Aaron Gate [yellow jersey] winning the 2016 Tour of Southland. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

‘Strongest field in years’

CYCLING

CHRIS COGDALE
chris.cogdale@age.co.nz

Defending champion Aaron Gate is playing down his chances of winning back-to-back New Zealand Cycle Classic titles.

The five-stage Classic began yesterday in Masterton and Gate will wear the No 1 jersey for the Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy, who are making their professional debut.

Gate, who was the 2013 omnium world champion on the track, won last year’s tour which was held on relatively flat roads in Waikato but he’s expecting a different sort of race with the Classic back in Wairarapa.

The tour started with a 122km stage, which travelled north of Masterton, before returning to finish at the Masterton Golf Club, however Gate predicted that the hilly Stage Four, which finishes at the top of Admiral Hill could be the decider.

“Saturday’s a real leg-breaker of a stage, plenty of climbing there, and I probably don’t have quite as good climbing form as I did last year, so it might be a bit of a tall feat to win the overall title this year.

“But I think we’ve got a strong team of other guys who can hopefully take up the slack and can get a win for Black Spoke and that would be amazing,” he said on Tuesday.

The 29-year-old said the team, which also includes 2018 Classic champion Hayden McCormick, has the goods to be a major threat.

“I think one of us can take the individual win for the team, but I might have to leave that up to Hayden or one of the young guys to have a crack,” Gate said.

“I’ll definitely give it all I’ve got but we’ll just have to see because the training I’ve been doing lately doesn’t really complement going uphill as fast, and I might be a bit heavy to compete with some of the really skinny climbers here,” Gate said.

“This is the first event on the calendar for 2020, with the main goal being the Tokyo Olympics, so it’s a stepping stone for that,” said Gate, who won a bronze medal in the team pursuit at the 2012 Olympics, a silver in the omnium at the 2017 world championships and the King of the Mountains in the 2018 Tour of Austria.

“It’s nice if you can take some success along the way though and it’s always a good measure of form if you’re first across the line. I still want to make the most of this racing week.”

“It’s been a little while since I’ve done a road race, so I wouldn’t say I’m overly confident. I think my shape isn’t too bad, so if I can get a stage win and a sprint, I’ll be super happy.”

Gate said predicting an overall winner from the strong field of 108 riders was difficult.

“It’s definitely the strongest field I’ve ever seen in the years that I’ve done it, with plenty of internationals from all over the world here so it’s going to make it a really interesting race.

“It’s not like you can look at the start list and say that one particular guy is going to win it. I think it’s anyone’s race, it’s wide open.”