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The Epic Series – one of the toughest challenges in mountain biking – is comprised of the Swiss Epic, the Pioneer in New Zealand, and reaches its pinnacle in South Africa at the legendary Cape Epic. Each are multi-day stage races through gruelling but spectacular terrain, and each require that teams of two remain together at all times.
In late November, CyclingTips attended The Pioneer in New Zealand courtesy of the race organisers. Two ill-prepared roadies, nearly 500km of trails and 15,500m of climbing and descending… what could possibly go wrong?
Words: Wade Wallace | Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video editing: Phil Golston
For two years, our resident photographer Tim Bardsley-Smith has been telling me about a mountain bike race in New Zealand that he loves to shoot called the Pioneer. I always blew it off, thinking about how there’s nothing I’m more ill-prepared for than slogging through the South Island’s rugged mountains on a mountain bike for a week straight. I know how hard this landscape and duration is in a road race where you can sit in, never mind a mountain bike where it’s either full gas or you’re walking. No thanks… I couldn’t imagine a day where I’d be in good enough shape to do that type of thing again.
But then about six months ago, something changed. I found that I was in need of a challenge. Something within me was looking for a competitive outlet. I wanted something different to train for – something that would stretch me and get the best out of myself. Thoughts of the Pioneer slowly began to creep in.
As with all events in the Epic Series, having a good partner is not only mandatory, but also essential if you’re going to have a good time. I didn’t have to think for long about who my partner would be. The chosen one would be none other than my good mate Allan ‘Alby’ Iacuone – ex-pro road cyclist, the #peopleschamp, and all-round top bloke.
Many friendships have been ruined by these types of races, and many been forged even stronger. I knew the ups and downs that we were about to encounter would only strengthen the bond between Alby and myself. I already knew his character and his attitude towards life was similar to mine; my only concern was letting him down. Alby is one of the best road cyclists I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride with (he’s a former National Road Champion and CX champion of Australia), and all he needed to do was set his mind to learning the ins and outs of a mountain bike for the next few months. No problem for this guy…
Alby said an enthusiastic ‘IN!’ to my invitation, and we were set. Now the hard work began. Shit… now I’d have to train like I’ve never trained before just to be able to hold his wheel, and also lose 10kg. I knew I could hang on through the technical sections, but with an average of 2,500m of climbing per day there was no room for hiding or drafting.
There was lots of trash-talk in the months leading up to the Pioneer between Alby and I, but only a total of 14 minutes of actual mountain biking between us. Our one attempt ended up with Alby crashing head on with another rider going the opposite direction and he sliced his forearm through to the bone, landing us in the Emergency ward with many stitches in Alby’s arm. It looked as though our Pioneer dream was over before it even began. If I’m honest, I was secretly hoping that this would put Alby off the bike for a few weeks so that our paces might be more equal.
Alby didn’t skip a beat. Only a few days later, he climbed to 2nd place at the Taiwan KOM.
Alby had never really had much experience mountain bike racing before, while I flirted with it for a long enough stretch in the late 90s and early 2000s that I was capable enough to think I knew what I was doing out there. But ever since I became a prisoner of the road, I left my skills and upper body strength behind and never looked back. Well, that’s not totally true. A year ago I did the TransNZ Enduro race, but when I signed up for it I thought I was signing up for the Pioneer (naturally ‘enduro’ meant ‘endurance race’, right?). In my years away, mountain biking had become a whole new world. Gone were the days of signing up for the cross-country, dual-slalom, and downhill races with the same bike all in the same weekend.
Only a few days before we left for NZ, Alby and I received the brand new Giant Anthem Advanced mountain bikes that we’d be using. They wouldn’t be ridden until we arrived in Queenstown. Not ideal for our preparation, but it didn’t really make a difference when we thought about it.
And so it began. On our first day in Queenstown while warming up, we stood at the top of the Skyline gondola run in awe watching all the downhill mountain bikers strut their stuff. When a random tourist came up to us and said in a big Texan accent, “you guys look like the mountain bike police!” we couldn’t help but feel slightly insulted. We also couldn’t hold back our laughter.
‘#RoadiesOnMountainBikes’ is how we labeled this (mis)adventure. As you’ll discover, that’s precisely how it played out.
