Just getting the riders to the start line for today’s first stage of the New Zealand Cycle Classic has been an achievement for race director Jorge Sandoval.
Prospects of holding the 37th edition of the Classic looked dim after the loss of Trust House as the naming sponsor. That was until two months ago when Mitre 10 MEGA Masterton came on board as the naming rights sponsor for the UCI 2.2 five-day tour, while former world superbike star Aaron Slight also stepped up to support the event.
That uncertainty, though, hasn’t prevented Sandoval from assembling a quality field of international riders, including the New Zealand National team, the United States endurance track team, and teams from Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia.
Aaron Gate – the winner of four gold medals, including the men’s road race at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games and the current world champion in the track points race – heads a strong NZ National team.
The 33-year-old is no stranger to the Classic, having won the 2019 tour, and Sandoval has labelled him as the rider to beat.
“Aaron Gate and George Jackson were racing for the Black Spoke team, but now they’ve signed for one of the Spanish teams, Burgos BH, and they’ve been racing all over Europe. Some of the other boys in the team are also professionals and have signed for teams in Europe, like Logan Currie, who has signed for a top Belgian professional team,” Sandoval said.
“I think the winner will come from the NZ National team, but at the end of the day, anything can happen.”
Sandoval believes the biggest threat to a Kiwi victory could come from one of the large contingent of Australians, who arrive here on a steady diet of race riding but often fly under the radar.
“A large number of Australian riders come here before they become famous. No one knows them, and they win the race, and then a few years later, they win a stage on Tour de France,” he said.
“They’re all professional guys, and they aren’t here on a holiday; they come here to race and win the race. They’re race-fit as well because they’ve been racing in Australia, and they finished the nationals a couple of days ago, so this is not their first race of the year; they’ve been racing for some time.”
Sandoval reckons BridgeLane’s James Panizza was one to watch over the five days, while teammate Matthew Greenwood was a close second in the Australian National Road Race Championship last Saturday.
He also expects strong showings from the US team, who are using the tour as part of their buildup to qualify for the track endurance racing at the Paris Olympics, and the Netherlands Global Cycling team led by accomplished sprinter Bart Buijk, who has more than a decade of professional experience. The Dutch team come into the tour with plenty of miles in their legs, having competed in the 10-stage Tour of Costa Rica.
Adding to the international flavour are Japan’s Kinan racing team, a top-ranked Asian UCI team, led by two highly experienced Australians, Drew Morey and Ryan Cavanagh, supported by four talented Japanese cyclists, Genki Yamamoto, Yudai Arashiro, Daiki Magosaki, and Taishi Miyazaki.
Unlike last year when, at times, torrential rain had a big impact on the race, heat is likely to be a factor, with temperatures in the low 30s expected for Friday’s third stage, the toughest of the tour, involving several gruelling hill climbs and concluding with a tortuous 12km ascent up Admiral Hill.
Sandoval is looking forward to not having the drama of 2023.
“Last year, with the torrential rain on day one, we had to cancel the second lap at Alfredton, a 32km circuit, because I couldn’t see 100m in front of me, and I couldn’t see the riders behind me, and it was dangerous, so I asked the race referee to cut one lap, which he did,” he said.
“Next day, about 10 riders pulled out of the race with gastric problems because with the rain on the farm roads, the cow manure flicked up onto the riders’ bottles, and after they drank the water, they spent the whole night vomiting.”
Today’s 158km stage will leave Copthorne Solway Park at 10 am and head north for two laps of the Alfredton circuit before returning to Masterton, finishing outside the Masterton Golf Club at about 1 pm.