No multi-day event, particularly one that involves coordinating the movement of a mountain of venue tents/supplies, generators, portable showers and porta potties, as well as the transport of 250 riders’ gear and 120 staff/volunteers, could happen without a person, or a team of people, that are hyper-organized, extremely patient, flexible, creative, and not afraid to work 18-plus-hour days. Meet Clare Chapman, the Volunteer Manager for The Pioneer, an event contractor by trade, and the sole person responsible for making sure that this traveling village took shape each day. Impressively, she shouldered this Herculean task with a smile for the whole week.
How do you go about attracting 120 unpaid volunteers for a rather grueling week of work? Well, this is where Clare's creative thinking kicked in. She used backpacker boards to advertise the unpaid, week-long gig. "It's a big commitment for sure, but since most of them were already in the country traveling, they got to be part of something unique and see some incredibly remote places that they would never otherwise get to see." A typical day for Clare started at 5:30 a.m. and her first priority was making sure that everyone going out on course had lunch because "if they didn't have lunch, then they'd have the worst day ever, and I didn't want that." Once lunch was sorted it was on to making sure course marshals, staff, and medics all had walkie talkies and knew where they were supposed to be, that the tent teams started breaking down the 250 tents, and that the remaining staff of 65 had rides to the next venue. "It was consistently mad each morning for about three hours," said Chapman. Once racers departed, Clare had a brief respite, possibly took a shower, sent an email, and then began the process all over again. If anyone went above and beyond to make The Pioneer a shining success, it was truly Clare Chapman.
There was no such thing as easy miles during The Pioneer. If it looked flat, it wasn’t. If the track looked smooth, it was riddled with rocks, or ruts, or both. And what appeared to be singletrack was actually bumpy, tussock-covered sheep trail that rattled both bike and body. While Stages Six and Seven looked relatively tame on paper, they weren’t, and in true Pioneer spirit, pushed riders to their absolute edge. Stage Six left the shores of Lake Hawea and entered some of the week’s only true singletrack in Dean’s Bank, a purpose-built set of flowy, bermed trails. Riders had a brief respite on a gravel cycle track before finishing the 41-mile day with an unforgiving 3,600-foot, 16-mile climb to Snow Farm.
It was eerily quiet in the dining hall the final morning. Hollow, haggard riders shuffled about with heaping plates of food to fill their calorie starved bodies. You could definitely sense the eager anticipation of the end, a proud desire for it to all be over, to finally be able to call oneself a Pioneer finisher. In typical Kiwi understatement (an endearing quality, depending on what end of it you're on, that's used to make that which seems brutal/undoable/miserable palatable and almost over), Stage Seven, which had been touted as "mostly downhill,” wasn't. And what was described as “singletrack,” was nothing more than bumpy sheep track that disappeared at times and was littered with spear grass, tussock, and alpine bogs. With 6,476 feet of climbing, it was a challenging 38 miles to say the least, and pushed riders, once again, beyond what they thought they could do. The final miles along the tree-covered Queenstown Cycle Trail, a purpose-built path that followed the undulations of the Kawarau River, flew by and delivered beaming riders, many in tears (myself included), into the waiting arms of the grand finish in Queenstown.
With 250 plus riders taking part in the seven-day epic, and another 100 or so on the one-day rides, event organizer Dave Beeche spoke of his delight each day in seeing the achievements of those riders, from here in New Zealand and from as far as Europe, North America and Australia. "I could not be more proud of every one of our Pioneers, regardless of their background and circumstances each and every one of them is as important as the next and will forever be a part of the inaugural Pioneer, helping us lay the foundation for what we believe can become one of the world's iconic mountain bike stage races. The camaraderie and sense of community that developed very quickly from a group of strangers sharing the trails, the tent city, the dining and presentation marquee and all of the facilities was just wonderful, heart-warming. I hope they are all so proud of what they have done and have some great memories to treasure, not to mention the amazing efforts on their bikes this week."
Ride beyond those jagged mountains on the horizon. Ride beyond that crystaline glacial lake at the valley floor. Ride beyond the aching pain in your legs that's screaming at you to stop. For an inaugural event, one that traversed some of the most remote and rugged terrain that the Southern Alps of NZ has to offer, The Pioneer set a gold standard for quality that most events take years to reach, and it pushed riders beyond their physical and mental boundaries, and then pushed them some more. If you're looking to take a bold step when it comes to your riding adventures, to see country that most people never do, to push yourself beyond what you think you're limits are, check out The Pioneer. You won't be disappointed.