Luke Mudgway heads into the defence of his Gravel and Tar title in a confident mood and with the backing of a very strong team in Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy; who have already gotten 2020 off to a flying start.

The 2020 season started for Luke Mudgway and the Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy in earnest when they lined up for last week’s New Zealand Cycle Classic.  It was Mudgway’s first big take the plunge moment into racing again since an extended break at the end of a very full 2019 season with EvoPro Racing.  It appeared that the break had been kind to the 23 year old as he placed 6th in stage 1 and 5th in stage 3 on the way to helping Aaron Gate to a stage 1 victory and 2nd overall.

On the back of the team’s success in the Wairarapa it’s quite understandable that Mudgway should feel so positive about his prospects on the roads and gravel sections between Fielding and Palmerston North.

“I’m quite confident actually, we have a really strong team coming into it.  It’s a gnarly race, you need to have a lot of luck on your side so I’m just going to take each section one by one and see where I’m at when I get to the finish; and hopefully me or one of my teammates can get the win,” Luke told us when we asked how he was feeling ahead of the race.

From left to right: Ryan Christensen, Luke Mudgway and Cyrus Monk on the podium after the Gravel and Tar Classic 2019, photo Ed Wright/RoadCycling.co.nz

Gravel and Tar has, over the years, developed a reputation for its tough nature and its take-no-prisoners style.  Race director Steve Stannard has never shied away from wanting to produce an event that was all about the challenge; whether for the women’s race, regarded by some as the toughest race on the international calendar, or for the men.  This year’s men’s UCI 1.2 race will take place over 141.5km, with five gravel sectors to contend with before the finish line, with the longest sectors being between 8-10km in length.  Mudgway notes the comparisons and differences between Gravel and Tar and a race on the European continent that has become one of the most feared and revered in cycling.

“This year will be my fourth year racing it and last year was the first year I didn’t puncture.

“It’s kind of similar to races like Paris-Roubaix where if you do puncture on a section then you do have to wait for a while unless your team’s happy for you to ride on a punctured wheel to the end of the section or until your car gets there.  

“The only difference is that the gravel sections are a lot longer than the cobbled sections over in Europe, so if you’re puncturing towards the end of the section it can take a long time for the car to get to you.  If it’s towards the start of the race the groups might be bigger and the firing group might ease up a little bit.

“If you do puncture you usually end up having to wait for quite a while and unless you’re a really strong rider it’s going to take a lot to get you back into the race.  That’s where tyre selection comes into it, you need to have the right tyres, the right pressure, on the same side of that you also need to be careful where you’re riding.  You can’t go full into each section, you need to find the right spots where there’s the least rocks.  Then when you’re on the downhill you need to almost take it easy so you’re not jamming your tyres into potholes or a sharp rock or something.  You’ve got to have luck but at the same time you’ve got to prepare your gear and your skillset for the gravel to make sure you have given yourself the best chance.”

Cycling is becoming more and more known in the mainstream sporting world for being a team game, and you could argue that nowhere does the New Zealand cycling scene show this off to greater effect than in the Gravel and Tar Classic.  In 2019 Mudgway benefited from the presence of EvoPro Aussie mate Cyrus Monk who took third behind him and Ryan Christensen.

“It’s probably the biggest thing for a team to win Gravel and Tar, you need numbers.  Anything can happen in this sort of race.  If you’ve got four guys and one of you punctures you’ve still got three guys at the end of the race.  If you’ve got two guys and one punctures then you’ve only got one and it’s going to make it a lot harder when the other riders starting 1-2ing, and for me I’m a fast finisher so if I’m in a group with other riders then I’m going to keep getting attacked and attacked until someone can get away from me.  So the importance of having riders there is crucial, it’s all about riders and the more you’ve got at the pointy end of the race; the more you’re likely to win it,” Mudgway said.

The team is ready, the stage is set, but there is one variable that no race director or team can predict; the weather.  So far in Luke Mudgway’s three previous editions of the race he has not encountered a wet Gravel and Tar; but the different dynamic it would present appeals to him.

“Gravel and Tar hasn’t been wet before but I think that would be really interesting, I think that would be quite fun.  It’s hard when you’re racing the gravel in the dust because of the little things.  Like a lead car doesn’t put enough gap between them and you; especially on a downhill where you’ll be going faster than they are.  When they’re kicking up dust you can’t see and it makes it really hard.  I’d actually probably prefer a muddy race, it’ll probably be a lot of fun but the conditions are the same for everybody.  

“It’s just a race where you just really have to work hard at it.  It’s a race where there are so many external factors going on, people crashing, puncturing in front of you, the gravel can be a lot looser in some sections to others.  You’ve really got to stay focussed, no matter how tired you are you have to stay focussed through each section and really concentrate; otherwise one little mistake and it’s your race over.

The Gravel and Tar Classic kicks off tomorrow evening with a women’s criterium in Palmerston North before the main event on Saturday.  The women’s race kicks off at 11am with the men’s starting at 12pm.  For more information go to gravelandtar.com

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