Christmas Day marks exactly one month until the Gravel and Tar Classic.  Incorporated into what is set to be a memorable day on the saddle will be the men’s and women’s UCI races as well as the Slicks and Stones Gran Fondo.

Very hands-on experience on our part can testify that the Gravel and Tar Classic is something to behold.  It is a challenge that puts grit determination, endurance, bike handling skills and race smarts all on the line.  It is a race that is a real marmite experience, if lady luck smiles it can be one of the most wonderful days on the bike, if luck or legs run out . . . . they really run out.  For Steve Stannard, having been at the helm of the event since its inception in 2016, there is plenty to look forward to.

“It’s the fifth year for the men, second year for the women, second year for Slicks and Stones as well.  The men’s race has just grown another notch, last year we had about 70 riders, this time we’re looking at up to 100.  The women’s race, last year was the first crack and the first crack at a UCI race and this year we’ll probably have an extra two teams with interest from overseas,” Steve told RoadCycling.

“It’s a slightly different course this year, much of it the same, but a little bit longer for everyone.  Not quite as much gravel for the women and the Slicks and Stones, but a little bit more enjoyable.”

UCI points are always handy, but in the Gravel and Tar Classic the race plays host to the interesting statistic of being the very first one-day race to offer those all-important points in the entire cycling calendar; with just stage races – including the New Zealand Cycle Classic – and the Australian national road championships preceding it.

In 2019 Stannard and the Gravel and Tar organisers took the step of introducing the first Gravel and Tar La Femme, a first women’s race that entered the weekend straight off as a UCI event with the same number of gravel sectors and equal prize money.  The event was a massive hit, with Brodie Chapman seeing off a brave challenge from Jenna Merrick to take the crown.  

Staying true to the principle of providing equal prize money is important to Stannard and co as he discussed the feedback and future of the race, and also the slight change in course motivated purely by practical issues of logistics.  “The prize money for the women is important, doing the same thing as we have done before.  We figure if the women are going to go out and do the same amount of time in the saddle, going over the same roads, they ought to get paid as much.  

“We reiterate that if women’s cycling is going to become professional then you’ve got offer events that are professional, and professional means offering a professional environment, a good race and money; so that’s what we’re trying to do.

“Women’s road cycling is still a long way behind the men’s but it’s just as good a sport.  We still believe we’re at the forefront of getting it there, there are a few people who are copying us which is good for women’s cycling that they’re doing the same thing now, but we’re there, we’re trying hard and I think the women are appreciating that.

“Last year the women’s race was slightly shorter but with the same gravel sectors.  This year it’s going to be longer than last year’s [this year’s race is just over 130km] but still slightly shorter than the men’s.  We’ve taken out one gravel sector on the first loop and the only reason for that is that when we work out the average times we make sure that men and women have the same amount of time on the bike.  

“But also there’s a traffic management issue with the men starting after the women, we don’t want women getting caught up in the men’s race.  Also the other thing we found that when running two races at the same time you start getting radio overlap.  We can’t have confusion between the two races, so I’ve got to send the men a different way to start with.  But it’s going to be a tough old race for both men and women.”

Tough has been the mantra that Gravel and Tar have held from day one.  It’s a status that they wear proudly and unashamedly; in fact they bask in it.  In fact Steve went as far as to make the bold statement that between the towns of Feilding and Palmerston North, the close to 50 women of the 2020 Gravel and Tar La Femme will embark on something that no other race on the calendar can quite match.

“This is the toughest women’s race on the international calendar, I’m telling you and I don’t think anyone would argue.  If they come and do the race they can’t argue,” Steve said.  

To find out more about the Gravel and Tar Classic, Gravel and Tar La Femme or the Slicks and Stones Gran Fondo check out www.gravelandtar.com

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