The Pioneer is a 4 or 7 day stage race across the Southern Alps in New Zealand’s south island. Featuring 545km of riding and 15,508 meters of climbing across the the Pioneer 7 day Epic, it is a truly incredible race which is now a qualifier for the legendary Cape Epic. If you’re looking for a slightly more manageable ride, there is a 4 day option called the Traverse with 314km of riding and 8,718m of climbing. When I found out my friend Christian was headed across the world to go race this I had to know everything about this truly Epic trip. We sat down recently and talked about how he decided to do this race, what the experience was like, his preparation, and what bike setup he rode. We’ve covered the race and the prep. This episode is all about the bike. Make sure you’re clipped in, it’s quite the ride!
Q – The Bike. Did you get a new bike for this event?
A – Yeah, I had a BMC Team Elite 01 which is a really cool bike, great technology with that soft-tail but there were some things that just really weren’t working for me on it. I gotta say, when I looked at the landscape what I ended up on was pretty common. First off, huge thanks to Tony and Sandy at Big Wheel Hollywood who I’ve been buying Skateboards and BMX bikes from since I was 13, they really hooked me up. I love those guys, great shop, and they found me one of the last 2016 Specialized S-WORKS Epics in my size. I think we’ve all looked at that one, the dream superbike, then we looked at the MSRP and had a mini heart attack. I took the parts off the BMC frame and they gave me a great deal on the S-WORKS Frame that I just couldn’t say no to. If you’re in the area, talk to those guys, Richard or Cesar are awesome dudes there too who really take care of their people. Don’t think that bike is out of reach, they might be able to work some magic.
Q – So buying a 2016 model year bike at the end of the year may have helped a bit?
A – Definitely, there was some incentive there, plus working with a shop that does really good volume it helps them to be really competitive.
Man, people at The Pioneer really loved those I9 hubs, they flocked to the bike when they heard me roll through the campsite.
Q – So how did the bike come together using parts from your old BMC?
A – It ended up being a really interesting build, Fox 32 fork instead of the usual Rockshox SID fork. Went with XTR brakes, and SRAM XX1 groupset with some NOX Skyline rims on Industry Nine Hubs with DT Swiss Spokes. Man, people at The Pioneer really loved those I9 hubs, they flocked to the bike when they heard me roll through the campsite. The wheels turned out great, light at around 1300g and a nice wide bead for a good volume. The wider rims allowed me to run skinnier tires because the profile was nice and fat.
Q – Tires are always a point of discussion, what did you end up going with for The Pioneer?
A – I grabbed a Maxxis Ikon for the rear, and a Schwalbe Racing Ralph for the front. Kinda strange setup with the mixed brands but I think a lot of people do that. I had got a Thunder Burt for the rear, but I was advised that as light as that tire is, you’re risking a puncture with how little rubber there is. I’ve got it mounted on the wheel now that I’m back in the States, but the Ikon did really well in NZ. Again, coming from being a roadie first and XC being relatively new to me, I didn’t want to risk it by going too light with the tires.
When you’re bombing down a mountain through grapefruit sized rocks, 100g extra rubber is going to be greatly appreciated. If that’s going to break you, skip a beer or something. Don’t try to save weight on your bike when it comes to a decision like that.
Q – Did you go with the models that have sidewall protection like Maxxis EXO or Schwalbe Snakeskin?
A – Definitely, you don’t mess around with this stuff. You get the best you can, don’t go ultra light on the rubber. When you’re bombing down a mountain through grapefruit sized rocks, 100g extra rubber is going to be greatly appreciated. If that’s going to break you, skip a beer or something. Don’t try to save weight on your bike when it comes to a decision like that. One changed tire, one bent rim or whatever is going to put you off the track for 10-20 minutes. You can make up that time over the following days, but don’t do it if you don’t have to.
Q – So no ultra light tires, no hollow pin chains, or any of that weight weenie stuff for you?
A – I actually did use the Sram XX1 hollow pin chain because it’s a good shifting chain, no issues with that. I put a lot of torque on it on those climbs but it was all tuned up and shifting perfectly before I left. Went over there with everything brand new and spares to boot.
It’s like Brewsters Millions at this point, you have a budget that’s getting stretched but by the end of it you’re fed up with spending money on this. I just wanted to throw up after spending money on the bike after a while, but you have to be prepared.
Q – What kind of spares did you bring?
A – You bring a spare chain, brake pads, and anything you might need to keep you going out there.
Q – So no spare XX1 cassette or anything?
A – No, not sure how many people are going to bring along an extra $300 cassette but you bring what you can. It’s like Brewsters Millions at this point, you have a budget that’s getting stretched but by the end of it you’re fed up with spending money on this. I just wanted to throw up after spending money on the bike after a while, but you have to be prepared. (Editors note: I vaguely remembered this movie but went and watched it after this interview. Definitely applies to this scenario, just imagine yourself in a bike shop throwing money at things continuously.)
Q – So you mentioned the Specialized SWAT box system, how did that work?
