Hayden McCormick of Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy and Niamh Fisher-Black of the New Zealand National Team have made right the history books at Gravel and Tar with emphatic victories in the Gravel and Tar Classic and Gravel and Tar La Femme respectively.
Oceania’s only UCI 1.2 race got underway in Feilding to pristine cycling conditions that continued throughout the day. Up ahead of the women were 115km of racing on the way to Palmerston North along with four gravel sections, while the men would tackle 133.2km and five sectors. The added road between sectors 1-2 and 2-3 was expected to keep the race together a little bit more than in previous editions; but as it transpired Hayden McCormick and Niamh Fisher-Black would have other ideas.
The men’s race saw Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy head into the race as strong favourites to claim the crown. Defending champion Luke Mudgway was back and ready for another assault on the course, but so too was a team that included 2018’s third place finisher McCormick and the strength in depth of the like of Ethan Batt and young talents Ari Scott, Xander White and Josh Kench. They went on the offensive early with Ethan Batt playing a lead role out in front of the race; stretching the field alongside Chen Chieng Lang of Memil-CCN Pro Cycling.
On the opening two sectors of gravel – at Junction Road after 19km and Levett Line at 50km – the race although aggressive early on, was largely able to stay together and although an early attack set the tempo a strong chase contingent featuring inaugural Gravel and Tar champion Logan Griffin of Cabjacks-Castelli. Also showing strong form on the gravel were the likes of Team Skoda-Fruzio’s Campbell Pithie, with Black Spoke Pro Cycling Academy benefiting from numbers at the front.
The crucial move came on the third gravel sector. At 10.6km in length, the sector that takes in Coulters Line, Ridge Road and Finnis Road is the longest of the race, and saw Hayden McCormick and Theodore Yates pull away and establish and handy advantage over the field that by now was well and truly broken up. Finn Fisher-Black of the New Zealand National Team launched a solo chase effort in third place while Ben Hamilton of Cabjacks-Castelli also showed his strength to make a move while the Griffin group chased behind.
If there was any doubt at this point about where the win would go, all doubts were put to bed on the fourth gravel sector where McCormick pulled away to form an insurmountable lead over the rest of the field. With more than 100km covered but still some 30km to go the former U23 national time trial champion and New Zealand Cycle Classic champion turned on the pace and never looked back; putting over 3 minutes into his nearest challengers by the time the race reached its end in Palmerston North.
Behind him Yates found himself the victim of McCormick’s previous bad luck, with punctures halting his changes of a podium finish. A small chase group formed behind McCormick that contained Luke Mudgway, Memil-CCN Pro Cycling’s Samuel Volkers and Team Skoda Fruzio’s Campbell Pithie; valiantly hanging in on a day that had taken out all his other teammates early in the race.
After McCormick celebrated an emphatic victory by 3.23mins, teammate Luke Mudgway did as he had done the previous year; trusting his strong finishing sprint and taking second place this time ahead of Memil-CCN Pro Cycling’s Volkers and Pithie. Joel Yates finished fifth ahead of Elliot Schultz and Thomas Bolton; while James Williamson of the NZ Cycling Project led home Black Spoke’s Ari Scott and EuroCyclingTrips-CMI Pro Cycling’s Boris Clark to round out the top ten.
In the women’s race the Green Monkey team from Australia headed into the race as strong favourites. Matilda Raynolds had won the previous evening’s criterium in Palmerston North in fine style ahead of Veris Racing’s Grace Brunton-Makeham, and had come to the Gravel and Tar La Femme on the back of a third place finish in stage 1 of the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under; a race that her Specialized Women’s Racing outfit had taken second place at in the teams classification.
The New Zealand National Team had other ideas though, and led by Niamh Fisher-Black and multiple national mountain bike champion Samara Sheppard they set about writing a different story. Fisher-Black, like McCormick, had been the victim of misfortune in her last outing at the Gravel and Tar La Femme. The then 18 year old finished 9th in the inaugural edition of the women’s classic.
This time Fisher-Black led from the front. The second gravel sector that began on Coulters Line saw the 19 year old launch a devastating attack and by the end of the sector on Finnis Road there was no one alongside her. That prompted a more than 50km solo attack that was simply unanswerable. Behind the Kiwi, teammate Samara Sheppard kept control of the first chase group that contained Ella Bloor and Matilda Raynolds while Velo Project’s Kirsty McCallum and Elyse Fraser also remained in contention.
With about 5km to go, however, Sheppard decided to launch an attack in a bid to rid herself of potential sprint company. It proved an inspired decision as the New Zealander dropped all others and surged away to second place. Sheppard, who was a finalist in Canyon-SRAM’s Zwift Academy competition, finished 28 seconds behind Fisher-Black who will join Katusha-Bigla in Europe later this season.
Ella Bloor took third place ahead of Raynolds, with McCallum and Frser fifth and sixth. Green Monkey’s Elizabeth Stannard took 7th place ahead of Swiss rider Desiree Ehrler of Velofit Australia, Toot’s Jorja Swain and Cecilia Crooks of the New Zealand National Team.
More to come . . .