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. This episode is all about the race itself. Make sure you’re clipped in, it’s quite the ride!
Q – So, how did you even decide to do the Pioneer?
A – There was this intersection of several events in my life and I was ready for a wakeup call to do something different. I had been to NZ before but I’d just done the tourist thing, and I had a friend who still lived there that I knew from back when I lived on my sailboat, we met working on my boat in a boat yard. So I thought if I’m flying across the world, I want to bring a bike or a surfboard, so I started digging around for places to ride in NZ. My search led me to an article I’d actually shared a couple of years ago for The Pioneer as it had caught my attention back then. A Stage race is something I’d always wanted to do, but they can be so intimidating. Cape Epic is tough to get into, Swiss Epic looks HUGE, Pisgah looks really intimidating and cool, but for a guy who is more cross country & road based it might be a bit burly for my first stage race. Same for the Breck Epic; how does somebody in South Florida train for that elevation? So I’d looked at all of them before and coming back to the Pioneer made sense for a lot of reasons. The cost of entry is very reasonable at about $1k, plane ticket was around $1500, which isn’t cheap but hey, it’s New Zealand! Air NZ is super great and the Kiwi hospitality is really cool.
Q – Ok you’ve signed up for the race, booked the tickets, and packed the bike. How’d it go once you got there?
A – So I flew into Christchurch and it was a few months after a big earthquake, their 2nd one in the last year. I was planning on my friend coming and visiting me but the earthquake had rendered the coastal highway impassable. I had planned on having a friend there but I ended up flying solo. Christchurch is a cool little town, the funny thing about NZ in general is that it feels familiar to Americans, but kinda European without all the old buildings etc. Everybody speaks English, you recognize the cars and little things like that, and the Kiwis had a great welcoming vibe. Right off the plane I met a guy from NZ who was waiting at baggage claim for his bike and we hit it off.
Q – How many days early did you get there?
A – The race starts off in Christchurch and I got there 2 days early. The frustrating thing is that you lose a day flying out there, but I think 2 days was just enough. AirBNB is the way to go; I got a great cottage right in town which was less than a hotel. I scoped it all out on Google Earth and was able to see where the race village was, where the downtown area was, and I figured I didn’t need a rental car since I could just ride my mountain bike everywhere I needed to go.
Now it’s really dodgy riding a bike because everything is on the wrong side!….There were definitely a few times I almost got hit riding in the bike lane because I was looking for cars in the wrong places.
Now it’s really dodgy riding a bike because everything is on the wrong side! Even though you might be comfortable riding on the other side, you’re not looking for a car coming from the other direction. There were definitely a few times I almost got hit riding in the bike lane because I was looking for cars in the wrong places.
There were no issues with the transport of the bike, my Shimano Pro Case is a soft case, so I padded it up and they took great care of it at Air NZ. You hear about bad things happening but no issues and all the other riders I talked to had no issues also.
Q – So what did you do the first couple days before the race?
A – I had a couple of days to chill out so I decided to pre-ride some of the trails at the Christchurch Adventure Park. They’ve got a little bit of everything there, from lift-assisted Downhill stuff to Enduro to flowing Cross Country. The race course was going to be in this section with some really huge berms; if you had more stones than skills you could overshoot these big features and head over a cliff! What a cool flowy park, you could already feel the buzz of other guys and girls getting excited for the race.
I actually went out that night and met some locals, had some tacos and beers and made some new friends. Flying solo actually was kinda cool because you’re halfway around the world about to race mountain bikes, so you feel like a rock star. Day 2 was registration at Hangley Park, pre-party with Pasta at the race village. They’re really thorough about checking your bike. They have their mechanics check your bike to make sure everything passes muster, they’re very serious about safety. There’s Mandatory Basic gear which is like multi-tool, tube, tire repair, emergency blanket and First Aid which I managed to shove all in a saddlebag. And then there’s the Mandatory Emergency Gear which included things like Jackets etc that the race directors could (and did) require if conditions change. They do a great job of making sure you’re prepared.
Q – With all that gear I’m surprised you didn’t go with a backpack.
A – Alot of people went with backpacks but they’re just not for me. Fortunately the Specialized SWORKS Epic I got just before I went was magic for so many reasons, but that little SWAT box was a lifesaver. Being able to put an entire tube and tools all integrated with the bike opens you up to be able to stuff the other gear in a saddlebag or into your jersey pockets. I was able to get away without a backpack. Guys were doing really radical things like cable tying spare tubes to their frame and things I’d never seen before racing XC in the US.
They have a saying “You find stunning” and it’s so true. You also find welcome.
Q – How were the accommodations as far as food etc?
