As a Massey staff member, and perhaps more importantly a cyclist, I was very pleased to learn that Jorge Sandoval’s NZ Cycle Classic would be coming to Massey Palmerston North. It’s not often that a UCI 2.2 level tour comes to your home town, so rather than watch, I organized Massey sponsored team and put myself down on the starting list. I’ve not done a big race like this since 2008, when the NZ Cycle Classic was run out of Wellington. Jorge organizes a quality race and, from what I’ve seen so far, this year in the Manawatu will be no different.
Our Massey team has a mix of riders. Dion Smith is only 18, from Auckland but already has a couple of international tours under his belt. Tom Scully, all the way from Invercargill spent 4 months last year on the European circuit doing track and road races with the NZ track team. Matiu Kaihau finished up at PN Boys High last year and is probably our best track rider in the region. Max Annear-Henderson is a Massey Engineering student who is fairly new to elite-level cycling, but improving with each race. Then there’s me, more than 20 year older than the other four, father of three, and possibly old enough to know better! Between us, we are going to go out and enjoy the racing and aim to get at least one of us on the podium at some point. In such elite company, that will be hard enough.
Most big tours (multi-day races) start with a prologue (short individual time trial). It’s usually between 5 and 10 km long and only seconds usually separate the fastest competitors. Today’s prologue, around Massey, Tennant Drive, and Old West Rd was one of the harder ones I’ve done, as it’s got some tight corners and small hills. Typically for the Manawatu, a bit of a westerly sprung up later in the afternoon just to slow things down for the riders with the later starting times.
The Massey team performed pretty much as we hoped; most of us mid-field or better. National Champion and Mico team member Michael Vink showed his class with one of the fastest times of the day, averaging around 46 km/hr! Given that he’s a good climber and has a strong team with him, he’ll be looking to snatch yellow in Stage 2 when the race really starts.
Today brought back some memories for me. Mostly what it’s like riding in the gutter when there’s a cross wind and how hard it is to bridge the gap when the peleton splinters.
Although we set off from the Square, the race didn’t formally start until we hit Milson line and headed north into the wind. I knew the northwesterly would make this a very hard day, so I tried to stay near the front of bunch. Of course one hundred other riders had the same idea! The result was lots of jostling, close formation riding and time spent right on the edge of the bitumen (the gutter).
We were held up briefly by a goods train at the East St railway crossing at Feilding, but it did have many carriages so we only got a short break before the attacks came thick and fast. One of our Massey team, Tom Scully, had a crack at the first Sprint prime soon after the turn onto Cheltenham road but had to settle for second after being passed on the line.
At the town limits the road became exposed to the crosswind and the attacks started thick and fast. By the time we got to Cheltenham, a group of five or six had gotten away chased by another small group. The terrain gets hillier from then on and the bunch just started to splinter with small groups trying to get across to the one in front. I was at my limit just trying to hang on. At the back of the bunch those who couldn’t get shelter from the wind popped off one-by-one.
By Kimbolton the race was divided into a front bunch of 16 or so riders, one big bunch of 75 or so in which I found myself, then a couple of smaller bunches. The strong teams, with the comfort of knowing they had one or two riders in the front bunch, then went to the front and rode slowly, allowing their team mates up front to ride away. The hills between Apiti and Raumai which I expected would be hard therefore weren’t! Even the Valley Rd climb was taken at tempo (moderate) pace, which suited my tired legs just fine.
Meanwhile there was a stage to be won up front and those looking for the win attacked. The result was small bunches of two, three and four, but finishing over 12 minutes ahead of the main field.
It’s more than likely that today’s stage has seen the decisive break of the tour. I can’t see anyone who was not in the front group today being able to make up enough time to grab the yellow jersey. Plus, now there are a couple of teams who will have the bit between their teeth to make sure their best placed rider has a chance to win the race.
The team masseurs will be working hard tonight and there’ll be pasta aplenty because we have to get up again tomorrow to do it all over again!
