Defending Champions Make A Statement on Stage One
Defending champions Michael Vink and Tim Rush (Onya Bike North Otago) made an emphatic statement on day two of The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutrigrain, dominating the spectacular 76km stage one from Moke Lake to Arrowtown that took riders from the Moke Lake village, up Moonlight Track to Arthurs Point, along the Shotover River, up the massive climb to Coronet Peak and then back down into Arrowtown.
With Vink still finding his riding legs in his first decent stint back on the mountain bike since last year’s victory and on just his third ride on a new bike, it was Rush to the fore today as the Kiwis opened up a 6:18 lead on prologue winners Brendan Johnston and Jon Odams (Giant Off-Road Australia).
“Tim had to push me up most of the climb, including the road part as well which was something I thought would never happen but it is testament to the las of the man, he is such an incredible bike rider and I am lucky to have him as a partner,” said Vink.
The Tour of Southland winner sent an ominous warning to the rest of the field as well, suggesting the best is yet to come.
“That was hard work, I think every day is going to be hard this week. That was good to put a stamp of authority on the race though, just for our confidence more than anything, I think it will only get better for us from here, with both of us being experienced road riders and having done a lot of road tours it will suit us even better going forward.”
Third over the line today and in third on general classification was the Aussie pairing of Garry Milburn and Chris Aitken (Maap-Shimano), but only thanks to a decent stack from Sam Osborne in the Team Winger Hamilton team (riding with Ryan Sissons).
Osborne and Sissons were comfortably in third nearing the finish before Osborne went over the handlebars at the final creek crossing, luckily not doing any physical damage but the Kiwis were unable to hold off the Aussies in the final few hundred metres.
The mixed category is already living up to expectation, with a change in the leader jersey with defending champions Joe Skerman and Josie Wilcox (JoJo) impressive in claiming the stage over prologue winners Mark Williams and Kate Fluker (New World-Pivot).
Like Osborne, Williams had an off late in the stage, but was effusive in his praise of team JoJo.
“I had a bit of a face plant late on and took the brunt of it with the nose, but I am all good, my teeth are all still there so I will be fine! Jo and Josie were amazing today though, just too strong for us, especially on the climb, they rode an incredible stage today and well done to them.”
Skerman and Wilcox were delighted with the ride, with Joe delighted he was able to match the pace of Wilcox on the climb up Coronet Peak, as the Bulls farmer ‘got the big diesel engine’ up and running.
The category is clearly one to watch though, with just 11 minutes separating the top three on general classification, with plenty of big days to come and little margin for error or a mechanical issue.
The open women’s category however has been blown apart already, with Kate McIlroy and Amy Hollamby all powerful in backing up their prologue win to establish a 40-minute lead over 2017 winners Nina McVicar and Reta Trotman.
McIlroy was pleased with the ride but not so happy with a sluggish start at the back of the first start wave that cost them time and left them without riding company for much of the journey.
“We had a little chat about it, and yeah, basically we got it wrong. The guys absolutely boosted off and we thought we might stay out of their race but probably we got bottled up over the fence and missed the front half of the split and then basically spent the rest of the day riding by ourselves, which was a bit lonely.
“But the trail was awesome, an amazing course and cool with the big descent coming down here (into Arrowtown) and I actually came off in one of the rivers and Amy was gone, she didn’t even see me, and I was like ‘wait!’.”
Elsewhere in the field road riding legend Gordon McCauley and teammate Jarrod Harris (Daikin Thermal Solutions) are having a blast. The Commonwealth Games medalist and only man to win the road, time trial and criterium national titles was as always wonderfully honest in his assessment of the day with the team sitting eighth in the masters (40+) category – even when reminded that his road record is second-to-none.
“To be fair my record on the mountain bike is more like second-to-last! I didn’t enjoy the climbing cause that sucks anyway, and I didn’t particularly enjoy Rude Rock because I seem to struggle on the really fast bermy rides fast. But I was in my element coming down the slippery wet crap as that is exactly what we ride at home. So, I was brakes off and politely asking people to get out of my way!”
The beauty and variety in the 76km stage was wonderfully received by the field, with Australian rider Alex Malone (Cyclist Magazine AUS) lavish in his praise.
“Today had an amazing variety of everything, from a scenic opening loop around the lake to the technical Moonlight Trail, and who could forget the brutal ascent up Coronet Peak and the thrilling ride down Rude Rock and the Bush Creek Track into Arrowtown to a welcome finish line, that was a great day riding.”
Competitors in The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain, range in age from 19 to 72 (average age 44) and represent 24 countries, with Australia the largest contingent outside of New Zealand (211) with 57 riders making the trip across the Tasman. South Africa, home to the pinnacle event in the EPIC Series the Absa Cape Epic, has 24 riders, America 12 and Spain 11 while one of the more fascinating stats is the seven riders registered from Iceland.
Riders now rest up tonight at the event village in Alexandra for the next two nights, with a 112km out-and-back stage in Alexandra tomorrow, the longest day and Queen Stage on the event. Riders then head to Bannockburn on Wednesday for a two night stay before heading head back to Frankton on Friday December 6, with the final stage taking them to the finish line village on the ridge off Hawthorn Drive, overlooking the Kawarau River and the Remarkables.