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Aggressive riding pays off for brave Stewart

Theo Gilbertson leads a breakaway up Te Wharau Hill. Mark Stewart is second, and George Bennett is third. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV


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Mark Stewart crosses the finish line at the top of Te Wharau Hill. PHOTO/DAVE LINTOTT

Scotsman Mark Stewart held off strong challenges to win Saturday’s fourth stage of the New Zealand Cycle Classic and virtually wrap up the overall victory before Sunday’s final stage – a criterion around the streets of Wellington.

The gruelling 127.3km course featured five tough hill climbs with more than 2500 metres of climbing, including a final climb up the eastern side of Te Wharau Hill. The course gave Stewart – a 2018 Commonwealth Games points race gold medallist riding for the Bolton Equities Black Spoke Pro Cycling team – a 38-second cushion going into the criterion.

St George Continental’s Ollie Jones was second, with New Zealand National teammates George Bennett and Laurence Pithie third and fourth.

Stewart’s teammates ensured there would be no dramas in Sunday’s criterion centred around Lambton Quay, as he finished safely in sixth place to claim a deserved victory.

Fellow Black Spoke Regan Gough took line honours on the streets of Wellington, holding on after establishing a 10-second break going into the final lap.

Stewart, who had been living in New Zealand since the first covid-19 lockdown, took the yellow jersey after finishing second in Thursday’s second stage and never relinquished it. He also took out the King of the Mountain title.

In the searing Wairarapa heat atop Te Wharau Hill, Stewart told the appreciative crowd he had targeted the Classic after racing in the five-day tour in 2021.

“I came last year and really enjoyed the hard course. I think it lends itself to really aggressive racing. Last year I thought, I’d really love to target this race, and it worked out pretty well,” Stewart said.

“It was nice to have teammates today to do the work for me; the boys gave it everything, so it was nice to deliver at the end. The harder they went, the better I felt, so it was a nice day for me.”

Shane Archbold reaches the top of Te Wharau Hill on the first lap. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

The action in Saturday’s race began early when six riders, including Nick Kergozou [St George], Shane Archbold [NZ], Raphael Amouroux [Trust House], Finnegan Murphy [Fagan Motors], Myles Gibson [ITM], and Kiann Watts [NZ Selection] formed a breakaway and had three minutes on the peloton heading up Te Wharau Hill for the first time.

By the time the riders hit 33km, this group had splintered, with Kergozou, Archbold, and Watts leading the tour for the next 20km. Behind, the peloton was driven hard by Bennett, St George and Black Spoke riders.

After winning the only sprint of the day, Kergozou dropped back, shortly followed by Archbold and Watts.

Nearing the 95km mark, the race had changed considerably, with St George’s James Harvey and Mito Q’s Theo Gilbertson taking the lead, racing hard in the hot conditions. The duo were eventually caught at the 3km-to-go mark, near the base of the final hill climb, known locally as “The Wall” due to its steep gradient.

Black Spoke control the peloton on the road to Gladstone. PHOTO/DAVE LINTOTT

Stewart found his legs on this final climb and worked tirelessly to stay ahead of Bennett, Pithie and Jones. With about 10m to go, Stewart knew he had the victory and threw his arms out in sheer relief.

Stewart said to win the race was very special, given the calibre of the field, which included several Olympians and two World Tour riders in Bennett and Archbold, as well as the rich history of the race.

“I didn’t realise how much of a rich history this race has, and it gave me a bit more motivation to do everything I can to respect this race and chuck everything at it. To come and be the best rider in that field and wear the yellow jersey is very special.

“I can’t underestimate how important it is for New Zealand to have an event like this, to have this calibre of rider and mix them with hopefully New Zealand’s best young talent.”

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