The sun continues to follow the inaugural Pioneer Mountain Bike Stage Race and the Kiwi/Aussie combination of Anton Cooper and Dan McConnell continue to dominate, winning Stage Six into Wanaka to extend their already impressive overall lead to 54:13 with the final ride into Queenstown to come.
Today saw the riders in both the 7-Day Epic and the 3-Day Traverse complete 67km from Lake Hawea to the finish line atop the at Snow Farm in what proved to be the fastest Stage of the week. Cooper and McConnell smashed out the Stage in 3:19:39, in the process leaving a field of international and New Zealand riders behind them.
"That was nice today, a little closer to the distance we are used to riding but still a good ride with a nice climb to finish coming up to Snow Farm, the views were amazing and as I have said all week, it doesn't matter how many times I ride in this part of the world, you never get tired of the view," said Cooper.
It was once again the North American teams from Kona Factory Racing in second and third, today riding over the line together in a Kona formation. Spencer Paxson (USA), Cory Wallace (CAN), Kris Sneddon (CAN) and Barry Wicks (USA) have been popular riders on the event and there was much mirth when a local food vendor greeted the four riders at the finish with four freshly prepared pulled pork burgers in what has become a Pioneer tradition for the visiting Kona riders (see image in media folders below).
Sam Gardner is one of the many international athletes riding The Pioneer, the former top level British mountain biker has three national titles in the UK and ten Xterra World Cup races on his CV but it was his move to New Zealand that has rekindled his passion for riding and The Pioneer that has helped him see the country, he and fellow Brit Matt Page are in fifth overall in The Pioneer, as team EPIC CYMRU.
"I raced ten years a pro with some success and I guess I must have retired two or three times but did so for good last May - at least I thought it was for good. I moved to New Zealand (Palmerston North) and found some great riding mates and started again," said Gardner.
"Then mid-December I got the call from Matt (Page) about The Pioneer, he was coming over from the UK to ride and needed a partner, preferably someone from here in New Zealand. I know Matt from my riding days and I didn't hesitate at the chance, it was a great goal and reason for me to get fit again.
"There has just been so much stunning scenery in what is such a well organised and great fun event - but a tough one as well. I have done some five day races before but not this long, I am in new territory now. It is truly a great way to see the country, we get to places where not many people who even live here will get to, you wonder about how many people have seen what we have seen."
In the other categories it was otherwise business as usual as the leaders shut the door on the chasers and any thought of a reversal of fortunes with tomorrow's final stage a largely downhill 62km run from Snow Farm to the finish line at the Queenstown Events Centre in Frankton.
Erin Greene and Kath Kelly (NZL) have dominated the Open Female category and for the sixth time in a row were crowned stage winners into Snow Farm today. They have simply ridden away from the field in a comprehensive display of endurance riding.
Steve Gurney just keeps getting stronger as the week gets longer, perhaps not surprising for someone who is used to much longer adventure racing, he and partner Simon Callaghan have a 3:29:15 advantage in the Male Masters 50+ category.
And Kate Fluker and Mark Williams once again rode superbly on what was surly another emotional day as the Queenstown pair get closer to home and headed back down from Snow Farm upon the completion of their ride to attend the memorial service for close friend and New Zealand mountain bike legend Kelly McGarry, who passed away while riding in Queenstown earlier this week.