In the hills of the Southern Alps of New Zealand there ventured four intrepid friends, mountain bikers. Not uncultured, grubby, smelly dirtbags (not yet, anyway), nor yet stylish, sophisticated or too rigid as to not have a laugh at themselves and throw back a beer or three: they were mountain bikers, and that means adventure.
They were perfectly svelte mountain bikers, inclined to wear tight shorts and spend their days roaming across the countryside, equally keen to pedal up as they were to pedal down. Their legs bore a garish tan line about midway up the thigh, as if they had once been dipped in brown paint, a consequence of wearing their tight shorts in the sunshine. More than anything else, they were good friends with a common passion, and had weathered many a two-wheeled escapade in each others' company. All four came from a great land of salmon and tall trees known as Cascadia, and if you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about these mountain bikers, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Indeed, this is the [short] story of how these mountain bikers had an adventure in the far off land of New Zealand, and it is no exception.
One crisp autumn day, as each of these spandex swashbucklers was amidst business of their own, hunkering down for winter, they received an invitation to share in a worthy expedition in early February: a seven-day stage race that would traverse the rugged foothills and dales of New Zealand's Southern Alps, from Christchurch to Queenstown, 560 kilometers with 15,200 meters of climbing. It was called The Pioneer. It was to be ridden in teams of two. It promised to be the first of its kind to link together singletrack and farm tracks in this special part of the world, where soaring mountain peaks, crystal-clear blue lakes, and golden high country would surely inspire awe...and lots of fitness. To nobody's surprise, no further coaxing was needed. Beers were toasted, airplane tickets were purchased, and the crew was in!
February was soon upon them, and the boys found themselves shrugging off a cold winter and a long airplane ride, squinting in the bright Kiwi sunshine as they re-assembled their precious bikes. "Find stunning, find character, find welcome," proclaimed the race directors. It was no riddle, as all of these things were front and center from the moment the race began; stunning landscapes, character-building challenges, and warm Kiwi hospitality.
Like deep water released from the gates of a dam, the four riders roared out of the start gates and into the countryside, setting a pace over the next seven days that only one of the 240 other duos could match (and eventually best...those two being a World Champion and a World Cup champion). Each day was full of roughly made tracks, full of jagged stones and the errant cowpie. One of our intrepid duos suffered a terrible sequence of slashed tires on the second day. Everyone got poop on their faces. Climbs were dreadfully steep, often coming in doses of 1,000 meters at a time, and some stretches of primitive farm roads seemed to meander endlessly through vast basins, golden hills and snow-capped mountains looming overhead. Each day had the riders journeying deeper and deeper into the wild, where crystal clear lakes and delicious feasts awaited tired legs. Each night, the Milky Way would glimmer out beyond the stars, and weary riders would wake each morning feeling grounded and recharged by nature, ready for the next ride.
After about 28 hours of cumulative ride time and around 1 million heartbeats altogether, our four mountain bikers crossed the finish line in Queenstown, weary from the ride yet beaming with pleasure and thirsty for beer. After high-fives they collapsed in the grass and fell to talking about the glorious week. One of the best perhaps. But it's pointless to judge. Better to simply appreciate and relish all that it entails, for any week on a bike is a great one.
All photos by Duncan Philpott
For more details on the race, visit www.thepioneer.co.nz, and check out the race reports that were posted on the Kona COG throughout the week.