Manawatu cyclist Alex West is like a kid in a lolly shop when asked about his past experiences of the Gravel and Tar Classic, now a UCI 1.2 status event being held in Palmerston North on Saturday, 27 January.
It has been five years since Alex West swapped mountain biking for road racing and he has not looked back. He believes his mountain biking skills helped him in this event and felt riders who had made the transition to road would do well.
Racing for Team Skoda Racing, the soon-to-be 21-year-old is vying for top honours in the event he calls his “favourite race”, having placed 2nd each year since the event’s inception in 2016.
The owner of “about six King of the Mountain jerseys” from races over the last couple of years, he said the hill climb on gravel was like no other. “Racing on gravel really excites me. I go into the race wanting to have fun and the thrill of having your wheels skidding both ways. I enjoy having fun on the road bike,” he said.
Gravel makes up 40km of the 132km event as cyclists leave Palmerston North city and head towards the countryside and hills of the Pohangina Valley. Unlike standard races, there isn’t any early breakaways with riders tending to wait till the gravel sector to make their move.
“Normally, riders are eager to test the group early on but in Gravel and Tar the main division of the peloton happens on the first gravel section about 40km into the race and it’s the high-speed descent that separates the riders,” he said.
West said his aim was to stay at the front as the gravel sections took riders by surprise and, despite the warnings, having the wrong tyres were the biggest issue leading to all sorts of congestion. “There were a lot of flat tyres. Having an extra 3mm width can make all the difference on gravel and doesn’t hold you back on the road,” he said.
Since leaving Palmerston North Boys High School, has raced with great success for Team Skoda Racing, and last year with the team he took the best young rider’s jersey at the SBS Bank Tour of Southland. He will soon head to Italy and race as the only international cyclist for Cycling Team Friuli, a UCI development team for U23 riders. Italian cycling rules prevent teams importing more than one overseas cyclist.
West was pleased to hear the Gravel and Tar Classic had been given UCI accreditation, however, his focus was on winning rather than points. “My main focus for this year is gaining young rider classification at tours, though the UCI status puts the race on the map so if you can win, it’s more prestigious,” he said.
His next goal was to be part of a Pro Continental Team but, for now, he was content to practice the Italian language and keep turning up to his favourite race.
To find out more about the Gravel and Tar Classic or to enter check out www.gravelandtar.com.