Real Rider Interview: Pioneer Stage Race Prep

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. Last week we covered the Pioneer race experience itself. This episode is all about the race preparation. Make sure you’re clipped in, it’s quite the ride!

Christian Avila looking fresh at the beginning of the race, hoping all his training paid off.

Q – Ok, so you talked about using muscles that you never knew you had coming from the flatlands, how did you prepare for The Pioneer?

A – I put this thing on the calendar about a year out, and I talked to a few coaches about a training plan for the Pioneer. I ended up working with Steve Mjlujeak at Top Step who got me into some indoor training which kinda worked for me.  Indoor training is something you have to wrap your head around, for somebody who likes to be outside, but it’s one of the most efficient ways to train as far as time and power goals.  We had very specific goals for intervals, power and programs, but when it comes to climbing it’s a whole different animal. Climbing is different, like a high cadence and high resistance, really weird for someone coming from the flatlands.

Christian riding his home turf in Florida at Alafia River State Park

Q – Were you able to replicate the climbs you expected to see in The Pioneer on the indoor trainer?

A – It definitely helped me prepare, and I wish I did more of it, but winter is a really hard time for me.  My schedule just doesn’t let me see the sun very much, locked up in an office all day and you’re itching to get on the bike all day.  I knew that was going to be a challenge going into the training due to the timing of the race in February.  The planning was pretty immediate, and we looked at the fall & winter and said, “Man we’ve gotta put some other things on the calendar leading up to this”.  So I scheduled Fool’s Gold for September as preparation.

Christian found that the Fools Gold route was perfect training for the Pioneer.

Q – Fool’s Gold is in Ellijay GA, right?

A – Yeah, it was probably a great race to prep you for what a single day at The Pioneer is like.  It’s a really cool event, I’ve got to hand it to Mountain Goat Adventures, it ended up being really similar to what I experienced in NZ.  That first climb was an eroded jeep road, loose and steep.  And going back down that same climb too on the way back, the pressure of going through something you’re flying down and riding the brakes.  There’s really a healthy dose of singletrack and a healthy dose of climbs. If I could have done more like Fool’s Gold that would have been better.

Q – So, Fool’s Gold is a good 1 day event, but you’re preparing for a 4 day stage race.  Did you do any back to back tough rides?

A – Yeah, another thing that helped with successive days was Road Titans.  That was really good, those guys were really organized and it was a great way to prepare for the volume and hours on the bike.  

Suffering in the heat with the Road Titans was good training for Christian.

I got there early and did a ride beforehand so I ended up with 4 successive days, and I even added some miles on that first ride because I got a bit lost.  That was in South Carolina around Travelers Rest.  Again huge shoutout to AirBNB and VRBO, I got a great place to stay that was really homey.  It squelches some of the homesickness because you’re in a home versus eating a continental breakfast in a hotel somewhere.  I made some friends in SC on that trip and went back up later in the year and got to ride the Hincapie Gran Fondo route.  It’s dead winter, the foliage is bare, icicles on the trees, but it was good training.

Q – That’s November/December, then you’ve got the Pioneer in February.  What did you do for the last couple months?

A – I mostly did indoor stuff as much as I could. If I could have spent more time on the Mountain bike on the levee that would have been good. It’s a little bit difficult in terms of wrapping your head around leaving the house around sunset in the dark with all your lights, riding the levee in pitch black darkness by yourself.  I have good days and bad days with that as far as motivation to get out there and do that.

Christian getting good use out of his winter gear for the Hincapie Gran Fondo route in training for the Pioneer.

Q – Do you think you needed more volume, more intervals, or what?

A – Just more saddle time on the mountain bike would have helped, more time on the levee would have helped.  If you can push 15 hours a week that would certainly help, probably somewhere around there.  But it’s a different muscle group for climbing.  As much as you can, get up north and get into longer times to replicate those conditions is really what it comes down to.  

