The Pioneer kicks off this weekend in Queenstown - will local legends defend their title in the Mixed category?
2016 and 2017 mixed category champions Kate Fluker and Mark Williams are gunning for a third consecutive Pioneer victory, with the Queenstown riders looking to capitalise on a home advantage at the internationally acclaimed mountain bike stage race, with six days of racing in the Central Otago region.
Fluker has made her name in both stage racing and on the UCI cross country circuit, while Williams is these days heavily involved in riding as a passion, but also in his day to day job as CEO of the Queenstown Trails Trust, a charity that stands to benefit from the third edition of The Pioneer.
Both are happy to share the secret to their success in an event where riders must not breach a two-minute time gap at any time during the race, as teams take on 430km of riding and 15,500m of climbing over six days, starting and ending in Queenstown.
“I am probably riding less these days with my work commitments, but for me this is not about raw speed, it is the ability to keep going every day, and that is about the endurance base that you build up over a long time,” said Williams. “We are both suited to this type of event, we have so much fun and have a good time as well, and if the result is good then that is a bonus.
“Of course, we are competitive and race hard, but we are really excited because it is on our home tracks as well, which is probably a reasonable advantage to us. We know many of the tracks and trails, we have ridden Coronet Peak and a few of the others many times. There are some that are on private land, but we are familiar with large parts of the course.”
Fluker agrees with her riding buddy, known by everyone in the sport and industry and simply, ‘Willy’.
“I think the increased single track will suit us as well, if I am not as strong on the road type stuff, I will make up for it on the single track. I don’t know the trails so well in Alexandra but I have ridden there before and know the terrain well enough to get through, and obviously we ride Queenstown all the time so we have to make the most of that advantage.”
The course has had some considerable tweaking between events, reducing to six days (including the opening prologue on Coronet Peak on Sunday) and reducing the number of different overnight locations, with the event hosted for two nights in Alexandra and Bannockburn, before ending back in Queenstown.
Williams thinks the changes will only increase the attraction of the event, especially with overseas riders.
“It has definitely made it a simpler exercise logistically, to fly in and out of Queenstown, especially for the overseas riders. I know personally if I was committing to a race like this overseas, I would want it to be as easy as possible to bring the family.”
Fluker agrees, suggesting the event is easier for spectators to follow, with the chance to pick and choose their days and make the trip from Queenstown or anywhere in the Central Otago region without travelling for hours.
“I can only imagine that many of the overseas riders committing to an event like this would want to bring family along if they can, the changes certainly make it easier to do that with the flights, but also staying closer to Queenstown throughout the entire week makes it easier for family, friends and media to watch or cover a few stages and drop in and out of the event.”
There is no doubt however that the competition will go up a notch or two, with close to 300 teams entered and amongst them some strong opposition in the mixed category, including Elina Ussher.
“It was great last year that team Freakshow came over and we're keen on giving it a good nudge, it always makes it interesting, but you have to ride your own race, we learned that lesson last year, we will just do our own thing,” said Williams.
“It is always good to have that competition, I guess I should have looked at the entry list in a little more depth by now, but it is always good to have someone push you, it is going to be fun,” said Fluker. “It won’t change the way we ride though, you can’t ride beyond your limits or get caught up in what someone else is doing.”
With Williams wearing his hat as CEO of the Queenstown Trails Trust, and Fluker a long-time advocate for her Queenstown Lakes region, both are hugely proud that they can ride in an event that puts Queenstown and New Zealand mountain biking on the international map, alongside some of the truly global events.
“I love it, we have an amazing relationship with the race organisers and as the chosen charity the Trust benefits so much from these events, but the exposure as well that goes worldwide is fantastic. To showcase our trails and region makes me quite proud to realise we live in a pretty special area. Bringing people to the area to experience it, that is cool for me in my role with the Trails Trust.
“The event is now up amongst the big stage races around the world, you can compare it to Cape Epic, Swiss Epic and some races in North America, we are now in that same conversation. And our terrain was always suited to a stage race like this.”
“Cape Epic is still the grandfather of stage racing, it was massive and stunning. But the difference here is you get the elevation in a number of massive mountainous climbs whereas the Cape Epic is a bit more rolling and gradual.”
Fluker and Williams rode Cape Epic in 2017 (finishing 5th in their category), earning their place as a category winner at The Pioneer, and while she loved the experience, Fluker says The Pioneer has the advantage in one key area.
“The terrain at Cape Epic was not dissimilar to here, but the sense of community is a bit stronger here in The Pioneer, I thought so anyway. With the evening dinners, prizegiving and race briefings in the event village, one of the keys is that everyone is together, the professionals and the other riders are not separated, I think it is important to keep that.”
But don’t get the wrong impression from this dynamic duo, who will again ride under the banner of New World St Martins, their long-time sponsor. Behind the smiles, excitement and obvious passion for the event and their region, hides a steely resolve to get that third win.
“Hell yeah, of course we do – three in a row,” said Fluker with a chuckle and grin, while Williams also spoke of his competitive instincts kicking in when the shoes lock into the pedals.
“Oh, for sure, we will talk like it is all just fun, but of course we want to win, we will go as hard as we can and aim to win, but we will race as a team. That is the key, we are not out to punish each other, we will race as a unit, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses that is why we have been so successful in the past. We work really well as a team, that is the key, to get over the line without cracking each other.”
“If we get to the finish each day knowing we have gone as hard as we can and left nothing out there, that is all we can do. If it is for the win, that is awesome, but you can’t control others on the day,” said Fluker, who is undecided about her next move, back into UCI Cross Country racing, or perhaps more stage racing.
“I am deciding whether to go back and race World Cups or do some more stage racing. The Swiss Epic is very much on that wish list and Willy brought up the Trans Rockies a couple of months ago and that sounds really exciting as well. But I will assess and see where I am at after The Pioneer, either direction is fine.”