Both Alby and I are used to road prologues of about 10-20mins in duration, with an all-out effort that’d leave you with sprinter’s cough for the next 12 hours, but the Pioneer was going to be closer to 90 minutes. Our relentless preparation for the prologue entailed binging on countless hours of Youtube videos of Rude Rock and other features of the prologue course, but after a dump of snow hit Coronet Peak only days before the Pioneer, our preparation was thrown into disarray. The YouTube videos we’d prepared with were shot in perfectly dry conditions – there was no way we were going to ‘send it’ over those doubles in these deplorable conditions.
Alby, in true roadie form, dressed for the stage with nine layers of clothing thinking that he could disrobe as required and just pass his unwanted kit to the team car. After 30 seconds of mountain biking madness and being completely soaked to the bone he began to regret that choice. Fortunately I had done this enough before to know that we’d be lucky to hit 30km/hr.
After the Rude Rock descent, which saw countless dodgy passes on descending singletrack and proved to be the longest skid the South Island had ever seen, we began the climb back up to the finish. Where Alby had fumbled for the past 20 minutes, I figured he’d hit the gas and rip me a new one on the ascent. But to my dismay, I could hear Alby breathing hard. Then harder. Then even harder. To my even greater surprise, I was feeling on top of the world. I slowed up, waiting for Alby to take off a few layers of kit, have a gel, and get comfortable – but he never did.
We were to be inseparable teammates for the week, but we were also good mates. And in the spirit of mateship, this was my opportunity to relish in Alby’s discomfort, push him into the red, and keep him there. Alby had done this enough times to me to know exactly what I was doing, but he couldn’t do anything about it. It was a dream come true for me. The guy’s a thoroughbred climber who’s battled it out up some of the toughest cols around the globe, and for this one time only I was in charge. I pushed as hard as I could, saying encouraging words while he suffered like a dog. Even though this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen, this was the proudest day of my cycling life.
We finished the prologue in 5th place in our Masters category, 22nd overall. Perfect positioning going into stage 1.
Our decent placing meant that we could start in the A-group (groups behind would start in 5 minute blocks thereafter). Our eyes were set on winning the Masters category and the leaders were our nemeses from Sydney, David Evans and Anthony Shippard, who were now wearing the leaders jerseys. Oh, how we wanted to beat them.
It was a chaotic start on the road, which then narrowed to bike path, and then singletrack. Desperate to hit that singletrack in the top 10, we pedalled our hearts out and fought for that position. Just as 100 screaming mountain bikers were playing chicken at 40km/hr heading through the bike path bollards and onto the singletrack, I hit a pothole and my chain dropped.
In my panic, I’m frantically pushing my shock lock-out thinking it’s my front derailleur lever, trying to get my chain back on to no avail. In seconds I go from a top 10 position to the entire bunch riding straight by me. I quickly put my chain back on and chase my heart out to get back onto the rear end of the group. Meanwhile, Alby up front in his sweet position is hearing whispers that I’ve broken my chain, punctured, dropped my gopro, or whatever. He comes to a stop while I’m chasing like a madman to get back to the front group, and neither of us see each other. Alby begins riding back to Queenstown asking strangers, ‘have you seen a guy who looks like me in blue kit?’, and the only thing on my mind is jumping from group to group looking for my partner.
When I finally get to the first feedzone, word on the grapevine is that my partner was last seen riding back to Queenstown looking for me. I didn’t believe it. One of the course marshals radioed ahead to the next checkpoint, and told me that my partner was waiting there for me. I began chasing again, but before I got out of site the marshal called me back and said there might be a mistake. The more people who rode past, the more confirmation I had that Alby was back in Queenstown looking for me – probably at Fergburger. What a debacle.
I stayed put at the feedzone munching on a dozen brownies, three marmite sandwiches, and a few pieces of fruitcake while waiting for Alby to show. I had time to check my tyre pressure, lube my chain, and play with my suspension set-up – all the stuff I should probably have done while back in Melbourne. It was over an hour in total before I heard the cheering of the feedzone helpers when #ThePeoplesChamp finally came through.
Happiness in life is dictated by expectations, and we quickly came to the conclusion that the forecast for a good placing overall was an impossibility – and we were both okay with that. It was a true test of Alby’s character, and where his true colours shone. He was laughing about the mess-up just as much as I was, and we both knew it was going to be a more fun race from that point forward.
