It was double delight for Aaron Gate as he donned the yellow jersey after yesterday’s first stage of the Mitre 10 MEGA Masterton New Zealand Cycling Classic.
Not only did the world champion track cyclist live up to his billing as favourite for the five-day tour, pulling away over the final 250m to win yesterday’s first stage, which finished outside the Masterton Golf Club, but he was also confirmed as one of the elite of New Zealand sport, being named as a finalist for Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards.
Gate was thrilled with how the race panned out and was surprised when told he was a Halberg finalist, saying it was good news and he was looking forward to having a nice dinner.
The 33-year-old can thank his New Zealand National teammates for setting up yesterday’s victory on a course he knows well, having previously won the stage in 2020.
“It’s always a pretty grippy course this one, like undulating heavy tar seal roads, and the wind swirls around a bit in those valleys, so it is quite unforgiving,” Gate said.
“We were all together, [there was] lots of cat and mouse and various groups giving it everything right until after the first sprint, and we managed to light it up for that, and I took the bonus seconds that were there.
“After that, Logan [Currie] had a good nudge, but it wasn’t to be, unfortunately, and he got chased down, but the break eventually did form, and we got involved, and Ryan Christensen did a very good job riding with other teams to keep it at bay, and the rest of the boys did a bloody good job setting up the final sprint for me.”
That four-man break from about the 50km mark featured Australian Liam White and Kiwis James Krzanich, Campbell Pithie, and D’Arcy Sanders. They built a three-minute lead but were slowly hauled in by the peloton with 10km to the finish.
From there, it was about positioning the key riders for the final sprint up Mānuka Street and the NZ National team had Gate perfectly placed to get a jump on the field from the 250m mark.
“I was going to go the quarter before, but it was all bunched up still, and I saw Kiaan Watts next to me, so I said, ‘Mate, if you’ve still got the legs, go now,’ and he slingshot me into that final corner, and I was able to open the taps and give it everything I had left to the finish line.
“I won the first time I did this stage here, so it’s nice to take it again.”
New Zealander Bailey O’Donnell, riding for Oxford Edge, finished runner-up, with Gate’s teammate Logan Currie in third place.
Gate believes the win sets up his team well for the remaining four legs, starting with today’s second stage, which finishes in Martinborough and typically suits the sprinters. He said he would do his best to help out his teammates after they gave everything for him in yesterday’s win.
“As a team, we’re riding pretty well, and everyone’s form is good, and it gives us some options for the rest of the week.”
Today’s stage, though, will be in stark contrast to tomorrow’s “Queen Stage”, which features several gruelling climbs and finishes with a brutal 12km ascent of Admiral Hill in temperatures expected in the low 30s, and Gate is bracing for a tough day.
“I have done that stage before when it’s been a scorcher with that long drag and the big circuit, and the heat really beats down on you there, so I think it’s going to be plenty of water bottles consumed that day.”
Today’s 127km stage leaves Copthorne Solway Park at 10am and heads through Gladstone to Martinborough, where the riders will complete nine laps of an 8.1km circuit taking in the town and surrounding roads.