The Pioneer Mountain Bike Stage Race came to an emotional conclusion in Queenstown today, with riders having completed 569km, 15,000m of climbing, some scintillating descending and amazing riding through the most stunning landscapes since leaving Christchurch seven days ago.
It was the Kiwi/Aussie Rio Olympic Games hopeful combination of Anton Cooper and Dan McConnell who took out the inaugural title, their names etched on to the carved greenstone trophy as the first winners of The Pioneer, defeating both Kona Factory Racing Teams in the process, although Spencer Paxson (USA) and Cory Wallace (CAN) did finally break the Team Danton stage stranglehold with a win on the final day.
In the women's category it was an equally dominant performance from Erin Greene and Kath Kelly, the Torpedo7 duo carving out an amazing six-hour plus victory margin, winning every stage along the way.
In the Mixed Teams it was a triumphant ride home for Queenstown locals Kate Fluker and Mark Williams, Fluker showing great strength and endurance as she aims for possible selection to the Rio Olympic Games while Williams rode superbly all week, often using his knowledge of the trails and tracks.
Cooper and McConnell reflected on a hugely successful week, one they hope will set them up for their Rio campaigns.
"That is just such a great week and great riding. I must admit that after three or four days we were feeling it and wondering if we might be here at the end of the week, but we kept on riding through each day," said Cooper. "The Kona boys were great competition, a real coup for the event to have them here and they raced strongly all week.
"This is a great way to lay down a base of miles with World Cup races to come and of course Rio later in the year, but The Pioneer has proven this week to be a great event in its own right, a really tough but stunning ride through incredible countryside. It has been a huge challenge but we have loved every moment."
Like Cooper, Fluker is focused on Rio but first New Zealand must qualify a spot and then she must be selected, with a top 16 at the opening World Cup Cross Country race in Cairns in late April among the targets she has to reach, but the 28-year-old believes The Pioneer has put her in just the right space.
"I don't think I could have got a better base session in than this, from here we need to work on the speed in my legs for the shorter, sharper racing, but I am feeling really good, I am feeling strong and just want to build on this now. We are relying on Australia maintaining their top 17 world ranking and that gives New Zealand the Oceania spot for Rio, and then I need to meet that criteria in Cairns and earn selection."
Fluker was as much relieved as excited after a tough week on and off the bike, when she and Williams had to deal with hearing of the death of close friend Kelly McGarry before continuing to ride towards home.
"I am not sure how I feel yet, I think it will hit me in a few days about the extent of what we have done this past week, not just physically but mentally as well for all sorts of reasons. I am just so stoked to have had Willy by my side to help me through it, it was just such a great thing to do, it was awesome."
Greene (Queenstown) and Kelly (Roxburgh) reflected on a tough week, but were also already thinking of their next riding assignments.
"It was cool to piece together a pretty awesome trip from Christchurch to here, to home. It was great to enjoy some good days in there through places I have never seen and some places I have ridden before, real cool train," said Greene. "I might get my bikes ready for the 24 hour in a couple of weeks, but maybe I can show some of these overseas people who are in town for a while a few of the really good tracks around Queenstown."
"This is the most amazing country and this was just such a well-run event, I would come back any day," said Kelly. "I will rest up for a week, I have a race next Saturday in Gore and then I am doing the Cape Reinga to Bluff starting on February 21st, I am not racing it - I have 21 days, I reckon on about 200km a day."
In the other categories Leigh Cockerill and Sue Clark rode superbly to take out the Women's Masters 40+, in the process finishing 2nd overall of the women's teams. Minter Barnard and Ian Chitterer (AUS) held on to win the Men's Masters 40+, holding off a late charge from Andrew Young (NZL) and Yuri Hauswald (USA) by 13 minutes. And in the Male Masters 50+ it was the master himself shining through, with Steve Gurney and Simon Callaghan winning overall and taking every stage honour along the journey.
This though was an event for all ages, varying abilities and all backgrounds. With 250 plus riders taking part in the seven-day epic, event organiser Dave Beeche spoke of the delight each day in seeing the achievements of those people, 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. We have ridden past a glorious Mount Cook/Aoraki, taken a dip in Lake Tekapo, camped on the Ohau Airstrip, watched the sun set and rise in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and shared a very special week. 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."