Aaron Gate has won stages of races on the road, he’s won points classifications, a world championship track title, an Olympic medal and a few more accolades for good measure; but until the Tour of Austria he had never won a king of the mountains title. That all changed this year, and we took the opportunity post-race to sit down and chat with him.
A brand new victory experience for Gate
At the end of it all to have come away with the king of the mountains in arguably July’s second biggest stage race is something that well and truly caught road fast man and track star – Aaron Gate of Aqua Blue Sport – well off guard. “It was an exciting week, it was definitely not a goal I’d thought about the week before, going in to win the mountains classification was not on my realistic list for sure,” Aaron told us after the race.
In truth it was never supposed to go like this. If all had gone according to plan we would have sat back and watched as Aaron Gate put himself on the line and then celebrated as his teammate Stefan Denifl took out the overall honours; but things sometimes don’t go according to plan, and in this case Gate was forced to roll with the punches as Aqua Blue Sport took a pre-race setback on the chin that would ultimately change their whole trajectory.
“To be honest, going in I was thinking I was going to be supporting Stefan Denifl for another win because it was his home race and he was the defending champion. But unfortunately we lost him to a crash when he was training only two days before the tour which was a real shame. We managed to get Andy Fenn in, in time, which was good; so at least we had a full team but it was a real shame. It meant that the whole focus of the team had to shift a bit,” Aaron said.
Arriving at the start line for day 1 of the Tour, then, Aaron Gate and Aqua Blue Sport were faced with the prospect of a significantly more open race then; and fate would have it that the Kiwi managed his way into the Tour’s opening break. “It just so happened that I was the one who drew the straw to be in the eventual break on the first day. The climbs were hard but they weren’t ridiculous on that first day; so I was able to collect maximum points that day from the group in the break, which definitely wasn’t easy,” Gate explained. “It was like a full on sprint to get those points and from there it was like ‘ok let’s see how we can defend this.’”
Considering the win from halfway point
Gate came away from the first stage of the mountains classification with 20 points to his name, double the tally of second placed Matthias Krizek, but it wouldn’t be until later on that the allure of taking the classification outright became a more serious consideration. “It was probably only about halfway through [that I started to consider] that this might be possible now,” Gate said.
While in the Tour de France we’ve watched as Peter Sagan has strode away from the competition in the points classification, the king of the mountains race was predominantly a two-way war that didn’t finish until the penultimate stage. The two sides were Team Aaron Gate and Team Davide Orroico. “It meant that I could never start a stage in a relaxed mindset, so straightaway he’d be straight up there ready to chase the break, and I’d be like ‘here we go again he’s not going to have a day off’,” Aaron explained.
“I definitely had to have my team help me a few times just to make sure that he and some other key riders that we couldn’t let go up the road were covered. The team were great helping me with that. When it came down to it, it was him and I and whoever else in the break; and I just had to back myself that although he was a really, really strong rider I could still beat him in a sprint. I just had to use that to my advantage and that’s how it went.”
“Even halfway through [the penultimate stage] you could see that he’d probably shifted focus to just trying to go for a result on the stage rather than the mountains classification . . . it was probably only 220km of the entire tour that it was sort of sewn up and I didn’t really have to stress for those points.”
How to win a King of the Mountains classification
Aaron Gate is somewhat familiar in contesting points classifications, he was first in the An Post Ras points classification in both 2015 & 2016. Contesting a mountains classification, however, was something different; a whole new challenge and with new considerations to take into account.
“A points classification you have the intermediate sprints and then sometimes that’s a stand alone classification; but in this race it was the case similar to the Tour de France where you’ve got the intermediate sprints and they add up from the points at the stage finishes. That was something I did consider on the first day so I tried to rack up a few of those intermediate sprint points just to keep that option open . . . but the way it panned out mountains classification became the goal.”
“The added difference is that you’ve got category 1, 2 and 3 plus hors categorie climbs with varying points on all; so you can win three cat 3 climbs and that’s it; you bury yourself in three maximum sprints. Or you can get the same number of points by winning one hors categorie climb; it’s a completely different style effort.”
“You’ve also got the difference of the points classification tends to be sprint stages that most of it comes down to, while the mountains classification we had the guys on GC coming up the tail end on points just because they’re winning a stage, taking the leader’s jersey at the end of a stage that finishes up the top of a hors categorie climb; so they take maximum points on that too which is something I wouldn’t have been in contention to be up there on those particular climbs even on my best day.”
“You have to pick your battles I suppose with where you do get your points, and that’s always like a running tally in your head on the road. It’s one thing to win a sprint, but there’s also 2nd-3rd. Often there’d be points back in the bunch still, there was one stage where it was solely Orroico and I up the road; there’s still guys who can still get points for third who haven’t done anything else all day. It’s definitely a classification that has many elements.”
Breaking away again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again
For most Kiwis being the break for one day in a stage race can be tantamount to success, but for Aaron as he contested the KOM classification it was a case of going back to the break time after time . . . after time. “It’s safe to say I was pretty tired by the end of the week,” Aaron reflected. “I think the last stage was the worst I’ve felt on a bike for a long time, so I was definitely glad that the classification was all sewn up then; because I don’t think I could’ve brought myself to go up in the break for a sixth time.”
“It does take its toll . . . I think it’s that constant high of effort and intensity that you’ve got to put in when you’re in the break. You get time on the wheels but you’re still having to put your nose in the wind; whereas if you’re tucked up in the peloton with another team controlling the pace for you until it really counts, things [in the break] certainly start to add up.”
“I guess it was a sign I was pretty happy with my form going into it too because I managed to survive all those efforts in the break and still finish the tour. So I’m happy with where the form’s at and it would be good to see where it will go for the rest of the season.”
From here Aaron will head to the PostNord Danmark Rundt – Tour of Denmark which runs from the 1st-5th August. It seems like this year’s bringing a couple of firsts for Gate as the Tour of Austria was his first outing on Austrian soil, and Denmark will be a new venue on his passport too. “It will be quite a different tour but I think we’re going to have a really strong team here so it will be good to put in a good nudge; I think Aqua Blue Sport are going to be able to do something pretty cool.”
Beyond Denmark the Tour of Britain is a major draw card for a number of riders and Gate would love to be selected as one of the six-man team heading to the race that boasts ten World Tour outfits from BMC Racing to Team Sky, Katusha-Alpecin to LottoNL-Jumbo, EF Education First-Drapac to Quick-Step Floors. “We’ve got a lot of guys still really firing at this point in the season so it’s going to be hard to get selected for that one,” said Gate.
Should Aaron be selected for Tour of Britain or when he lines up for future stage races, we had one final question for him; whether the Kiwi had caught the bug of KOM contesting and would be up for another shot at it, or whether it was a case of ‘never again’.
“I really enjoyed it and it was a great experience and fun to be doing something different so I wouldn’t rule out doing it again!”