The Pioneer: 2019 Course Recce

The Pioneer has to be one of the most iconic MTB stage races in the world. The course is set deep within the Southern Alps. This is home to not only bungee jumping but some of New Zealand’s best trails. The diversity of the terrain along with the epic scenery is next level. The race organisation decided to move the race to start and finish to this neck of the woods a few years back. And, it’s with good reason – the place just screams adventure! 

The Pioneer 2019

The Pioneer is always searching for more so for 2019 there’s a few course changes and additions. One of these is a new Course Manager, James Williamson, who won it with team mate Scott Lyttle in 2017. He has been brought on with the brief of taking a stunning event to the next level. He’s born and bred in the south and resides in the Central Otago, so as a local, he knows the many amazing trails of the region.

James says; “This is my backyard so I have taken special pride in helping to deliver a course that will ensure a memorable week for all. For those returning to ride again, expect the best edition of The Pioneer yet. For those attending for the first time, be ready for an event that will give you memories and friendships to last a lifetime after a week riding some of the world’s best trails.”

James has spent the past few months mapping and scouting some of the best trails for The Pioneer to traverse across. He’s had a good yarn with a few local farmers, well fifty actually, and convinced them to open up their gates for riders of The Pioneer. It’s amazing what buying a few rounds of Speights does in a southern pub! This means riders will get to cross land that’s typically closed off to the public, let alone mountain bikers.

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Another change is that the event date is now a week later and kicks off on the 1st of December. Not only does this mark the start of summer, but it also means that the event now has access to some great trails previously off limits because of lambing. The Pioneer course stays within the same areas traversed in 2018, however five of the six stages will be either completely new or have substantial new terrain and trails added in the mix. Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago still provide the backdrop to the iconic event.

Lucky for us they decided to send us down to take in some of the elements of this year’s race a few days before the course announcement. All I can say is that I was left wanting more after only being able to spend two days in the stunning southern region. I’ll be back at some point, probably once I clear all my backlog of bloody emails! But for now, here’s our take on this year’s course:

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Prologue – 25.5km 650m elevation loop, starting and finishing @ Moke Lake

·       65% single-track, 1% sealed road, 19% gravel road, 11% 4wd/farm track, 4% cycle-trail

The new prologue course uses some of the best singletrack in the area. The anticlockwise loop starting and finishing in the stunning back country location of Moke Lake comprises of a fast start on some flowing tracks along the shores of Moke Lake and Lake Dispute.

“These trails are rolling and a have a few undulations but aren’t too technical. The route then drops down a well bermed twisty descent on the Phoenix track to the coast of the Wakatipu and into the singletrack mecca of 7 Mile where you’ll pin it through a selection of tight, twisty flow trail through the forest before looping back round to Moke Lake.”

The forested trails offer a contrast to the brown tussock terrain. With a little bit of everything, the prologue is the perfect chance for riders to shake-down and settle into a groove for the rest of the week.

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Stage 1 – 76km 2,285m elevation - point to point, starting at Moke Lake and finishing in Arrowtown

  • 37% single-track, 14% Sealed road, 8% gravel road, 16% 4wd/farm track, 25% cycle-trail

This is another new stage for this year’s event, this point to point ride encompasses some of the Queenstown basin’s amazing cycle trail network, back country trails and the epic singletrack on Coronet Peak.

Riders are treated to a relatively easy start on the Moke Lake road headed towards the Moonlight Trail. The climb up to the top of the Moonlight Trail will allow teams to get settled into their rhythm for the rest of the stage. Once you emerge out of the trail at Arthurs Point, the course then hits the banks of the mighty Shotover River for some more singletrack riding before connecting up with the Queenstown Cycle Trail for some slight recovery before the big challenge of the day, the climb to the Coronet Peak Ski Field.

“There is plenty of reward for the hard yakka’ with the last 25km of the stage nearly all being single-track which includes arguably New Zealand’s most famous trail, Rude Rock. Named after a rudely-shaped rock on the trail, Rude Rock flows through the iconic Southern Alps with big berms and stunning views. You can stay off the brakes and cruise down most the trail, or ride it hard and fast. While the trail is off-the-charts good, so are the views so remember to look up!”

You then roll along the flowing Coronet Water Race Trail and then descend down a newly improved Bush Creek Track and into Arrowtown. A beer and a bus transfer to Alexandra awaits.

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Stage 2 – 112km 2,570m loop, starting and finishing in Alexandra

  • 30% single-track, 5% sealed road, 12% gravel road, 39% 4wd/farm track, 14% cycle-trail

The Queen stage is a true mountain bikers’ day with some of the best rocky, dry, dusty single-track in the country. The riding in this stage is simply stunning but it doesn’t come without its challenges. Thyme and encrusted hills await out behind the Alexandra Clock. Known locally as MTB heaven, the extent of the singletrack network out in these hills will surprise you and leave you wanting to come back for more!

“Alexandra has a surrounding landscape that’s like the moon. The diversity is seen here as the trails are so different. The rocks offer a challenging technical side to these trails. I found this section to be one of the most awesome parts of the course and will definitely be back to do it at race pace.”

