The Pioneer attracts strong field

Riders negotiate the trail alongside the Kawarau River, heading to the finish last year. Photo:...
Riders negotiate the trail alongside the Kawarau River, heading to the finish last year. Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith
The 2019 edition of The Pioneer mountain bike race is shaping to be the best yet.
There  will be strong competition in each of the main categories and no shortage of inspiring stories.

Close to 400 riders from 24 countries  will  line up in Queenstown on Sunday for the prologue at Moke Lake. They  will go on to cover 440km over six days, the 13,000m of climbing set to test the endurance of the athletes.

Race director Danielle Sherman cannot wait to see the week unfold.

"It also looks like we have a real transtasman rivalry in just about every category this year, and we love a battle with our friends from across the Ditch,’’ she said.

Returning are  defending open men’s champions Michael Vink and Tim Rush, open women’s champions Amy Hollamby and Kate McIlroy and mixed champions Joe Skerman and Josie Wilcox.

Vink is fresh off winning back-to-back Tour of Southland cycling titles, a result he sees as a good omen for him in The Pioneer.

"I won the Tour of Southland last year, and obviously that set me up pretty well for The Pioneer,’’ he said.

‘‘The key is recovery, and I’ve certainly done a lot of racing this year, so I’ll be super fit going into it and I’m not afraid of six hard days back-to-back, which is what The Pioneer is."

Rush has also highlighted his good form coming into the event.   He was impressive in winning at the Whaka 100, in the process relegating leading Australian and Pioneer contender Brendan Johnston to second.

In the women’s open category, Hollamby and McIlroy will be tough to beat, all the more so knowing that they are likely to be stronger than last year. 

A former Olympian and star of athletics, triathlon and road cycling, McIlroy these days balances full-time work with a mix of road, mountain bike and multisport events.

"I am definitely coming into the 2019 Pioneer with much more confidence than last year, when I had only been on a mountain bike for six weeks,’’ McIlroy said.

Wilcox and Skerman won a fascinating duel with two-time champions Kate Fluker and Mark Williams, moving ahead on the final stage into Queenstown. Preparation has been a little sketchy for Wilcox, but she cannot wait to return.

"For me it’s been a challenging time of the year,’’ Wilcox said.

‘‘I’ve been completing placement hours full time at the hospital [radiography school] as well as juggling final graduating exams, interviews and training.

‘‘Then three weeks ago I fractured my finger. This hasn’t stopped me, though, and I’ve been working hard on the bike under the guidance of Mark Leishman."

Skerman is juggling running two dairy farms in the Manawatu and raising three young boys with his adventure-racing wife, but he is fuelled by great memories of last year.

Meanwhile the exclusive Founding Riders club is further whittled down to just 14 remaining riders who are back and yet to miss a Pioneer. Among them are mixed stars Fluker and Mark Williams and former winners or podium finishers Erin Greene, Nina McVicar and Johnny Van Leeuwen.

"Our Founding Riders are the heart and soul of what this event is all about, such an amazing group who continue to show incredible commitment and passion for this event,"  Sherman said.

"While the elites may get the glory, for us as event organisers it is those further down the field who are our biggest inspiration and in many ways the reason we get out of bed in the morning to work on events like The Pioneer.’’

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