That Fool’s Gold Route really replicates those conditions. Dupont, I’m not sure how that place is in the winter, but if you could ride that it might work.  You’re not into traditional singletrack, but the eroded Jeep roads in The Pioneer basically become single track because there’s one small track you can ride up for 30 to 40 minutes.  Pushing high resistance high cadence, it’s really hard to replicate.  You can do that on a machine, but you can’t replicate the upward part of the stroke, and those are the muscles that cramped for me.  The flexors, adductors, abductors, that muscle on the inside of your thigh, and when it locks it turns your leg into a 2×4 and hurts like hell. It’s not your quads or calves, it’s those other muscles.  

The climb at Beech Mountain made famous by Lance Armstrong way back when at the Tour of DuPont.

Q – Nutrition wise, do you feel like you had your plan called for that?

A – Yeah, I’m kinda funny on that, after a while i just can’t take as much of the powdered drinks, so I always struggle with that.  I feel better with solid foods, so the sag stops were key for me.  Pro Bars are pretty substantial, but at the same time it doesn’t lend itself to eating quick.  It’d be nice to do something like Alan Lim’s Feed Zone Portables with all natural ingredients, but you’d have to source local ingredients with a lot of support.  It’d be cool if you could lay around and be a pro cyclist and have somebody set all that up for you.  

Just one example of the delicious recipes available in Feed Zone Portables

Q – But as a recreational cyclist, that’s not really realistic. How did your nutrition plan go each stage?

A – I depended a lot on the feed zones and they had great stuff.  Killer cookies and brownies, different drinks that were diluted enough.  That seemed to work best for me without having to unpack bars and gels.  But if you’re one of the guys who’s trying to contend for top 5, you’re not stopping at those feed zones.  Maybe they have some support guys they’ve staged along the way.  Those guys are on another level though, they’re pros or former pros.  You can really put out of your mind being top 5: those guys are legit pros at this.  

Training for the Pioneer? Might want to factor in water crossings with grapefruit sized rocks!

Q – If you were going to do the full 7 day, you’d just do more of the same?

A- More of the same training, and I’d really want to spend, probably a month out and find something similar.  This is the really hard thing for us in the northern hemisphere in the winter leading up to this.  The southeast can be pretty nasty in the winter, so look at where you can train.  Going where we like to go, North Carolina or Georgia, is pretty rough that time of year, especially on the mountain bike.  Maybe Arizona or California?

Christian did everything he could to train for climbs like these, full of loose rock and steep ascents.

Q – So, you’d book something for 7 days of climbing knowing that you’d be doing 7 days of that in New Zealand?

A – Take a hard look at it, and plan not just the race but the training leading up to it.  Looking at the race at first I was like “cool, it’s not that expensive”.  I blew a lot of money and a lot of vacation time getting ready for it, because once I put it on the calendar I realized what it was going to take and worked backwards with the plan. Maybe don’t let that challenge stop you, but realize there’s going to be more training time leading up to the event than you might think.  Now maybe if you do a lot of this, I’m kinda between roadie and mountain biker, but you guys that go do ORAMM like it’s a walk in the park might be fine.  I’m not one of those guys.  Those guys do 12 hours of Santos like it’s nothing, barely break a sweat, so maybe their training plan would be lighter than mine had to be.  I think Santos has a lot of short up and downs and we’re good at that.  

Riding in South Florida like at Jonathan Dickinson’s Club Scrub is not exactly mountainous, so Christian traveled a lot to get in the elevation training he needed.

South Florida is a hot bed for that, even on the road, guys can just motor on the flats and go compete at events like Six Gap in the mountains.  But you can fake it for one day, and then lay in your bed and cramp all night.  But when you’re laying in your tent cramping and you have to go do it again. And Again. And Again.  And Again.  It’s just a different animal, there’s no faking it, for 4 days or 7 days, it’s a little tougher.   

Heading down another tricky descent at The Pioneer.

That’s it for part two, folks. Next week, we’ll take a look at the bike he used to conquer this feat! If you missed part one, with all the stage race info, check out Christian Avila’s tale of The Pioneer Stage Race.

Images courtesy of Christian Avila, BikeMindedSportograf, & The Pioneer 


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