The course then shoots along the Clutha River down the picturesque Roxburgh Gorge. This track soon turns into the longest climb of the day up the newly built Sphinx rock trail, a 6km pure singletrack ascent bringing you from the depths of the gorge up to the very top of the Flat Top Hill Range. The singletrack doesn’t end here with a loop of the Black & Blue descent and the Purple Haze climb on the hillside above Butchers Dam.

You’ll take the farm tracks of Earnscleugh Station to the next major challenge of the day at Clyde. The Fraser Weir Road climb takes you into a remote high-country river gorge before you have to grunt out of it up the steepest climb of the day to get to the top of the Clyde Enduro Trail which is 3km of flowing downhill trail.

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Stage 3 – 80km 2,175m - point to point, starting in Alexandra and finishing in Bannockburn

  • 21% single-track, 23% sealed road, 17% gravel road, 39% 4wd/farm track

The stage starts with the ever-popular Alexandra-Clyde Millennium Track which winds alongside the Clutha River and brings you out right underneath the massive Clyde Dam. The course crosses the Earnscleugh Flats and heads to the first major climb of the day up the Fraser Dam Road. This climb takes you halfway up the Old Man Hill range and around the back of the Fraser Reservoir, where you’ll cross the river and head into Hawksburn Station. Some rolling farm country here leads you into the next big climb of the day to the top of the Cairnmuir Range. The Cairnmuir climb has some early steep pinches and some short sections that riders will likely need to walk before it opens out to a steady ridge line climb that links up with the D.O.C trail across the top.

“The track climbs steadily but has hike-a-bike sections to get to the top. Keep your eyes peeled for the restored mustering hut at the top. Traversing the tussock tops (1,114 m) of the Cairnmuir Mountains offers views of the Remarkables and Lake Dunstan before a steep descent. This is epic but is an exposed, isolated alpine environment.”

The descent off of the Cairnmuir Ridge will be the first real taste of what back country riding in New Zealand is all about, with obstacles everywhere. This is where you’ll find long fast descents that will require focus after a long day in the saddle.

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Stage 4 – 69km 2,730m loop, starting and finishing in Bannockburn

  • 4% single-track, 27% sealed road, 10% gravel road, 59% 4wd/farm track

Stage 4 is the shortest of the main stages, though do not be fooled, the majority of this stage is on back country farm tracks with some of the biggest climbs of the race. However, despite its brutality this stage offers epic views atop the ridgelines.

The first half of the stage loops up Hawksburn Road and down the pylon access 4WD track, it is a little more benign and serves as a warm up to the second monstrous loop which includes the climbs of Carricktown and Mt Difficulty.

“These climbs are where you’ll need to dig deep (as the body will probably be fatigued after the previous stages) but make sure you maintain rhythm. This climb gains close to 1,000m over 9km. Thankfully, the scenery at the top allows you see the finish line where a cold one will await.”

The track switches back onto the Cromwell side and sends you up to the dizzy heights of Mt Difficulty, whose name appropriately describes the climb up to its high point. The descent from here back down to the Bannockburn valley is as fast as they get and the final kilometres venture through the historic Bannockburn sluicing’s track.  

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Stage 5 – 79km 2,590m point to point, starting in Bannockburn and finishing in Arrowtown

  • 12% sealed road, 23% gravel road, 42% 4wd/farm track, 23% cycle-trail

A new finishing stage for this year’s race will showcase a new route on the west side of the Kawarau Gorge in previously inaccessible areas. The stage ventures into remote back country tracks through an isolated area open only for the race to pass through. 

The stage starts with a short loop around the Bannockburn roads before the first climb on the menu over Duffers Saddle on the Nevis Road, this stunning climb is a true New Zealand epic and takes you over the highest public road pass in the country, though the only traffic you will ever see up here is a few hardy 4WD'ers, hunters, fishermen and fellow mountain bikers!

“The descent down the road into the Nevis Valley is like dropping into another world. The isolated Nevis Valley, once home to moa hunters and miners alike, offers a unique glimpse into the past. The Nevis Valley was once a thriving community of brave gold miners but is now home to a few tiny ghost towns and these days there’s not much sign of civilisation.  The Nevis Valley provides access to the North Hector Mountains and the Remarkables Range, where the highest vantage points in the Remarkables Conservation Area offer solitude and stunning views.”

While a short distance as the crow flies, the next section of the stage is tough ups and downs on rugged trails through several river valleys and will require all of the energy you have saved up until this point of the race. Home is on the horizon though and from the top of the final climb of Coalpit Saddle you can just about smell the finish. A fast, long and technical descent to the Gibbston Valley Highway is followed by a final stretch along the Queenstown Cycle Trail that will bring your epic journey to the finish line.

Make sure you conserve energy and ride the end of the race in style, as it’s marathon not a sprint! High-five ya team mate, grab a beer and wash down the bikes. Then sit in the sun and replay the war stories. This is one awesome backcountry adventure and it is definitely one you should put on the books for 2019! You’ll overcome new challenges, ride every day and yarn with like-minded individuals. Frankly, what’s not to like?


Words & Images: Liam Friary and Cameron Mackenzie

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