Photos: Jemma Wells and Tim Bardsley-Smith

Every stage race has a Queen stage - the day with the longest distance. And with 101km on the cards for Stage 2 of The Pioneer, with a mere 2664m to climb in there, that would be today.

But those numbers don't tell the entire story. Over half of the stage was on cycle trails or singletrack. And as we know from visiting Central Otago before, the singletrack is narrow, natural and just plain awesome.

The weather has cleared up and today was just about full sun, and as the race begun around 8am depending what start wave you were in, we got right onto the Otago Central Rail Trail, then soon enough onto the trails above Alexandra. They follow irrigation channels, moto trails, and just about wherever the local mountain bike club choose to build them. They're awesome. Alex is a rad place to visit if you like riding singletrack that isn't built like a bike park super highway.

We came back to town and went up the Roxburgh Gorge trail. Last time we were here, there were plans afoot for a connecting trail from the Flat Top Hill trails down to the gorge. They'd built it, and we would climb it - 6km of purpose built singletrack, to then take us to the top. This next loop was epic, with a long descent to climb back up through the thyme. With views across to Old Man range with snow on the top, it was a really special stage.

Once back on top, the route got a little faster on farm roads, and these would climb, descend and twist and turn. And eventually, they would lead to such sharp rises most people would push at least one of them.

There was one more big descent to go, the Clyde enduro trail, which features in Trans NZ. The only catch was the long, long climb to get there. It dragged on for tired legs, those with more in the tank found it ok. The lines with mandatory gaps on the descent were taped off, and it was a blast to ride, even on an XC bike.

The finish was fast, and sure maybe the extra kilometres around the airport weren't so good. But I don't think anyone would cross the line today coming into Molyneux Park in Alexandra not feeling like there were tested and entertained. We had beautiful views, had great race service from the feedzones, and the trails were epic. It was a brilliant showcase of the trails here in Alex.

What happened at the front?

Well the big news is the Euro team that won yesterday are out. Ismael came over with a stomach bug and couldn't continue. So Tim Rush and Michael Vink won, and have the GC lead by almost 40 minutes from the South African team of Alan Gordon and Timothy Hammond.

“We went on the first 5k single track climb, over Butchers Dam, it was the first time we have ridden it and we enjoyed it. I just rode tempo and we got into a good rhythm and the other guys dropped off. It was good to get that gap and then Vinky put it in the 38 on the downhill and spun her up and we were away.”
Vink described a much easier day when riding from in front early on.
“It was good even in terms of racing, the difference today is we were in front and not chasing, we got that gap early and that was the difference. Yesterday we were kind of chasing from the first difficult section which made it hard, but today we rode within ourselves and to our own tempo, I think that was the key.”

The 2018 Tour of Southland winner is loving his time in the dirt, hinting that he might return without a race number and timing chip.
“It was really fun, to be honest it would be nice to ride through here not racing and in quite so much pain, it would be nice to cruise through here and enjoy a bit more, but we are still taking time to take things in and share a few things on course, we are having fun, that is what it is all about at the end of the day.”

The best Australians are the duo from Cyclist mag, back in 4th.

In the women, Amy Hollamby and Kate McIllroy won again, but the Australian Team Shimano of Brodie Chapman and Briony Mattocks are chipping away, now 12 minutes behind in 2nd overall.

Chapman is loving the Pioneer experience and vows to keep fighting over the closing three days.
“That was a really long day on the bike, longer than I usually ever do, some super punishing climbs but the atmosphere and landscape made it doable. The aid stations absolutely saved us with that electrolyte and food ready to go, it was so good. The single track was fun, and you just have to keep turning the legs over.
“The other girls are very strong and we both have our strengths. We feel we excel in the single track and can look to make up time there, but when it comes to those super brutal climbs and long pulls you have to ride your own race, there is no point trying to hold someone’s wheel that you just can’t sustain.
“Briony has been awesome and is super experienced, she said to me today we are like Simpson and the Donkey, she is Simpson and I am the Donkey, which is actually very accurate, but we are super stoked at team Shimano.”

In Mixed, Mark Williams and Kate Fluker still reign supreme, but their gap isn't iron clad yet. Best Aussies are my wife Imogen Smith and I in 5th - we're about an hour down and have had a pretty rough race, today included. But what a stage.

In Masters, Anthony Shippard and Dave Evans lead but the fight between 2nd and 3rd is tight. Like... 11 seconds. Peg Leyland and Kath Kelly lead Masters women, and sit just outside the top 50 overall. Interestingly, Grand Masters leaders Tim O'Leary and Shaun Portegys lead but they were very close behind the leading Masters today, and in front of them on course for a while.

Tomorrow we head to Bannockburn. The stage is a little shorter so we get to start at 9am. I don't think anyone will be upset with a bit more sleep.

Full results from today are online.