Tomorrow morning the Gravel and Tar Classic will take place, starting from Feilding and working its way towards Palmerston North. The 4th edition of the event will also incorporate the first edition of the women’s UCI 1.2 Gravel and Tar La Femme; a historic moment for New Zealand cycling.
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Heading into the 2019 Gravel and Tar La Femme, Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling are rather understandably on cloud nine; having walked away with the U23 time trial clean sweep and the national road race title. Patrick Harvey has been front and centre directing the team since its inception and as he gets ready for their first outing at the Gravel and Tar La Femme he does so with nothing short of sheer excitement that UCI women’s racing is back in New Zealand.
“We’re just absolutely stoked to have a UCI race back in New Zealand for the women, and secondly to have it on the gravel; which we think is fabulous and a great way to showcase what our women riders are capable of and have been always capable of,” Patrick told RoadCycling.
“I think it will be an awesome spectacle of women’s racing and we’re really happy that Stephen [Stannard, race director] has chosen to put on an event that is not dumbed down, it’s hard, it’s a decent distance, a good amount of gravel sectors; it’s fantastic.”
The evolution of gender equality in cycling – and in the wider sporting context – is still a battle that is ongoing. It has been well documented that pay inequality is an area that top level cycling has long fallen short of, but in the Gravel and Tar Classic – as in the SRAM Tour de Ranges last weekend – statements are being made that, on our shores, are looking to make things right. Riders lining up for the Gravel and Tar La Femme will be competing for an identical prize purse as for the men; with $3,000 going to the individual winner and team classification winners at the end of the race as part of a total prize packet totalling over $15,000.
“I think there’s been a lot of positive signs recently and this is another one for the Oceania region. To have equal prize money and a hard course to match is just what the sport needs to showcase women’s sport and to show that the ladies can stand up and show how great they can race and be rewarded for it equally,” Harvey said.
“It moves on from what was started in the Oceania region last year with the Tour Down Under bringing equality to the pay as well, so there are some really, really good things happening from down here in the Southern Hemisphere and it’s having a change in the Northern Hemisphere as well. Pay equality is just a very small part of it and we’re super excited.”
When RoadCycling did our course recon Stephen Stannard spoke of his determination that in producing a women’s race that would provide equal prize money the challenge ahead of the women’s field and men’s field also had to be comparable. The women will tackle 112.6km to the men’s 125.3km from the drop of the flag, but will have to take on exactly the same sectors and distances of gravel; 40km each. For Patrick Harvey the challenge being equivalent is just as important as the pay being equal.
“I think it’s very important. The women on our team train as hard, they prepare as hard, they tick all the boxes, they’re ready for the challenge. And I think they’ve proven, especially in the last few years, that they race hard as well, so by keeping the distance close to what the men’s race is, having just as much gravel sections as the men’s race, the women are more than ready for it and they’ll show that by racing hard and racing to win.”
When it comes to race predictions there seems to be a unanimous consensus that this will be a race that stretches everyone to the maximum. Gravel and Tar, historically, is a race where bunch sprints go to die and among the 35 riders who will take on the inaugural UCI Gravel and Tar La Femme there is the sense that this will be a race where one or two riders clearly stand tall.
“I don’t think we’ll have a big bunch sprint in this race because it will be split to pieces pretty early on due to the nature of the course and the nature of the way the women are riding these days. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve come a long way from the days when commentators would say ‘this is a boring race, it’s a women’s race’ we don’t get that anymore; in fact sometimes quite the opposite.”
For Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling gravel is no unfamiliar surface. Most notably the team have regularly tackled the surface in the Hell of the South; the traditional finale of the Calder Stewart Series. From there, the team have been able to take plenty of learnings into the only UCI women’s race on the calendar; most notably the need for confidence.
“We recognised that really early on in the Calder Stewart Series you have to attack the gravel, you can’t hang back and wait and be conservative. To ride confidently in gravel you have to train in gravel and you have to race in gravel, so that’s what we’ve been working on with our riders leading into Gravel and Tar,” Harvey said.
“Every time we have a gravel sector in any race the girls start getting excited and instead of shying away from it they get out there and prepare for it. We’ve been doing that down here in Wanaka, we’ve got a 120km course with about 60km of gravel which we’ve been trying out.”
The Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling Team are set to play a major role in a historical event in New Zealand cycling history tomorrow morning, with racing kicking off at 9.30am. The men’s event begins an hour later, with racing ending in Palmerston North at Memorial Park.