Ethan Berends of Mobius BridgeLane called on a last ditch sprint finish to take the win in the 2018 Gravel & Tar Classic. Berends was victorious in the UCI 1.2 classic ahead of Michael Torckler of Blindz Direct and Hayden McCormick of the New Zealand National Team.
The Gravel and Tar Classic 2018 got underway to still and very hot conditions. The 131.5km of racing started and finished in The Square in Palmerston North and defending champion Robert Stannard of Team Cyclista, runner-up last year Alex West of Team Skoda Racing and 3rd place from last year Glenn Haden of Tank Guy/Bike Box Rental were all back and ready to challenge for the win. Also in action were the much fancied New Zealand National Team featuring New Zealand Cycle Classic champion Hayden McCormick.
After a brief neutral zone racing began in earnest and the bunch were initially quite happy to be all together. The first several kilometres were virtually entirely flat but the first significant challenge at 30km into the race. By the time the race had reached the climb though a large group of 13 riders had broken clear of the peloton and put an impressive 3.21mins into the chasing peloton. The leading group was very numerous and well represented by a number of teams including Blindz Direct who had Michael Torckler present and the New Zealand National Team who had both James Oram and Luke Mudgway in the move. Ben Hamilton of Team Skoda Racing was there as were riders from GPM Stulz, Crediflex Pro4mance, Mobius Bridgelane and Team Cyclista.
Behind them the peloton were not appearing to be in great urgency to bring back the break, given that so many teams were represented in the front breakaway. Tank Guy/Bikebox and Team Skoda Racing had both posted riders in the front of the peloton but in the early stages it appeared that they were there to Marshall things at the front rather than launch an all out chase effort. A few kilometres later and the break’s lead had stretched to 3.45mins while one rider was sitting in limbo at 2.02mins behind the peloton.
The first gravel section had the predictable blitz affect on the entire field with the breakaway of 13 hitting the gravel hard. A handful of riders dropped back from the breakaway group to form a chase group of five as they started the second lap 1.05mins back. In the chasing group were Robert Stannard, Roman van Uden of Cyclista, James Oram and Hayden McCormick of the New Zealand National Team, and Dylan Newbery of Mobius BridgeLane. At this point the chasing peloton were 1.50mins in arrears.
Up the road though the leading group were still about 10-strong and continued to benefit from the presence of riders from AMR-Renault, Mobius BridgeLane, Crediflex Pro4mance, GPM Stulz and CNN-Manawatu. The cohesion was not present across the board though with Cameron Roberts of GPM Stulz charging up the road solo and establishing a small 9 second advantage on the second lap that took the field up to the 75km point. Ethen Berends of Mobius BridgeLane and Ben Hamilton of Team Skoda Racing were close behind and took second and third place across the next sprint prime.
Roberts continued to lead as he went over the second gravel section, happy to reap the benefits of clear road ahead, while Hamilton and Berends were swept up by the group that were just a few seconds behind and had him well in sight. Luke Mudgway had managed to regain contact with the leading group which was still managing to retain its shape with the numbers present. Behind them the chasing bunch had closed to 1.50mins as the riders went through the 80km mark and on to the third gravel sector of the race. Robert Stannard at this point was driving the chase effort in an effort to bring back a move that was looking a little more likely to succeed as the kilometres ticked away.
As the riders neared 100km covered Michael Torckler began to stretch his legs for Blindz Direct. He moved off the front along with Ethan Berends having navigated the early sections of gravel successfully. At 102km he and Berends had a lead of around 50 seconds to Hayden McCormick who was now chasing solo for the National Team. Behind these leading three riders the field had been just about obliterated with the rest of the group, with Steve Lampier of Blindz Direct, Ben Hamilton and James Oram strung out on the gravel.
McCormick succeeded in regaining contact with the leading duo and with just one sector of gravel left it was looking good for the three of them to contest the win. The trio were working well together and now enjoyed a 1.10min advantage heading into Ashhurst, but that steadily grew to 1.22mins. Behind them three riders were in pursuit with Hamilton, Oram and Lampier teaming up on the approach to the final gravel section.
But McCormick and Berends weren’t done yet. Knowing the threat that Torckler could be the two decided to try and push the pace and they had Torckler on the ropes briefly until trouble struck for McCormick. With Torckler distanced, McCormick suddenly suffered a rear wheel puncture, leaving Berends up ahead solo. While the National Team rider was serviced Torckler passed him, the same three leading but a vastly different scenario as the riders reached 10km to go.
On the final gravel section Torckler showed that he still had a little left in the tank as he dug deep to catch up with Berends; leaving McCormick about a minute adrift of the two leaders. Torckler and Berends were able to match each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke all the way to the final kilometre, resolving to duel it out in a sprint finish. It was Australian Berends who was forced to lead out the sprint, but he had enough in the tank to take a brilliant win from a satisfied but exhausted Torckler, with McCormick crossing the line solo to complete the podium. Behind them Steve Lampier led home James Oram and Ben Hamilton for fourth place.