A – Every day when you get done your tent is setup, gear is right there, they’re handing you some recovery snacks right off the bike etc. It’s super organized, their logistics are just great. Lunch isn’t provided but every day there were food trucks so you could get whatever food you wanted, coal fired pizza, tacos, etc.
Q – How did this differ from the XC racing you’d done back home?
A – This Marathon Stage Racing is a very different discipline. It’ll test everything, and you better have everything in your box of tools. You can’t just be a roadie and expect fire roads, you can’t just be a mountain biker and expect technical enduro stuff. You have to have it all, and you have to have your whole setup dialed for everything you have to carry as well.
They have a saying “You find stunning” and it’s so true. You also find welcome, and I have to give huge props to the organizers. The race director was a real character and definitely made a point to go through all the nationalities represented. NZ was pretty dominant, then the Aussies which was a fun rivalry, and only SIX americans.
We need more Americans than 6 at this race!
It was right after the US election so they poked fun a bit and gave us directions to the immigration office if we’d decided to just stay in NZ instead of going back home. There was a Californian that was a doppleganger for Bob McCarty which was hilarious. They did a legit awesome Haka dance which was super intense.
Q – What was the weather like?
A – It was super mild and that was another thing that attracted me to this race. If you look at a race like La Ruta de Conquistadores, man, I don’t want to do a stage race in the tropics. This race in NZ has killer weather: down to the 50’s at night and highs in the mid 70’s. It’s like a beautiful California type weather. It’s very dry so when it’s hot it doesn’t feel as hot, and when it was cold you don’t feel as cold. The intensity of the sun is serious down there, worse than riding on a levee in south FL in the summer. I wore sunscreen but even that wasn’t enough, I should have used some zinc on my lips or something because they were chapped and split pretty bad from the sun by the end of 4 days of racing.
Next thing I know I get hit on the side and she had clipped my bars trying to pass at 30mph. Somehow I stayed upright but she didn’t…
Q – So race day, Stage 1, how did that go?
A – Everybody is together, the Traverse (4 day) and the Epic (7 day) all start in . For the 7 day you have to have a partner so you’d need to make sure you’ve got somebody you can live with for that long and it increases the uncontrollable variables. 2 bikes, 2 riders, showing up in shape and ready to go. Being able to go solo for the 4-day was an attraction for me, but the 7-day is the benchmark and I want to do it someday. Stage race mountain biking is so tough, you don’t climb that much day in and day out full gas in the highest levels of road stage racing. But the cool thing is that it’s so accessible, I’m here lining up with the pros on day 1.
So the Prologue is there and the atmosphere is through the roof with high decibel & energy. They pair you up day 1 and the guy I was with was just cruising, and I was going FULL GAS. Gun goes off and I’m going into the trails, hard pack in the Adventure Park, 2 laps with a significant amount of climbing. Very flowy, a couple of technical sections of single track, super fast. I was jacked up on a few goo packets with caffeine and felt super good after pre-riding it. Lap 2 I started running into lap traffic but overall had a really clean day on the bike, finishing 6th in my category. That seeded me into the A group for the rest of the race which was great.
Christian shared his Pioneer Stage 1 Strava (partial file only) for all you fellow “Analyzers” out there.
Q – So starting in the A group for Stage 2, how did that go?
A – After the end of Stage 1 we actually had to transfer to the beginning of Stage 2, a couple hours on a bus but you feel great after a day of racing. You have to get used to camping, recovering, cleaning up et cetera. You get a 100L bag to put all of your stuff in, and they move it each day along with a tent. I brought way too much stuff, there’s some people washing kits in the showers but there was a great laundry service.
To start the day in the A Group was awesome, right there with the top teams from the 4 and 7 day races. It was cool and overcast to start with, farmland and jeep trails and I saw more sheep than people out there. They are very serious about keeping NZ natural and ecologically sensitive, they’re working hard to control exotic invasive species and limit new introductions, (but they do have problems with, like rabbits and a few others, and they’ve learned how sensitive the ecology is). Very different from Florida where it’s your right as a citizen to own a python and release it into the Everglades.
Climbing, coming from Florida, is always a shock to your legs. Coming through some real fun single track at the end, I got on this nice road section working with a group at 30-40kph and I was in my comfort zone. I had setup a 32t chainring which I thought would be enough to climb a wall with the SRAM XX1 10-42t cassette….it wasn’t.
There was a section that was full of cool flowy single track and I started cramping after nearly 4 hours on the bike. Tough mountain passes, I can’t remember the exact elevation but it was all in metric so you need to get good at conversion on the fly. To squeeze 6-8k feet of climbing into 60 miles of trails you’re looking at some really steep sections, grades well into the teens, even twenties. The snowmelt from the winter had rendered these jeep roads very loose, so the climbs were technically very difficult and traction was tough to come by both up and down the mountain passes. You need to be able to ride in a straight line for 30-40 minutes in your smallest gear to take on these grades.
