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Aussies with the early advantage after Pioneer prologue

It seemed appropriate that it was the Aussies taking out the honours in the prologue at the 2019 Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain, given the Lake was named in 1862 by Australian gold digger George Moonlight in honour of his donkey, with Moke an old name for a donkey. But that is where the comparison ends with Brendan Johnston and Jon Odams (Giant Australia Off-Road Team) anything but donkey-like in the manner of their stage win in the open men’s category.

With riders starting at 25 second intervals, Johnston and Odams went red-line in the opening few kilometres to get on the wheel of defending champions Michael Vink and Tim Rush (Onya Bike North Otago) and from there essentially covered their every move to win the 26km prologue by 18 seconds from fellow Australians Garry Milburn and Christopher Aitken (MAAP Shimano) with Vink and Rush in third.

Johnston said the plan worked to perfection.

“That was our plan, 25 seconds is not that long so we bridged that early on in the descent but they were hard to shake in the rest of the stage, they were pretty strong on the little pinches and it was a case of bridging back on and then we rode together into the finish, but that was the plan so we are happy. We had to focus on riding our own time trial and not get caught up with them, but they are clearly the favourites.”

Odams was content also with their days work, knowing that there are much longer and demanding stages to come in the six-day mountain bike stage race.

“I think we rode well and within ourselves. At the start I was looking at the time gaps and we caught them pretty quick on one of the open rocky descents and worked on trying to get away on the single track but it was too tight, you can’t really get away on those sections. We then paced it up the final climb to the finish, that was a good day.”

Olympic triathlete Ryan Sissons and XTERRA specialist Sam Osborne (Winger Hamilton) showed they will be contenders this week, finishing in fourth place just over a minute down on the stage winners, despite Osborne crashing and having to straighten his handlebars before remounting.

“We are happy with that if we are only about a minute down, that is probably about the time we lost so that gives us a good guideline as to the pace required to be in amongst it,” said Osborne, who finished fourth at the XTERRA World Championship this year. “I went down pretty hard I guess and had to straighten the bars and get back on but overall we are happy to be underway.”

Sissons loved his first hit-out on The Pioneer, with the triathlete enjoying the challenge of the largely single-track prologue on the out and back course to Moke Lake.

“I really enjoyed that and managed to maintain a good flow throughout the course. The downhill section rolled nicely, and we found a nice tempo on the climb back. It is just a stunning location though and great place to come and ride, on another day I might have enjoyed the view a bit more, but you have to love riding here, what a great combination of trails to get us underway.”

The open women’s category was taken out by defending champions Kate McIlroy and Amy Hollamby (Stonewood Homes – Wellington/Timaru), the pair in dominant fashion as they cut out the 26km down and up circuit at Moke Lake in 1:25:16, establishing an impressive 6:54 lead over 2017 winners Nina McVicar and Reta Trotman (New World St Martins – Dunedin/Christchurch).

The mixed category is tipped as the one to watch this week, with a great battle looming at the front of the field amongst quality New Zealand and Australian combinations, and so it proved. 2016 and 2017 champions Kate Fluker and Mark Williams (New World/Pivot - Queenstown) edged the stage by just 2.4 seconds from defending champions Jo Skerman and Josie Wilcox (JoJo – Bulls/Palmerston North), with Aussie brother/sister pairing of Holly and Michael Harris (SRAM MTOSS - Australia) 1:37 back in third place.

Fluker knew it was close and spoke of how knowing the trails is not always a clear advantage.

“It was almost a tie; we rode most of the way together and had a good time. It is always different racing home trails, you have to race them harder than we would normally, and we almost got caught out on a few of the corners, but that was fun.”

Peg Leyland and Kath Kelly (Earnscleugh Express – Wellington/Dunedin) will be the team to beat in the women’s masters (40+) category, the 2018 champions won the opening prologue in a time of 1:35:29, establishing an early advantage of just over nine minutes over the Outlaw Sisters Jackie Blay and Sara Prince (NZL).

Team Off the Chain Gene Marsh and Jeremy Forlong took line honours in the men’s masters, establishing a lead of 1:17 over Anthony Chapman and Andy Hagan (Optimal Performance, NZL).

Leading the grand masters (50+) after the prologue is TerreActive IT Security team of Marc Baechli and Daniel Christen (NZL) but with just over five minutes separating the top four teams, this will be a fiercely competitive category.

Conditions were near perfect first thing this morning, with overcast skies and a moderate temperature making for a comfortable start to the day. The weather deteriorated however, with a steady but light rain settling in for the final few riders on course, but did not cause any great discomfort.

Competitors in The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain, range in age from 19 to 72 (average age 44) and represent 24 countries, with Australia the largest contingent outside of New Zealand (211) with 57 riders making the trip across the Tasman. South Africa, home to the pinnacle event in the EPIC Series the Absa Cape Epic, has 24 riders, America 12 and Spain 11 while one of the more fascinating stats is the seven riders registered from Iceland.

Riders now rest up tonight at the event village alongside Moke Lake ahead of tomorrow’s 76 km stage into Arrowtown, with the village and tent city relocating to Alexandra and then Bannockburn for two nights at each location. Riders then head back to Frankton on Friday December 6, with the final stage taking them to the finish line village on the ridge off Hawthorn Drive, overlooking the Kawarau River and the Remarkables.

Countries represented in the 2019 Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain
Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, USA, Wales.

2019 Pioneer, Fuelled by Nutri-Grain
26km Prologue Results

Open Men
1 Brendan Johnston & Jon Odams, AUS, Giant Australia Off-Road, 1:11:16
2 Garry Milburn & Christopher Aitken, AUS, Maap Shimano, 1:11:34
3 Tim Rush & Michael Vink, NZL, Onya Bike North Otago, 1:11:41

Open Women
1 Kate McIlroy & Amy Hollamby, NZL, Stonewood Homes, 1:25:16
2 Nina McVicar & Reta Trotman, NZL, New World St Martins, 1:32:10
3 Hannah Buchannan & Sarah Gilbert, NZL/USA, Tiki Wine & Vineyards, 1:37:07

1 Mark Williams & Kate Fluker, NZL, New World-Pivot, 1:18:42
2 Joe Skerman & Josie Wilcox, NZL, JoJo, 1:18:44
3 Holly Harris & Michael Harris, AUS, Sram Mtoss, 1:20:19

Masters Men
1 Gene Marsh & Jeremy Furlong, NZL, Off the Chain, 1:18:22
2 Anthony Chapman & Andy Hagan, NZL, Optimal Performance, 1:19:40
3 Gianluca Valsenti & Matthew Webber, NZL, Rivet Racing, 1:22:17

Masters Women
1 Kath Kelly & Peg Leyland, NZL, Earnscleugh Express, 1:35:29
2 Jackie Blay & Sara Prince, NZL, Outlaw Sisters, 1:44:45
3 Kelly Davis & Jo Lawler, NZL, Defend Fire, 1:46:38

Grand Masters Men (50+)
1 Marc Baechil & Daniel Christen, NZL, Terreactive IT, 1:20:41
2 Kent Wilson & Graeme Young, NZL, The Hub Cycle Centre, 1:24:12
3 Allan Killick & Greg Thompson, NZL, Cycleways, 1:25:18

The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain
December 1 to 6, 2019
• Six stage mountain bike stage race through the Southern Alps and Central Otago
• Two person teams
• 441km of riding with 13,000m of climbing
• Part of the global Epic Series of mountain bike stage racing

© Scoop Media

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