Looking back more than a week later, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Stage wins: that was to be our goal was from here on in. We took it easy for the rest of stage 1 saving our legs for an all-out assault on stage 2 – the race’s queen stage.
Unfortunately, our placing meant that we had to start back in B-group, which wasn’t ideal for our ambitious plan. If we were able to start in the A-group, there would’ve been stronger riders to work with, while also allowing us to pace our efforts against those we were trying to race against. But our protests were futile and even for us (yeah, we tried the ‘don’t you know who we are?’ line), they weren’t bending the rules for anyone.
Straight off the gun, Alby rode full gas to the front of the group and rode away. 30 years of road racing experience was thrown out the window and here I was, left trying to follow this man on a mission.
But it worked. Now it was Alby who had me up against the ropes and I was trying to keep pace. We caught the back of A-group in no time and proceeded to right straight through them. Alby’s technical skills, which were non-existent just days earlier, left me fighting to hold on down some of the rocky descents through the desert hills of Alexandra. I couldn’t believe the transformation from man to beast.
We kept pushing all the way to the end, with both of our backs nearly ready to seize, and came 2nd in our category, 10th overall. But we had both ridden so hard that it left us wondering how we were going to start stage 3.
When a seasoned vet like Alby says “that was one of the toughest days on a bike I’ve ever experienced”, you know it was not only a hard day, but also a rookie move. We’d left nothing in the tank for the rest of the week.
Surprisingly, both Alby and I felt okay once we were caffeinated and fed. A flush-out massage straight after the previous stage did wonders for recovery and we both felt like new men.
There are no easy days at the Pioneer, but today was probably the easiest of the week at 80km and 2,300m of climbing. Most of it was double track and farm roads with less steep climbing than the other stages, so after flogging ourselves the day before, we resolved to take this one relatively easy.
We again tried and failed at negotiating our way into A-group, but to our delight, we started with my good mate Brodie Chapman (who’d just spent her first year as a pro roadie in Europe) and her partner Briony ‘Mad Dog’ Mattocks (pro MTBer) who were placed in second and battling it out for the Women’s category. Not bad company to be in – even in B-group!
Brodie and Briony denied us our easy day and both Alby and I lamented their ridiculous climbing pace, and Briony’s ‘NFG’ descents. They were on the exact opposite mission as we were today and just keeping up with them put us in 6th spot for Masters. Brodie and Briony convincingly snagged their stage win to gain time on their rivals for 1st place, which meant that tomorrow’s stage with 3,500m of climbing was going to be even harder if we were to ride with them again.
This was the stage everyone was worried about. I didn’t think it was physically possible to clock up 3500m of climbing over 70km and have it still be ridable. Not only was it going to be a physically tough day, but there were also weather warnings at the high elevations we’d be reaching and everyone needed to bring extra gear. That meant things like jackets with hoods, merino tights and long sleeve base layers, beanies… A lot of extra baggage to carry up 3,500m of vert.
Again, we tried to talk our way into A-group, but our charm was quickly wearing thin. We started the stage again with Brodie and Briony, along with their 1st place rivals Amy Hollamby and Kate McIlroy. From the start we could see that both teams had each other marked and nobody was letting each other gain any time.
Alby and I decided to try to get ahead of the B-group and catch the A-group before the trails got too jammed up. As I said, this stage scared us; tomorrow was going to be the day we tried for another stage win, and today was all about conserving.
It wasn’t long before Brodie, Briony, Amy and Kate caught up to us and we found ourselves with grandstand seats watching the Women’s race take shape. All of them were riding extremely strongly, not letting anyone get away, and the unique teammate dynamic really displayed itself. Brodie and Kate duked it out on the steep climbs 50-100m ahead of the struggling Briony and Amy (who at least looked like they were having a better time than their teammates!)
With this much climbing in such a short distance, it obviously meant the climbs were steep. Many were above 20% for 30+ minutes of pedalling; you couldn’t go any faster, and you couldn’t go any slower. Any faster and you’re redlining, and any slower you’d be walking. It was an excruciating march that was marginally easier to ride than to walk. At this point in the race, my body was so tired that I couldn’t really push into the red for those final pinches just to get up and over, and my heart rate couldn’t get over 130bpm no matter how hard I tried. It was a grind the entire way.