I went to bed last night with rather sore legs. The advantage of having a PhD in exercise physiology though, is that I know what to do to recover. A leg rub, plenty of fluid, and copious quantities of carbohydrate meant that I felt OK in the morning.
Kevin Lasky is our mechanic for the Tour and before morning he’d checked and washed the team bikes. This is a real treat, because it means we only have to rock up to the start line, have a warm up, and we’re ready to race. However, the Manawatu weather didn’t show it’s best face this morning so all the teams were still huddled in their cars keeping warm and dry 10 min before the start. Knowing what a wet southerly can do at Apiti I had a thermal, arm warmers and long gloves to keep out the expected chill.
The race took off at frenetic pace down the Ashhurst road, with the riders taking up every part of the bitumen. Someone just in front of me caught a wing mirror of a stationary car, and the resultant crash brought me down as well. The first reaction is to get up and go, but my chain was wrapped around my derailleur so I was stuck there for a few minutes until our team car arrived to help. By the time I got going, the bunch had long gone. Matiu Kaihau (team Massey) was also held up, so we worked together in and out of the convoy (of following cars) and managed to get back into the peleton by Colyton.
Meanwhile, about the time of the crash, three riders went clear and the strong teams were happy to let them go. Things were pretty slow until the three were six minutes ahead when Jayco, Drapac, and Genesys teams decided to get on the front and slowly haul the break back in.
The steep climbs to Apiti again were taken at a tempo pace, so much of the bunch remained intact. My climbing legs seemed to be still on the road where I crashed, so I tailed off on each climb, having to get back on when the road flattened out. It was really tough, and up to Kimbolton I was dangling off the back. Luckily, I caught another rider and we worked hard to get on a small bunch which had broken off the back of the peleton, and by Feilding we’d caught the others.
At this point the breakaways still had a few minutes, but with the remainder of the race flat, I expected them to get caught. Again though, the powerful Australian teams were happy to see a couple of Kiwi riders stay away and take the stage by under a minute, probably to ensure there was not going to be last minute chaotic attacks.
I’ve got a few grazes and my hip is really sore, so I hope I feel OK in the morning. Meanwhile, Kevin will have plenty of work to do to fix my bike, but doubtless, he’ll have it ready to roll on Sat morning.
Day 4 & 5
The 4th and 5th stages on Sat and Sun were run on almost the same Valley Rd course, but in different directions.
For most cyclists, the Valley Rd climb is long and hard, but for the professional riders in NZ Cycle Classic peleton who race over mountains, it’s really just a bump. For me though, what is normally a fairly easy climb up Valley really felt like a mountain! I dunno whether it’s because I’ve not been able to do any decent hills in training because of the Gorge closure, whether I was tired from the day before, or whether it’s just that my legs are 44 years old. In any case, I dangled off the back the first time up the climb, but got back on to the bunch with some help from the convoy. The second time I just blew, and with a few others trundled back to the finish 8 or 9 minutes behind the main bunch. Up the front, the peleton stayed together ‘til the finish and a big bunch sprint was the result.
Sunday didn’t fair any better for me, finding myself in a groupetto (small group); one of few which formed courtesy of the gusty crosswind on Tanoui Rd. About eight of us chased all the way along Valley road and at one stage got within 30 metres of the peleton, but we never quite made it. The result was an 80 km ride in a small group, all of whom just wanted to get to the finish. Again, the stage was decided with a big bunch gallop, with the win going to one of the NZ track team riders.
I can honestly say I was a little disappointed in my form, but probably I shouldn’t have expected to be riding any better given the amount of time I have to train. That aside, I really enjoyed the race, and in particular, the support I got from those at the start and finish each day, and the crowds on the side of the road.
A big thank you to Phil Fink and Oiroa Kaihau (team managers), Mike Christie who drove our support vehicle, Kirsty Kaihua (photos and feeding), and Kevin Laskey, our mechanic. The enthusiasm and support of these and all the other Manawatu locals who gave up their time to help with the Classic will go a long way to ensure that future installments of the race get bigger and better.