After a blustery and cold evening lakeside above Queenstown, Stage 1 of The Pioneer would take riders from Moke Lake across to Arrowtown in an all-new point to point stage. The 76km course would take former starters across familiar terrain but with a twist. Moonlight, the Queenstown Cycle Trail, Coronet Peak and Rude Rock would all feature however, much of it felt unseen due to the reverse direction to last year’s edition.
Words: Alex Malone
Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith
The Pioneer may have officially opened yesterday but today, the race began proper. After a lung-burning Prologue, Stage 1 would put every rider to the test with a demanding route from Moke Lake across to Arrowtown with more than 2,000m of climbing crammed into just 76km.
Race officials had estimated the winning time to be between 3:30-4 hours and the defending champions of Michael Vink and Tim Rush (Team Onya Bike North Otago) came in at 3:35:42 with yesterday’s winners Jon Odams and Brendan Johnston (Giant Australia Off-Road) trialling close behind. The cyclocross squad of Garry Milburn and Chris Aitken (MAAP-Shimano) proved they are more than a one-trick, hour of power pony to round out the podium. Again, the ITU Triathlon and Xterra pairing of Ryan Sissons and Sam Osborne (Winger Hamilton) showed their class with a sprint finish against MAAP Shimano just edging them out to take fourth.
“That was hard work, I think every day is going to be hard this week,” said Vink at the finish. “That was good to put a stamp of authority on the race though, just for our confidence more than anything, I think it will only get better for us from here, with both of us being experienced road riders and having done a lot of road tours it will suit us even better going forward.”
Hats off must again go to the mixed teams with the top-three squads all finishing inside the top-20 overall. Team Jojo finishing a few minutes ahead of Kate Fluker and Willy (Team New World-Pivot) with the SRAM MTOSS youngsters coming in 10 minutes behind the day’s winners of Joe Skerman and Josie Wilcox. With tomorrow’s huge 112km stage, the final classification is far from settled.
Last year’s Open Women pair of Amy Hollamby and Kate McIlroy (Stonewood Homes) put in another powerful perforce to finish 20th-overall to extend their lead over New World St Martins Women and team Tiki Wine and Vineyards.
“We had a little chat about it, and yeah, basically we got it wrong”, said McIlroy regarding their slow-er start out of Moke Lake. “The guys absolutely boosted off and we thought we might stay out of their race but probably we got bottled up over the fence and missed the front half of the split and then basically spent the rest of the day riding by ourselves, which was a bit lonely.
“But the trail was awesome, an amazing course and cool with the big descent coming down here (into Arrowtown) and I actually came off in one of the rivers and Amy was gone, she didn’t even see me, and I was like ‘wait!’.”
The term ‘rolling out’ wouldn’t be appropriate for today’s sprint start. The first wave knew all too well the importance of good positioning before heading into the Moke Lake loop – similar to yesterday – before turning full circle around and heading back towards the start area and north bound. Having already spoken about Dan and my ability to hustle the opening few kilometres, we entered the fast and flowy Moke Lake trail near the head of affairs.
It didn’t take long for the bunch to thin out and with steep and nasty climbs towards the Moonlight Trail, the group split momentarily into pairs as we made our way through the technical high point. Riders from last year may remember the Moonlight track from stage one, but from the reverse direction and while today was touted as easier than the other direction, I’m really not so sure.
I’m never been one to object to a little cold start but with barely a single digit showing on the Wahoo this morning, my hands clearly found their limit. As soon as the blood started rushing to my legs, it promptly left my hands and at one point (no word of a lie), I honestly thought my brake lever had fallen off.
“I could hear Alex trying to explain something about his hands not working to another rider in our bunch. The pace was too high for me to show much concern, I was just hoping that he was going to be able to operate his brakes on the next descent,” said Dan at the finish.
I panicked momentarily before soon having an opportunity to check the status – the lever was under my frozen index finger the entire time.
Up onto the Moonlight and team Cyclist Australia/NZ was in its own little world. Off the back of the front group but with a large gap to the chasers behind, it’s this no-man’s-land where I seem to live at every one of these stages races. The Mongolia Bike Challenge and Crocodile Trophy were no different.
Down the other side of Moonlight and onto varying sections of the Queenstown Trail had us moving well – the gazelle-like legs of Dan doing more than his fair share of the work. After two stages, it seems that if Dan can take care of all the ‘wind work’, I can help us negotiate the singletrack. So far, so good.
“Today was one of the smartest stages I can remember us riding as a pair. We were Zen,” said Dan. “Despite being with the lead group of ten early on, we were distanced within a minute or two of it getting hard. From that point we just rode our own race, consumed a heap of calories and looked after our bikes and bodies as best as we could. It actually made for such an enjoyable stage – once it warmed up!”.
After 50-odd kilometres, we hit the base of Coronet Peak and settled in for what would be the major climb of the day. The 800m vertical ascent started along tough and soft access roads before spitting us out onto the bitumen for the grind to the ski resort. Some 50 minutes later and we reached the good stuff with Rude Rock and the newly renovated Bush Creek Track taking us back to ground level over the next 15km.
While both huge fans of downhill, the demands of these tracks leaves absolutely no room for rest with my heart rate supremely elevated due to the high-speed and technical nature of both tracks. The final stretch into Arrowtown, while still mostly down, must have featured more than a dozen creek crossings and with plenty of slippery stuff in between, the final 10km were engaging to say the least.
Finally onto the flat and across the finish line in Arrowtown, the two of us both commented on just how well we rode together across the day. I did my part by keeping Dan on a tight leash and he did his bit by remaining calm and in control in all the sections between. Fifth place overall is one up from yesterday but with four challenging days still to come, all we can do is take it one stage at a time.
Stage 1 – Results
Full results here.
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Stage 1 – Moke Lake to Arrowtown
Strava activity: strava.com/activities/2905412640
Heart rate TSS: 263
Max speed: 60.1km/h
Wahoo time: 3:53:22
Average speed: 20.1km/h
Total ascent: 2,070m
Maximum temperature: 1 degree Celsius (so cold I honestly thought my brake lever had fallen off, until I saw it under my index finger)
Calories burned: 3,535
Average heart rate: 152bpm
Max heart rate: 168bpm
Bottles consumed: 4