Gravel and Tar Classic

Date(s) - 27/01/2018

Logan Griffin & Alex West battle the gravel on their way to 1st and 2nd in the inaugural Gravel & Tar Classic, photo Bike Manawatu

The Gravel and Tar Classic in the Manawatu exploded onto the scene in 2016; and is dubbed New Zealand’s best multisurface cycle event.  The inaugural race was won by Logan Griffin as he tackled the 100km race fastest to take the win.  It is a race unlike most on the road calendar purely because of what it says in the title; it is the GRAVEL and Tar Classic.

The event is split into two sections with the 100km Classic and the 80km Gran Fondo, each providing a tough challenge for the riders as they head out of Palmerston North and out onto a course that – in the classic – includes 40km of gravel sections en route to the finish.  As race director Stephen Stannard explained, the event was birthed out of the need to fill a gap that had been left by the relocation of the New Zealand Cycle Classic.

“About two years ago we were looking for an elite race to organise here in the Manawatu to fill the gap left by the NZ Cycle Classic when it re-located back to the Wairarapa.  There was all this community support for cycling and we wanted to be able to build on that by organising a race which was quite unique and which showcased our region,” Stannard explained.  “Being an ex-rider, I also wanted to make sure that we’d attract the best competitors so we put up a very very good prize pool, some $18,000.  For a single day cycling race, that’s about the best prize money in NZ.  Along side the ‘Classic’, which is for U19 and older elite racers, we have a fun ride, the Gran Fondo, which covers much of the same course, but taking out the harder parts of gravel.”

As well as featuring a series of tough gravel sections the race also features a rather rolling mid-section of the course in particular that keeps things interesting.  One has to wonder whether a gravel race such as this provides the closest thing you are likely to find to a cobbled classic such as Paris-Roubaix for New Zealand.  2016 winner Logan Griffin gave his thoughts.  “It is similar but there are a few key differences. Mainly due to there only being a few long sections of gravel rather than the many short sections we see in the races overseas. Now I’ve never raced in Europe but have heard and seen how hectic and fast it is as riders fight to be in the first few spots leading into each section.”

“Another key difference that makes this race really unique is the climbing and descending on gravel. The long climb in the middle of the course whilst a hard climb to begin with is made even harder by the lack of grip and different technique you need to use to ride smoothly on the loose gravel. Ohh and then there’s the decent, 1/3 skill, 1/3 luck and 1/3 blind courage to get down there with the quick guys.”

It’s certainly not a race for the shy or timid, but it most definitely presents a great challenge for someone wanting to push the boundaries of what they can do on a road bike.  Gravel racing on a road bike is a challenge, one that if you’re not having a good day on the bike is 100% down to luck if you’re going to do it successfully; as Griffin told us.  The actual sections itself vary in difficulty.  “The ‘Classic’ is almost exactly 100 km long, and it contains nearly 40 km of gravel.  Some of that is in really good condition and really fast.  Other bits are more challenging, with prominent tyre tracks, but generally you can ride them well if you have a bit of off-road skill and you use at least 25 mm tyres,”  Stephen Stannard said.  

“When you’re riding fast in a bunch though, the gravel takes on another dimension, and throw in a decent climb or two, and the odd $500 prime and riders will start taking risks.  Last year we had plenty of punctures and some other mechanicals.  I think Alex Ray punctured, but still picked up around $1500 prize money for picking up 3rd and some primes.  Robert Stannard lost a jockey wheel from his derrailleur and had to put it back in, but he still finished 7th and won over $500.” 

The 2017 Gravel and Tar Classic became a Trans-Tasman battle as Kiwis and Aussies went head-to-head, photo provided

The amount of support that the Manawatu region gives to cycling shows, as in its inaugural year it was an immediate hit with a number of riders.  Logan Griffin said, “I was really impressed last year, especially considering it was the first year of the event. Palmerston North does know how to put on bike races, Bike Manawatu and local riders/supporters also really get behind their events which is great to see. Starting in the middle of town was cool and also the finish was great. There aren’t many places left where you can start and finish a race so close to town but still have access to awesome back roads.”

For Stephen Stannard there are three things that have made him proudest as he and the organisational team head from the first edition to round 2 in 2017.  “Firstly I think the team-based aspect is something that I’m really pleased with.  About half the prize money is team-based, and it’s the cumulative time of the first four riders from the team across the line.  That means that people need to be racing for 40th spot, because it might be worth $1000 to the team to beat the next guy into 41st,” Stephen explained.  “The second part is that the course takes in some really really nice roads up in and above the Pohangina Valley that shows people some unique parts of the region.  Lastly, that we start and finish near the middle of town is pretty special given all the traffic management issues we deal with these days in organising events.”

New Zealand is a country that really has plenty of access to gravel roads, and therefore it’s a rider’s ability to utilise these in training and combine that with smart gear choices that will contribute to a debutant at the Gravel and Tar Classic or Gran Fondo really making the most of their experience.  “The biggest thing would be to practice, although I was based in Auckland at the time there are plenty of gravel roads and even some good climbs out west that I regularly rode. I think that really helps to teach yourself how to stay relaxed with your wheels skipping and moving around under you a bit more than usual. It’s a bit unnerving at first but just take it easy and slowly up the speed,” Griffin shared.  “After that, wheel and tire choice is probably the biggest thing you can do equipment wise. Last year I used a set of reasonably wide carbon clinchers and some very good and supple 25mm tires with a little bit of stanz sealant in each tube just as insurance. 

If you can fit them in your frame 28mm’s would probably be best but don’t forget that there are still some long fast road sections to ride too.”

The 2018 event will start in the mid-late afternoon so that riders finish early evening.  It will be surrounded by other cycling events which will include a Retro-ride, a cycling movie night, and some smaller “fun ride” type events.

For more information or to enter the Gravel and Tar Classic or Gran Fondo click here.