We slogged it out to the finish just behind the pointy end of the Women’s race and saw Brodie and Briony take the stage win with a sprint finish, not gaining any time on Amy and Kate.
Tomorrow was going to be our day of redemption, and that evening we made a point of going to the Race Director to see if we could be put in the A-group for the start. She said she’d look into it, and for the first time this week we had hope that we could compete. Alby and I plotted out a plan to attack our Sydney nemeses Evans and Shippy (who were solidly leading Masters) on the second climb and blow them to piece. We both went to bed giddy at the prospect.
Today would be the final stage, and there was no sense leaving anything in the tank. Both Alby and I felt surprisingly good once the legs got rolling. Let me tell you, if you ever do this race I can’t recommend highly enough buying the daily massage package. I sometimes wondered if this race qualified as a ‘vacation’, but between the massage and eating a mountain of food each afternoon, I couldn’t have been much happier.
We rocked up to the start gates with an air of confidence, optimistic that our negotiating skills the night before would have gotten our names on that revered A-list. To our dismay, we were shot down and sent back to B-group quicker than we could dispute the decision. I suppose that fuelled the fire to get the stage win even more, but I’ll concede that there was a brief moment when Alby and I looked at each other and said, “F-it, let’s go bungy jumping instead”. Neither of us wanted to let each other down, though, and we were frothing for that win.
We went out of the start gates hard and kept it that way for nearly 5 hours straight.
Even though I felt good, this was probably the hardest day of them all. The stage profile indicated a big climb to start, another smaller climb, and then flat to the finish. It was that first climb that nearly killed me. It was relentlessly steep, and just when I thought I was at my mental and physical limit, we’d turn a corner and as far as I could see it would keep going at the same rate. Then it would happen again and again, all with chunks of clay caking up our tyres and bikes and getting worse with every pedal stroke.
The descents didn’t provide any relief as the arm pump was more painful than the lactic acid in the legs, all whilst trying to avoid the random massive sink holes peppered all over the trail. I kept checking to see if my suspension was locked out, but truthfully, I’m not sure even a downhill bike would have been sufficient.
At this point Alby and I were making our way near the front of the A-group and we were picking off some strong riders. This would normally be the point where I’d say to myself, ‘That’s good enough… I’m gonna sit in with these guys all the way home’. But not Alby.
You see, this is where a guy like Alby is different to you and me – it’s when a true bike racer really shines. For the next two hours, Alby nearly tore my legs off hopping from group to group. When riding with a guy like that, you’re lifted to a level you never knew you had within yourself. It hurt, but there felt like there was a purpose to it, which made it fun.
We crossed the finish line 2nd in our category, 10th overall. As much as this stage hurt, I’ve never been so disappointed to be finishing a race. Finishing meant it was over, and for the first time ever I didn’t want it to be over.
Getting a finishers’ medal in road racing has never been something neither Alby or I have ever aspired to, but earning the finishers’ medal for the Pioneer was truly something special. It represented months of planning and preparation, teamwork, suffering, laughter, new friendships, and a shared experience we’ll never forget.
Now what? Cape Epic. That’s what.
Before I committed to the Pioneer I made a deal with myself. The deal was that I would not let myself get obsessed with this and it would not interfere with my family or work. I would work my training in around my life in such a way that my family would barely notice it, and I’d have enough energy to get through my work day. I knew that I couldn’t do this alone and left to my own devices, I’d get far too carried away. Therefore I enlisted the help of Mark Fenner of FTP Training to coach me. Mark did a brilliant job at structuring my training around the limitations of my life, holding me back from myself, adding specificity around the demands of the event, and timing/periodising my fitness to perfection.
Here’s what a typical week looked like:
My daily commutes were a necessary part of my day (it would take me 45mins to drive to work anyway) and I would be doing these regardless, but they added up. I would often be frothing to get my Wednesday World Championships bunch ride in, but Fenner held me back and I’m glad he did, otherwise my other sessions would have suffered. Looking back it was the right thing to do.
Note that this type of training program was right for me at my fitness level, life situation, strengths and weaknesses. I spoke to others who were coached by FTP Training and their programs were drastically different.
A race like the Pioneer is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable adventures any cyclist can have. Expert mountain bike skills are not required, but you’ll need to be proficient. Here are a few things we learned over the course of our preparation and during the event itself: