The Pioneer: Building a successful team partnership

Choosing the most suitable teammate for an event like The Pioneer makes all the difference when staring down the start line chute with six days of racing ahead. Cyclist shares six tips for a successful week.

Words: Alex Malone

Cycling is one of just a handful of life activities when multiple hours or in the case of The Pioneer, days, can be spent in such proximity. Riding alongside someone you’ve known for years or perhaps had never met until rolling out together is standard practice on the bike. Meeting someone new on a bunch ride and proceeding to spend the next four hours unpacking each others lives isn’t that unusual and yet at an event like The Pioneer, you honestly don’t want to be finding out too many things when deep into the sixth-hour of the Queen Stage – unless it’s discovering an extra Peanut Butter Clif Bar stashed inside a jersey pocket.

The 2020 edition of The Pioneer is not unlike years gone by; six stages, 450-odd kilometres and over 13,000m reads the brief. Over the last couple of editions that’s meant around 25 hours of race time for Team Cyclist. Add a few hours each day for meal time, cleaning bikes, general chit-chat and maybe some tent to tent pre-bed laughs and you can double the racing time.

It would be an understatement to say it pays to be familiar with your teammate prior to lining up at the start because we’ve all got those friends who we love hanging out with but if it came to living together, absolutely no way. You might not share a tent at The Pioneer but it’s as close as you can get to living with someone. Maybe you’re the best of mates or you both ride at a similar pace with not a word needed to be spoken. However you manage the pairing, you want to know that it works.

So, with the 2020 edition of The Pioneer about to kick off, Cyclist presents its six tips for a successful partnership. Sort these things out at the start, remind yourself of them during the week and you should arrive back in Queenstown with an even stronger bond than when you started.

1. Name a captain

Let’s be clear, being appointed as captain doesn’t mean your teammate is relegated to deckhand. The captain may or may not be the fastest or strongest but they are ultimately the one with the coolest head under pressure. It won’t be all smooth sailing out there and when the s*** hits the dirt, one of you needs to have the demeanour to bring the situation under control. From mechanical issues through to crashes, injuries or perhaps sickness, the captain is in charge of keeping the two of you on course. The list of responsibilities is at the discretion of your pairing but with someone ‘in charge’, it’s one less thing to worry about when out on course.

2. Have a strategy

Some stages will suit your team (sadly not enough downhill for me) while others are about getting through it to the best of your abilities. The race spans across six stages and there’s a very likely chance a lot of teams will go far too deep during the Prologue. If that’s part of your strategy, cool, but if you’re looking through the Ride Guide with anxiety of the stages to come, think about taking to the start with a little more tranquility.

For Team Cyclist, I know our team is generally quite good at positioning in the sometimes ‘busy’ opening few kilometres and that’s where we know there’s an opportunity to stay out of trouble. Our plan is usually to start each stage at a brisk pace and then once the excitement wears off, I tell Dan Bonello to slow down. For the diesel pairings, taking it a bit slower in the opening may be more beneficial. There’s plenty of time to catch and pass other teams each day so don’t stress if teams ride away from you in the beginning – you’ll see them later on.

3. Ride like it’s a holiday

Touch wood, I’ve always ridden these events with the little voice in my head saying ‘you’ve got work on Monday’. Riding fast and hooking through berms and over jumps is why we ride off-road but just pull it back a notch from your usual weekend adventures. The Pioneer is run over a huge variety of trail conditions and it’s almost certain you’ll be riding everything blind. Don’t take unnecessary risks and you’ll hopefully keep things upright because there’s always tomorrow’s stage to get through, and the one after that.

The other thing to remember while our there ‘racing’ is that you’re here for a good time, not to become the next Nino Schurter or Kate Courtney – unless you’re one of a handful with aspirations that match reality. Some days you’ll feel like there’s no chain on the bike while others will feel like purgatory. Keep moving and don’t stop regardless of how great or miserable you are feeling because as we all know, the pain stops immediately after crossing the finish line. Remember to smile and soak it all up.

4. Be a taskmaster

This is a really important one because no one likes the roommate (or wife, husband or partner) that leaves dirty dishes in the sink. If cleaning isn’t their thing, tell them to go and sort out the post-stage lunch, coffee and frothies while you get the bikes cleaned. If you’ve signed up for the mechanical package with the sleepless squad at Bike Therapy then you’re good but maybe there are some other things to take care of like massage, taking the laundry to the drop off or seeing the race officials about something that happened on course. Split up any tasks that can be done more efficiently on your own and you’ll be kicking back in sun with the rest of your Pioneer pals.

5. Support each other

There will always be one rider who is stronger than the other. Even if you’ve done all the training rides together and both captured similar Strava KOMs, come Game Day, one of you will be pushing ahead. If you’re that person, remember the other rider is operating at a higher intensity than yourself and if the pace continues, may lead to the both of you going slower. On the flip side, if you’re hanging on for dear life praying to reach the top of Mount Difficulty before sundown, dig in and show your teammate you’re willing to push yourself to keep up. There’s a middle ground somewhere there but the Captain should be able to assess when things are too easy or too hard.

Off the bike, check in and ask each other how they are feeling. It can take just a few caring questions to discover your teammate is struggling with something which may or may not be bike-related. Again, this is a holiday and most of us have work to return to once it’s over. If you can help each other to work through niggling issues on or off the bike, you’ll go better the next day.

6. Have a laugh

This has to be one of the most important pieces of advice for a successful week because laughter really is the best medicine. Last year I remember being so cooked after a stage that I rode into one of those hay rolls that you see sitting in the middle of farm fields. I was thrown off my bike in an instant and could have easily lost my cool. I did for a moment. I brushed myself off, told some of my accompanying pals a little later and instead of finding sympathy, they all started laughing. If you can’t find a reason to laugh yourself, at least try to help others out from time to time.

Follow the journey of Team Cyclist at this year’s Pioneer by heading across to our Facebook page or Instagram account. Dan Bonello and myself will also be posting to our Instagram handles via @dear_bonello and @alexjmalone respectively.

Anything we missed? Let us know.