally rock up to a stage race, and when I crashed hard, the extra pain and struggle was more damaging because of this. I was super fit for World Champs in September and hadn’t had a break afterwards, opting to train through to The Pioneer. I nearly made it, but with a big house move a couple of weeks ago, during the last five weeks we’d had to switch from focused training to ‘just riding whenever we could’, and it shows. Today we were unable to capitalise on the five minute gaps we’d made up to the mixed teams who’d started in block A, and, although we had the podium in our sights at the halfway mark, we faded and had to settle for another fifth place.

MarathonMTB Pioneer Epic Series

The overall winners were Tim Rush and Michael Vink, while Kate McIlroy and Amy Hollamby won the women’s. Our category changed leads, as Mark Williams and Kate Fluker suffered a flat and Team Jojoe who were only minutes behind took the lead on the final stage. You can find all the results online.

What’s next?

Someone asked me what’s next and I said ‘fronting up at the office on Monday morning’. Life’s a bit like that at the moment. There are still endless races on our bucket list, and I’d particularly like to complete the Epic Series, with Swiss Epic and Cape Epic finishes. With full love to Mike, I’m also eager to experience racing in women’s teams, just for a change. There’s always another event, always more excitement to plan for, but for now, it’s time for a rest.

A huge thanks to The Pioneer crew for a superb and memorable event.

Stage Five

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