With two UCI-registered events taking place back to back this month, New Zealand is showing the rest of the world that road cycling is ready to take on 2021.
The five-day New Zealand Cycle Classic (UCI class 2.2) finished on Sunday 17 January. It is the only stage race to be witnessed in Oceania this year following the cancellation, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, of the early-season races in Australia. These include the UCI WorldTour’s Santos Tour DownUnder and the UCI Women’s WorldTour’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – Elite Women’s Race.
On the heels of the New Zealand stage race, the UCI class 1.2 Gravel and Tar event will this weekend see races for both Men Elite (Gravel and Tar Classic) and Women Elite (Gravel and Tar La Femme) battle it out on challenging courses combining tarmac and gravel sectors.
Both the New Zealand Cycle Classic, and the Gravel and Tar events benefited from the UCI’s Special Provisions for the first part of the 2021 season. These specific provisions allow for flexibility in the application of the UCI Regulations for organisers and teams during the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic.
New Zealand is currently free from Covid-19 in the community, however, there are 85 cases at the border. Borders are closed to non-New Zealand citizens, with all those entering the country obliged to undergo a two-week government managed quarantine.
Race Director of the New Zealand Cycle Classic for more than 30 years, Jorge Sandoval and his team included strong Covid-19 messaging and mitigation measures in their planning and communication this year with continency plans in case of a change in the country’s health situation.
All ran smoothly, and the New Zealand Cycle Classic gave domestic riders the opportunity to gain their first UCI World Ranking points for 2021. With no restriction on gatherings and events in the country, fans were able to line the streets to cheer the athletes.
The overall win in the New Zealand Cycle Classic – raced in the North Island’s Wairarapa region - went to Kiwi Corbin Strong (SEG Racing Academy) who, at just 20 years old, claimed the Young Riders Jersey on the way.
Also a confirmed track cyclist, the reigning points race UCI World Champion was delighted to claim victory one year after his third place in the New Zealand event: “It’s a special victory,” he said. “Winning in my country’s only UCI stage race is something that has always been on my bucket list.”
The luxury of being able to train and race
While Strong delighted in his victory, overseas riders were simply reveling in the opportunity to ride normally. American track cyclist Adrian Hegyvary is on team USA's long list for the Tokyo Olympic Games, where his wife Rushlee Buchanan is already in line to represent New Zealand. Before the New Zealand Cycle Classic, the American told TV NZ: “It's devastating to see what's happening around the world, but selfishly it's been awesome to be here (in New Zealand), and we can train and we can race.”
The same goes for Scottish track cyclist Mark Stewart, who has been in New Zealand since last March when a cancelled flight and other factors prevented him from returning home: “It seems to be hitting home now that it might be a repeat year with things being cancelled and rescheduled, so it's hitting home for me now how lucky it is to be here,” said the 2018 points race Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who also claimed bronze in the speciality the same year at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Apeldoorn (the Netherlands).
Many of the major players from the New Zealand Cycle Classic, including Strong, will line up in the Gravel and Tar Classic this Saturday, 23 January. Known as Oceania’s hardest single-day race on the UCI International Road Calendar, it will cover 164km through the Manawatu-Wanganui region, including six gravel sectors and has also attracted other high-profile Kiwis such as Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett. Meanwhile, the Gravel and Tar La Femme is 86km including 30km of gravel divided into four sections.
Once again, the spotlight will shine on New Zealand racing, and Kiwi cyclists will have a chance to claim more points in the UCI World Rankings.
Main Photo by Dave Lintott/Dave Lintott Photography: overall winner of the New Zealand Cycle Classic, Corbin Strong