The final stage of The Pioneer has been ridden and raced for 2018, won by Michael Vink and Tim Rush. It is worth reflecting on what the race has become in its 3 year lifespan.  It has joined the ranks of international stage races, yet holds a fiercely local flavour in New Zealand. But we'll have more about that in an issue next year.

Today's stage would take us from Bannockburn and back to Queenstown, but not before we climbed Mt Michael - which was about 1100m or more of climbing after some fun trails along the river bank. The climb took us into the clouds, and above them, before descending back down to the Roaring Meg. From then, the race course still had a lot to give. A lot of up, and a lot of speed - and even a jetboat ride. Those who had something left in the tank could burn it up on the final half of the course after the jetboat ride across the river. Those who had misjudged their efforts were left to bring it in and savour the moment.

The Pioneer winners

Michael Vink has added The Pioneer Mountain Bike Stage Race win to the 2018 Tour of Southland title (a major road stage race_), and hints that he might not yet be finished on the dirt.

Kate McIlroy showed her potential to add another sport to add to her national representation in athletics, triathlon and road cycling, winning the Open Women’s category with Amy Hollamby (Wellington Airport), while in the Mixed Category, former triathlete Josie Wilcox and Joe Skerman (New Zealand) won the final stage to surge ahead of defending champions and local Queenstown riders Mark Williams and Kate Fluker (team New World).
Vink and partner Tim Rush (ONYA Bike) dominated the six-day race that took riders throughout the Central Otago region, riding over 400km and climbing over 15,000m, taking on some of the toughest alpine trails and stunning single-track riding that the region has to offer.
Vink and Rush took out the final stage into Queenstown today, in the end winning the overall title by a whopping one hour and fifteen minutes and suggested that he and Rush might find other metaphorical and literal mountains to climb on the bikes.
“What a week, it has been tough, character building but we have learned so much and have improved throughout the week and that is what we wanted,” said Vink.
Category winners earn a guaranteed start at the renowned Cape Epic in South Africa, an event that traditionally sells out in moments, one regarded as the ultimate in mountain bike stage racing and an event that is on Vink’s mind.
“Cape Epic is something we have discussed, it is a different scale and we have a lot to improve on if we are to go, we don’t want to go just for the experience, we want to be competitive so we have to think about what we can do and what our goals are, it is on the table and up for discussion, at some stage it is an itch that will need scratching.”
The celebrations for Rush were made all the sweeter after the disappointment of 2017.
“I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder after last year’s DQ and I always wanted to come back. It was about two years ago when I first hit Michael up and talked about it, I needed someone decent and I knew he was up to it, I knew if I could get my body up to it we would have a fun week and we did, it was painful but we did it and I couldn’t have done this with a better partner, I am real happy.”
Vink and Rush dominated the week, from the moment they took out the prologue at Coronet Peak on Sunday, to the moment they rode into the Gardens today, the ONYA Bike riders won five of the six days after the early demise of the European challengers Vojomag, when Ismael Ventura Sanchez withdrew with illness.
Second home today and overall were the well credentialled South Africans, Timothy Hammond and Alan Gordon (team Spot Africa/Insect Science), they finished 17 minutes ahead of defending champions Jimmy Williamson and Scott Lyttle (Willbike/Mortgage Me, New Zealand).
The women’s title was very much up in the air heading into the final stage, with Wellington Airport’s Kate McIlroy and Amy Hollamby (New Zealand) holding an eight-minute lead over Brodie Chapman and Briony Mattocks (Shimano, Australia), but the Kiwis held their nerve to win the stage and stamp their name on the trophy.
“We have worked really well together, working out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we complement each other really well. It has been a massive six days, I don’t know if either one of us expected to win it, so it is a huge surprise and we are absolutely stoked”, said McIlroy.”
“It is quite stressful having the yellow leader jersey on all week and to be honest we didn’t expect to have it so soon after the prologue and to keep it all week. There were some nervous moments but today was awesome. The last two hours were probably the longest of my life, the Queenstown Trail is not easy!”
Hollamby was third last year with Haley Van Leeuwen and has ridden and led the team superbly all week and was full of praise for McIlroy.
“That was unbelievable, this girl has some pure strength, I can’t believe how she rides, she has had me in the box all week,” said an exhausted but elated Hollamby.
Third home was team Madison of Erin Greene and Hannah Miller (New Zealand), Greene was the defending champion from 2017.
Closest of all categories was the Mixed, with two-time defending champions Mark Williams and Kate Fluker (New World, New Zealand), unable to defend a six-minute lead on the final day, with the hard charging Josie Wilcox and Joe Skerman (team JoJoe) storming to victory with a nine-minute stage victory into Queenstown.
“We got a five-minute penalty on Tuesday so were quite determined to get that back, it is our first stage race, so it was a learning experience, but we are really happy. I am so proud of Joe, he hung in and rode through some pretty dark places today,” said Wilcox
“I tried to go on the hill, but Joe had other ideas, Kate caught Joe on the hill and we worked together but then Joe told me Willy (Mark Williams) had a flat tyre and I knew we had to make the most of it, which is pretty awful and just really unlucky, I knew we had a good lead at the jet boat and then we pretty much time trial back into town.”
Skerman was his usual understated self as he contemplated putting the bike away for a while to get back to work on the farm.
“The tank is well empty now, that was a tough one today. It has been great racing, we have learned a lot.  Kate and Willy are awesome riders, we just wanted to keep the pressure on all week and we managed to get it today which we are pretty happy about it.
“That is very rewarding, I am proud of the result, but I will be happy to get back to my dairy farm and milk the cows again.”
Queenstown local Mark Williams was full of praise for Wilcox and Skerman, despite the disappointment of the untimely puncture.
“That is racing, hats off to Josie and Joe, they raced really hard all week, they deserve it and have been charging and been really strong. Some things happen for a reason, a staple through the tyre for me today just said it wasn’t meant to be for us this year.  I am happy, we raced well and gave it our all and have just come up a bit short, but we have still had a great time out there.”
Emphasising the quality of the Kiwis was the third placed team of Jean-Francois Bossler (France) and Fanny Bourdon (CZE), the 2016 Cape Epic winners loving their time in New Zealand.
The Masters division was taken out by the Australian SRAM team of Anthony Shippard and David Evans, the pair were dominant throughout the week to win by almost four hours from Wade Wallace and Allan Iacuone (Australia), with team Nutritec Nathon Wright and Gene Marsh (New Zealand) in third.
Equally impressive was team IMB in taking out the Women’s Masters by over three hours, with Kath Kelly and Peg Leyland (Australia) winning the final stage to wrap up a superb week of riding. Second were Emma McCosh and Marquita Gelderman (New Zealand), with Kylie Burrows and Sarah Kaehler (Australia) in third.
Burrows was one of the inspiring stories from the event as she returned having undertaken treatment to fight an aggressive breast cancer discovered just weeks after she rode in the 2017 Pioneer. In her own words she was not going to be beaten and returned to compete again in 2018, with a few less ‘free loaders’ on board.
The Grand Masters (both riders 50+) was won by Shaun Portegys and Tim O’Leary (2 Old Men, New Zealand), with today’s stage winners Blair Stuthridge and Neil Sutherland (New Zealand) coming home second overall, with Napier pair Kent Wilson and Chris Clark in third on GC.

Full results are online.