Alexandra’s James (Jimmy) Williamson knows the many riding trails of the Central Otago region like the back of his hand, so it was little surprise the elite road and mountain bike rider was shoulder tapped to return to the scene of his 2017 Pioneer triumph, not to ride again, but to set the course for hundreds of others to test themselves on over six stunning days in December this year.
Williamson these days balances a busy life running his cycling shop, coaching business and café (all under the WillBike brand) in Alexandra, while still putting in the time on the saddle to pursue his cycling ambitions.
Those goals are not on the dirt in 2019 though, with Williamson focused on a road campaign in North America during the New Zealand winter, but the soon to be father is delighted to have retained an interest in The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain, in his role of course designer.
“Being a local and having done a little bit of this sort of stuff these past couple of years, I have always put my hand up to the Pioneer team for this sort of opportunity and have kept in touch with Danielle (Race Director Danielle Sherman). That led to her coming to me this year to take on the full role as course designer.
“It is something I have always enjoyed doing, pumping out new trails and exploring new places to ride. One reason I like to ride a mountain bike is the enjoyment of heading out and finding new places to ride. It is a great fit; I have always enjoyed the challenge of putting together a course for an event. It was an easy decision for me to jump on that opportunity.”
Riders should fear not either, just because Williamson is an elite rider and a winner of the event with Scott Lyttle in 2017, his eye for the trails is very much with the heart and soul of the Pioneer riders in mind.
“The Pioneer is not an easy race and is not designed to be easy, but it is designed to be ridable and that is what we have had top of mind. First and fore most we want a course that is going to be challenging but enjoyable, then we make it fit for everyone. Different aspects of each stage will challenge all riders in different ways. But the bulk of the field are not elite riders, many are there just to complete the event, they are the ones we think of most to deliver a memorable week of riding.”
Williamson has brought his many years of riding in his own backyard to the table in his role as course designer.
“Local knowledge is so important when you are planning a race like The Pioneer, you can’t just look at a map and pick out a route. There are so many things when you are actually riding, the trails can be very different to how they might appear on a map. Things that might not look that hard on paper can be tough and vice versa. But for me it has been cool to bring in some of the riding I have been doing and explore new and existing trails to pull together.
“There is some new stuff in the course for me as well, that is cool, to find that new trails - that is the benefit of us working from a local base. But we can’t go too crazy with too much advanced riding, so it is a balance every day. For me as a racer it really excites me though, I would love to be riding it again if I could.”
What hidden gems then will the 2019 race unveil to the riders as they take on the 441km and 13,000 metres of climbing over the six days?
“Stage 2 around Alexandra was hugely popular last year, and we have kept that day largely unchanged, we have added a couple of new trails that will make it better again, so that will be exciting. The new Stage 1 in Queenstown is probably the best addition to the course, that will have a better flow to it than last year, but also includes some of the best trails in the region, as a rider you are going to finish that day thinking ‘that was awesome.’”
Entries have been on a steady upward curve since opening in May, with strong international representation. 40% of the total entry list to this point are from overseas, with riders travelling from far and wide, including a strong Australian contingent.
New Zealanders are also committing to the event, keen to experience the stunning scenery, character defining days in the saddle and the legendary welcome of a full service mountain bike stage race that creates memories to last a lifetime on the trails and in the event villages hosted in Queenstown, Alexandra and Bannockburn.
Williamson is not totally off the bike and is in fact heading away to the States soon to escape the worst of the New Zealand winter, with the road bike in the baggage, but admits that other priorities are starting to assume more of his time.
“It is a natural process, as you get older things change and the business grows a bit as well. But there is no doubt that I will always be riding and racing bikes, both road and mountain bike, there is no question that I will ever stop that, it is just a case of balance between riding, running the WillBike shop in Alexandra and the café – we are right on the rail trail and they combine as one business. Plus, I do some coaching, and I am preparing a few teams for The Pioneer this year.
The proud Central Otago local comes out in Williamson though when he considers the still untapped potential of an event that has already captured the imagination of the New Zealand and international mountain bike riding community.
“I can’t wait for The Pioneer to get bigger and better each year, I think we have more and more exciting options up our sleeve, riders need to commit, sign up and watch this space for further exciting news around this event.”
More About The Pioneer
Commonwealth Games medal winning cyclist Gordon McCauley has turned to the ‘other-side’, confirming his entry along with