The penultimate stage for The Pioneer in 2018 looked daunting on paper and on weather apps. But the truth on the trails was a world apart.
As riders sat in their tents in Bannockburn this morning, I'm certain many wondered what the day would hold. We've had the Queen Stage at Alexandra, but today was set to be harder. The route book for The Pioneer said 3563m in 70km. That's heaps.
To add to that, we had to pack our emergency gear. As the Southern Alps are, well, the Southern Alps, you can't take the weather conditions lightly. Every day we need to be carrying a warm hat (a beanie) and a windproof jacket, along with a first aid kit with a space blanket, amongst other essential equipment like tools. But for mandatory emergency gear, you need a fully seam-sealed waterproof jacket with a hood, a spare long sleeve thermal, thermal tights and winter gloves. So it was a big backpack day.
Adding to this, it was drizzly at the start and a few categories are close. Women's had about 7 minutes between the 1st and 2nd placed teams. Mixed had 10 minutes. Masters are pretty settled, but with unsettled weather and a hectic day ahead, a couple of categories could really get a shake up today.
I rolled out in Group B, where the leading women were watching each other like hawks, and some of the mixed teams were still tied up in a tussle. The route retraced yesterday's finish, and it was a very gentle start for us on the dirt roads, until we hit the double track and things split up. We were in and out of drizzle and after a feed zone we made our way to the Carricktown Trail. It was steep, and there was a bit of hike-a-bike, depending on your fitness and line selection. Unlike other events like Port to Port or Cape to Cape, you can't come to The Pioneer and ride everything. Some things will be so steep you need to walk - and that just reflects being in the Southern Alps.
We climbed high, past aquaducts, and along farm trails that traced long lines through the tussock grass and spaniards (a grass, not European visitors). If you're looking at the photos and thinking it looks smooth, remember how much flatter hills look in photos. And then consider how rough it is with lumpy rocks and solid lumps of tussock. There isn't much free rolling speed in New Zealand unless you're on a cycle trail or buff singletrack. The backcountry is tough!
The stand out name on the course profile was Mt Difficulty. It's up there with Mt Misery out the back of Irvinebank in Tropical North Queensland for a name that will strike fear into any riders heart. But, the sun was shining, there was no storm, and Mt Difficulty was tough - but had beautiful views. We traced along a ridgeline between rock formations, and at one point I thought the only reason for this farm track to be up that high was vehicle access for filing Lord of the Rings. Looking across the valley, we were out cloud level. We had a long way to descend.
The descent was ripping (as was the last, but this isn't blow by blow), descents today and yesterday were fast and open backcountry descents, a world apart from the trails at the Prologue, or the trails in Queenstown or Alexandra. And that diversity is excellent, making The Pioneer a standout event for our region, and clearly different in 2018 compared to the past two years.
Oh, and the elevation was out by about 1000m, so that helped the general vibe for the day.
At the front of the race, Team Onya Bike kept doing their thing, winning the stage. Bigger news was that leading Masters Anthony Shippard and David Evans were 3rd overall - a handy ride. The two fastest women's teams came in together although Team Shimano of Brodie Chapman and Briony Mattocks did win the sprint. It will be interesting to see whether their gap to the lead will get closed tomorrow. The climb and descent of Mt Michael has almost 1200m of elevation gain and then loss, down the Roaring Meg singletrack. The climb then to the back of the Western Face above the Shotover river might then cause more damage, but it seems like 7 or 8 minutes would be a lot.
In Mixed, Team Jojoe got up, and took a few minutes out of New World. The jerseys remain firmly on the shoulders of Kate Fluker and Mark Williams - but 86km and almost 3000m of climbing tomorrow could see the 6 minutes and 11 seconds disappear, if things went very well for Jojoe. Let's see.