Multisport: North Americans favoured for The Pioneer

For many the inaugural Pioneer mountain bike stage race is a step into the unknown, and that includes many of the elite riders who are expected to contest line honours each day and at the end of a gruelling week that will see competitors clock up 569km of saddle time with 15,273m of climbing.

While the two professional Kona Factory Teams will be the ones to watch, the Kiwis will be ensuring the North Americans don't have it all their own way. And with the unknown across seven days of racing with the potential for mechanical issues, injury and illness, it is indeed anyone's race.

Kate Fluker will partner up with fellow Queenstown resident Mark 'Willy' Williams and will be amongst those vying for line honours. The 28-year-old Commonwealth Games representative has limited experience in this form of racing but didn't hesitate in signing up.

"I raced in my first stage race in Austria just last year and Willy has raced the Cape Epic plus various crazy adventure races! But when I saw the chance to ride this event at home, I couldn't help but be a part of it! The scenery and awesome countryside we are going to get to see plus the challenge of all those vertical metres - I just wanted to say I did it!

"My main goal this year is to focus on the international season and gain selection to race at the Olympics and Willy is racing Godzone so we are both using this as a very decent base training block. We will have the competitive juices flowing but equally I am looking forward to seeing parts of New Zealand that I would not get to see otherwise with other like-minded people and meeting up at the end of each day to chat about the adventure.

I am also really looking forward to challenging myself physically and mentally and having a good time doing so with Willy and learning from his experience."

With half a dozen similar events under his belt, including the 2012 Cape Epic (South Africa), Williams is amongst the most experienced in the field and has not struggled for motivation as he ponders The Pioneer.

"I was really excited to learn about the Pioneer, NZ is the ultimate destination for a multi-day MTB stage race, so it would be hard to pass-up racing through our own backyard. I've really enjoyed getting some bike fitness back building up for the event, and this will help as a building block of training for the 7-day Godzone adventure race which I'm competing in in April.

"Stage racing as part of a team is a special experience, and you manage to share some amazing riding experiences, coupled with the physical challenge and battling through to complete stages. The camaraderie of the overnight camp and sharing tales with your riding buddies, as well as the epic 'point-to-point' journey unique to this kind of event is something all MTB'ers ought to experience."

For Commonwealth Games gold medalist and Rio Olympics contender Anton Cooper the time spent riding might not be daunting, but the competitive edge to a week of riding is a little different to the usual two or three hours he is used to.

"I can't wait for this, it is going to be a massive week and a memorable event to be a part of. This is primarily about laying down a solid foundation of riding for the year but equally we (Cooper is partnered with Aussie Dan McConnell) are going to be looking to ride strongly throughout and set a fast pace."

The internationals may yet be the ones to watch though, with pro team Kona sending two pairings from North America, both made up of one Canadian and one American, both combinations have considerable experience in this type of stage race.

Cory Wallace and Spencer Paxson will likely share race favouritism with Cooper and McConnell, with two time Canadian champion Wallace boasting three Mongolia Bike Challenge wins to his name. Long time Kona rider Barry Wicks partners with British Colombian Kris Sneddon in the second Kona team, they too have experience to burn in this form of racing.

- NZ Herald

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