Here’s the Stage 2 2017 Pioneer Traverse Strava File.
Q – So that sounded like you learned a few things Stage 2, any changes for stage 3?
A – One thing I will say is I learned some lessons on gear that it may be tortoise vs hare. Several guys ran the SRAM Eagle setup with a small 28t front chainring and were able to climb everything even though they gave up a bit of the top end. I flat ran out of gears every day, even when I switched my chainring down to a 30T for Stage 2. I’m thinking that for this kind of racing a 2x system like the Shimano XTR Di2 with Syncro Shift might be the ideal setup, but that’s another $1k or more.
After a rough stage 2, I got a massage, took my bike to the mechanics and had them fit a 30T ring. Those mechanics are awesome, working on everybody’s bikes till 2am. You just give them a work order and your debit card, they’ve got it ready for you in the morning.
The day started in the rain, we had an emergency meeting and they had altered the race course for the day due to high winds and freezing temperatures at the top of one pass. I had to go into my tent in a flurry to change clothing accordingly, swapping base layers and jerseys. Packing too much stuff didn’t help me here, combined with zero camping experience I was in a frenzy. I went with Castelli Gabba gear which is perfect for 40’s to 50’s and misting rain. Then I had to get my additional “Required Gear” this day as well and they spot check that stuff at the start line.
A really wet and windy day on the bike and I felt pretty worn down after the 2nd sag stop. We were ripping down a fire road downhill and the women’s leader was right with me. Next thing I know I get hit on the side and she had clipped my bars trying to pass at 30mph. Somehow I stayed upright but she didn’t. I stopped and checked her over and she was in pretty bad shape, helmet cracked, so I activated her emergency beacon with an SOS. She calmed down a bit after a minute and felt good to continue, her bike was ok and she seemed like she wanted to go so we cancelled the SOS and continued on. Running on adrenaline we cruised on some fire roads and then she let me go once we hit the hills as her shoulder was really hurting her. She found out later that day it was separated and her race was over. That’s racing but it was a major bummer.
I got a little lost trying to cross a riverbed; it’s kinda amazing how in a race of hundreds of people you can be all alone in the wilderness. Big headwinds on the fire-roads and all I could manage was 12mph with a monster climb looming in the distance. You get up to this epic peak, winds are intense and trying to rip the bike out of my hand as I’m walking up the steep narrow pass. On the other side of the mountain the climate completely changed to hot and sunny. Just bleeding out time and watching guys in my category pull past me here. Definitely my toughest day on the bike.
Q – Ok so you’ve made it to Stage 4, how were you feeling?
A – Stage 4 starts in Tekapo which is a super cool place with a big Glacial lake that was nice to jump in. I grabbed a few of the Americans and we went to check out the Church of the Good Shepherd after the end of stage 3. It was nice to take in some of the sites after a tough day on the bike and get ready for Stage 4.
Due to my finish time I’d lost my front position starting group which was a bummer. There was a mass start so I was able to bridge up to the A Group quickly with some road sections. It reminded me a lot of riding the levee, sitting in holding position and drafting. There were some selections in there and I was able to pull back a position which was pretty cool. Stage 4 had a section over 24% which was even hard to walk. The goat path was super humbling, even pro racers on 2x drivetrains had to walk it so I didn’t feel THAT bad. The climbs kept coming, with false summits tricking you and making it tough to keep a good cadence. As soon as you unclipped you were walking, and I always seemed to lose time on those sections to the other riders who were better at the technical climbs than I was.
The downhills were fast and loose, with grapefruit sized rocks I was very nervous thinking about how much more brake pads I had left or if my Racing Ralphs would hold up. The last hour was some packed gravel on a nice single track section around the lake, so I emptied the tank and finished strong.
Rolling into the finish the energy level is super high, they’re calling out everyone’s name as they cross the line and the scenery at Lake Ohau is unreal.
Q – So crossing the finish line on Stage 4, how did you feel?
A – It was a big relief, it was all that I had left. I had a broken spoke, and had poured it all out to finish strong. I was truly grateful and it was what I had set out to do.
You’re definitely a little envious of the 7 day guys and I felt great about being top 10 in an international field in my group. The 4 day race was just a taste of the real deal, as the 7 day race is just on another level. On one hand I was relieved to be done, but on the other hand I wished I was jumping back on the bike the next day to keep racing.
Wow! After reliving the race experience with Christian we were ready to book tickets and start training for The Pioneer Epic 7 day Stage Race next year. Up next is Part 2: Training. We’ll talk about how he trained, how he wished he trained, and what challenges an epic stage race across the globe poses on your training schedule before and after the race. Don’t miss it!