One of the three tenets of The Pioneer is "finding stunning," which is exactly what we did when we left the cityscape of Christchurch and rolled into the picturesque farming community of Geraldine, the start of Stage Two. The sleepy little town, maybe more a village, is a patchwork quilt of every shade of green you can imagine, with various types of farming operations dotting the landscape, and it smelled of fresh grass and clover that was being cut and baled for silage. Geraldine is nestled at the base of the Mackenzie Territory, a mountainous district that contains some of New Zealand's most stunning peaks, which rise sharply out of the agrarian flatlands that butt up against them. Oddly enough, the Mackenzie Territory was named after a notorious sheep thief, James Mckenzie, who would drive his stolen flocks from the flatlands of the Canterbury Region up into the high country via Burke's Pass, the very same pass that racers will be crossing on Stage Three.
Speaking of history, my partner, like me, grew up on a farm, one that happened to be right here in Geraldine, which meant that instead of sleeping in the athlete village, we got to experience some true country hospitality with his parents Alan and Jill. Now you can spot a farmer's hands from a mile away: Years of hard labor in the elements leave them grizzled and well tanned, almost leathery, with thick calluses and deep wrinkles that criss cross the palms, and fingers that have odd kinks and twists to them. Andrew's dad, Alan, was, most definitely a true farmer, and one with a very firm handshake to boot. Alan's lived in Geraldine for more than 50 years, Jill almost 40, so they're about as local as it gets. Alan's parents bought 500 acres here so that they could expand their sheep, wheat, barley and pea production, which Alan has run for most of his life. When I asked it what it was like growing up here, he gave a wry smile and said that "it looks good peeking over the fence, but it's a hard life."
If Stage One of The Pioneer was a light tap on the shoulder, Stage Two, which covered 65 miles and gained over 8,100 ft of vertical, was a charlie horse to the legs. Speaking of legs, rider's legs were rudely awoken by a series of rolling hills as the race route ran straight towards the Mackenzie Territory on 10 miles of false flat gravel and sealed roads. The agrarian flatlands gave way quickly to the tussock dotted high-country, with riders navigating a series of roller-coaster four-wheel-drive roads that penetrated deep into the Orari Gorge. Racers eventually tackled the ascent to Meikleburn Saddle where the climbing really began, but was tempered by the stunning 360-degree views along the top of the ridge. Think Lord of the Rings stunning, minus Gandalf. The day concluded with a 15 mile drag race on tarmac and gravel roads that left riders gasping for breath as they entered the community of Fairlie, commonly known as the gateway to the Mackenzie Basin, and a sleepy town that boasts a whooping 693 residents.
While Stage Three to Lake Tekapo is 20 miles shorter than today's route, it boasts the same amount of climbing, which will, surely, test riders' legs and resilience once again.
Full results at thepioneer.co.nz