A – That thing was so cool, just a little box that sits on the back of the water bottle cage out of the way down by the bottom bracket. The multi-tool clips on the bottom of the 2nd bottle cage, but on the newer models it slides in by the upper shock mount. It’s a really cool system Specialized has that helped me a lot with packing everything I needed. That freed up so much space. I was trying to work that out with my old BMC but the options Specialized has with that SWAT system really opens up a new area. Everything you need is on the bike. I even took the DynaPlug Kit, it was highly recommended to me. Luckily I didn’t have to use it, but it was a tiny little bullet shaped kit that tucked right in my SWAT box next to my spare tube.
Q – What all were you able to put in that SWAT box?
A- I’ve got the spare tube, dynaplug, CO2’s, spare chain link, and multi-tool. I also brought a frame pump for peace of mind. You’ll lose sleep over coming up with configurations for this stuff, but The Pioneer has great checklists to help you get it dialed in. If you’re comfortable with a pack like a Camelbak, then go ahead and do it. I couldn’t do that but a lot of people were going with a pack.
Q – So you just went with 2 bottles then?
A – The Epic really has a huge advantage for me there with the ability to carry 2 bottles. It really worked out great. So between the SWAT box and my saddle bag with the mandatory first aid gear, anything else was able to be stuffed into my jersey pocket. Your back takes a lot of torque in that climbing position day after day, so adding a pack to that was just not for me.
Q – Do you think you could get between sag stops with just 1 bottle?
A – No, I don’t think so. The S-WORKS Epic has a big advantage there, that’s where you saw guys getting creative and putting bottles on their seatposts or jersey pockets, or just wearing a Camelbak. You see a lot of different compromises and different ways to do it, but whatever the Specialized engineers did really worked out in that way.
Q – So you went with XX1, what ring?
A – I was ambitious and started with a 32T ring, but switched it to a 30t and was still hurting on Stage 4. That’s where I thought about going to 2x with a Shimano Di2 system. You don’t see 2x drivetrains down here, it’s all 1x for SRAM or Shimano, but consider it if you’re doing Marathon Stage racing. Talk to some other guys who’ve done stuff like this, Cape Epic. I think Randy Egues ran SRAM Eagle at Cape EPIC and there were definitely guys at The Pioneer with Eagle and a 28t which were climbing those sections in the 20%+ range.
Q – Why would you consider going with a 2x system?
A – Well you want to be able to hammer on the fire roads, pace lining at 25 mph+, but then you want to be able to spin a high cadence high intensity on some of the steep sections. There’s no way a 1x can cover that really. A 28t ring on a 10t rear cog is spinning out at what, 19-20 mph? Those road sections are critical, especially for me where I was able to make up some time. It’s hard to say “Hey, get a 2x drivetrain for this one race then put it in a box afterwards”, but like I said, Brewster’s Millions.
It’s everything it’s built up to be, but it’s manageable. Do it. Seriously. Make that the biggest race of the year, but when you come back make sure you have some races scheduled afterwards.
Q – What final thoughts would you give to somebody who was thinking about doing The Pioneer?
A – It’s everything it’s built up to be, but it’s manageable. Do it. Seriously. Make that the biggest race of the year, but when you come back make sure you have some races scheduled afterwards. I’d never won a Cat3 XC race before this, and I came back and won a Cat2 race at Markham which was awesome. You come back and you’ll have fitness you’ve never had before. Sure, The Pioneer is the big pressure cooker and that’s all the focus, but come back and have a little fun with the fitness like you’ve never had after racing for 4 days with all that climbing. It’s really something special, I can’t imagine how much more doing the 7 day Epic would do for you.
Have your money saved, don’t do it the year you’re having your first kid or buying a house. You’re opening the war chest, it’s going to be more than you think. More training means more wear and tear on the bike which means more spending. I don’t put near as much money into my road bike, it’s crazy.
When you think about travelling for events, stage races are really attractive because it’s not just 1 day of racing. Right now, before The Pioneer gets super popular like the Cape Epic, you have a chance to get into something early on.
Unlike other events, it’s really doable. When you think about travelling for events, stage races are really attractive because it’s not just 1 day of racing. Right now, before The Pioneer gets super popular like the Cape Epic, you have a chance to get into something early on. There’s the Glacier 360 in Iceland, the Mongolia Bike Challenge that’s probably tougher to get to, and more out there than you think.
New Zealand is a great place to spend a week, and having that on the calendar is going to make it a huge year of riding for you.
Christian’s Race Bike Specs:
Shifter – Sram XX1 11 speed trigger
Crankset – Sram XX1, 32t (then 30t after stage 2)
Pedals – Look S Track Race
Cassette – SRAM PG 1199, 10-42T XD driver
Chain – Sram XX1
Bars – BMC stock TE 01 740mm
Stem – OS-99 CSI stem
Seatpost – BMC stock
Saddle – Fi’zi:k Tundra M3 K:ium Saddle
Grips – ESI Extra Chunky
Front Tire – Schwalbe Racing Ralph, snakeskin, 29×2.2”
Rear Tire – Maxxis Ikon EXO EXC, 29×2.2″
Well, that sums up our interview series with Christian on The Pioneer Stage Race in New Zealand. We feel like we just went on the trip with him and are super stoked at the possibility of venturing into the world of stage racing ourselves! Who else feels a little giddy? Do you feel inspired?