Fast becoming one of the world’s leading mountain bike events, the Pioneer Mountain Bike Stage Race gets underway on Sunday at Coronet Peak, bringing together some of New Zealand and the world’s elite riders, inspiring charity riders and everyday hero riders out to achieve something special over six days of incredible riding.
The six-day race sees 560 riders in teams of two get underway with a Prologue at Coronet Peak this Sunday, with a further five stages throughout the Central Otago region. Riders will clock up 424km of riding, with 15,124m of climbing, returning to finish in Queenstown on Friday November 29.
One of the stars of the event may well be someone more used to featuring on the road, with 2018 Tour of Southland winner Michael Vink getting back to his roots and getting on the dirt bike, pairing up with Tim Rush (Oamaru) in Team ONYA BIKE.
“Most people don’t know, but I grew up riding bikes on the dirt,” said Vink. “As a kid, that was all I did. I would spend afternoons building and riding dirt jumps after school, then would spend the weekends shuttling or racing on the downhill bike. I think having ridden so much on mountain bike as a kid, it’s really heavily ingrained, and it still feels very natural to be riding a big bike.”
Vink is not messing around either, going as far as suggesting that should he win and earn a start at Absa Cape Epic (Pioneer category winners earn a spot at the unofficial world championship of mountain bike stage racing), that the road bike might be put away for a spell.
“Something like Cape Epic is a dream of mine, I wouldn’t hesitate put my road career aside for the opportunity. I feel like I’ve always been a mountain biker at heart and multi-day mountain bike racing is probably the best fit for me of any cycling discipline. I feel I have all the components to do well at multi-day mountain bike racing, it’s just a case of tying them all together into an efficient package.”
Vink has a strong partner in Rush, who has ridden the Pioneer before with his brother Kris and is himself a decorated road and mountain bike rider, making for a formidable team.
Defending champions Scott Lyttle and James Williamson are back (Team Willbike – MortgageME) and will do all they can to stand atop the podium again, knowing they are all the stronger for their 2017 experience.
“Preparation has been great, we have trained separately with Scott in Colorado, but he has enjoyed their summer this time to get ready, so that will help him. And we have had a good spring down here until the last week, so everything is on track and we are lucky enough to know some of the local tracks, so we can use that to our advantage.
“Vink and Tim are a couple of classy riders and would be the team to beat to be honest. We are well prepared though and confident we can ride well together having done it before. We will ride our own race and do the best we can and see how it pans out.”
Williamson says the real test of how a team will perform is when the going gets tough, and in an event like The Pioneer, that is bound to happen across the six days.
“It is fine when things are going well but it is when you have some bad luck that things can go pear shaped, and you have to expect that at some point. Our experience as a team will help us get through any of those tough times.”
Leading contenders in the Women’s category include Amy Hollamby and Kate McIlroy. Hollamby (Timaru) has vital race experience, having ridden with Haley Van Leeuwen to third in the women’s category in 2017, while McIlroy (Wellington) is a multi-talented athlete renowned for her competitive nature.
Having represented New Zealand in athletics (steeplechase), triathlon and road cycling, McIlroy spoke earlier this month about her venture into the mountain bike world, one that has treated her harshly in the past with an accident in 2016 tearing a hamstring off the bone.
“I’m just trying to fast track myself back to some sort of ‘okay’ skill level, I probably underestimated how hard it is. It’s just trying to get on my mountain bike a few times a week, and I’m still doing some road racing so it’s just trying to get that balance right.”
Defending open women’s champion Nina McVicar (Auckland) returns with new riding partner Mary Gray (Christchurch) and will again be a serious threat, as will 2017 runner up Erin Greene (Queenstown) who like McVicar returns with a new riding partner in New Zealand Masters 2 national champion Hannah Miller (Christschurch).
The mixed category promises to be one of the most intriguing of all, with two-time defending champions Team New World Mark Williams and Kate Fluker (Queenstown) facing their most serious challenge yet, with high profile teams from South Africa, France and New Zealand lining them up squarely in their sights.
Leading contenders include Team Velo Channel Jean Francois Bossler and Fanny Bourdon (France), the 2016 Absa Cape Epic champions are perhaps the most credentialled of all the international teams with Bossler having 7 Cape Epics to his name, including that 2016 victory with Bourdon.
Also on the start line and vying for the podium will be Team Garmin Yolandi du Toit and Ben Melt, the South Africans have ridden as a pair fulltime for the past two and a half years and have big race experience, with du Toit having represented South Africa on three occasions at the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.
New Zealand combinations Elina Ussher and Flavio Vianna (Team New World St Martins) and husband and wife pairing from Dunedin Johnny and Haley Van Leeuwen will also mix it up in one of the most competitive categories.
The bulk of the field is however in the masters (both riders 40 plus) and the grand masters (both riders 50 plus) categories, with many riding for charity or simply to achieve something amazing with a good mate, friend or family member.
Notables in amongst those riders include 12-time Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain IRONMAN New Zealand champion Cameron Brown, who rides in Team Vital All in One with good mate Andrew Smith, while there are 15 Founding Riders, including four from Australia. These are riders who have ridden in all three Pioneer events.
Spanish pairing Jep Gonzales Farres and Marcel Farres Dasquens take on the grand masters as they ride The Pioneer to cap riding major events on five continents. The two 50-year-old mates have ridden the Cape Epic, Mongolia Bike Challenge, Titan Desert and others on their cycling journey.
In truth every pairing has a story to tell, one to inspire, amaze and excite. Whether riding for a charity, a cause, for personal reasons having beaten illness or other hurdles just to get to the start line, the next six days of riding promises plenty of great story telling and exciting racing.
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