In part 2 of our 2016 RoadCycling Awards we tip our hat to an unsung Kiwi, acknowledge our first Grand Tour top ten, recognise possibly the best attitude in Kiwi cycling, and one of global cycling’s biggest fighters.
King of the Mountains – George Bennett
Who else? Throughout the year George has stepped up again and again whether it’s been at the Tour of Oman, the Tour of California, or most famously at the Tour de France or Vuelta a Espana. George has been hands down the best climber we can boast and this year he moved into a whole new realm of potential. Accustomed to working for others, it’s been so refreshing to see Bennett free to let fly himself and go for glory; and given his performances in 2016 one has to wonder that maybe a stage win in a Grand Tour is certainly not too far away.
Our favourite memory of George? It is a little hard to pick one. Most memorable unfortunately may well be that collision with the fan in the Tour de France. But the mountain stages from stage 14 onwards in the Vuelta a Espana will go down as our favourites, as Bennet leapt from 18th to 12th overall as he placed fourth on stage 14, and then proceeded to hold his ground, even gaining a place in the individual time trial; before breaking into the top ten on the penultimate stage. His patience, persistence and guts to keep holding on were fantastic to watch and make him an easy king of the mountains.
Coach of the Year – Justin Grace
It’s sad that a man of his calibre and a man with his achievements has gone largely under the radar on our shores. But Kiwi Justin Grace should be a name positively sung from the hilltops as it were; he’s more than earned his stripes in 2016. At the end of the track cycling programme at the Rio Olympics, Team GB emerged with eleven medals in ten events. Six gold medals went their way – including team sprint gold against our boys – and a large debt of gratitude is owed to this understated Kiwi who on 2nd November had a lifesaving liver transplant.
To give you an idea of how important Grace has been to the British track programme of the eleven medals won by the Brits in Rio, seven of them came in the four sprint disciplines. Great Britain took gold-silver, silver-bronze in the men’s and women’s sprints, then gold in the men’s keirin and silver in the women’s on top of gold in the men’s team sprint. If an athlete is the ship that gets to the destination though, a coach is the rudder that guides it, and Justin Grace has guided champion after champion, after champion in 2016. Chapeau!
Rider of the Year (women) – Racquel Sheath
We can remember when we spoke to Racquel following her first ever selection for the UCI World Cup. She was just so, so excited about being selected; her enthusiasm was positively palpable. Sheath was this bubbly, thrilled-to-be-there young track cyclist with bags of talent still in many ways yet to be discovered. Since then Sheath stormed her way to the forefront of New Zealand track cycling and has carried that over to the road.
With some incredibly strong – and extremely confident – performances at Track Nationals Sheath muscled her way into being a first choice for the UCI World Road Championships and then for the Rio Olympics where she formed part of a team pursuit squad who placed fourth in the bronze medal match. On the road Sheath has been equally impressive with her late season form carrying her to victory in Criterium Nationals and the women’s race at the Contact Lake Taupo Cycling Challenge. Sheath has to be one of the favourites for victory in Napier at Elite Road Nationals.
Rider of the Year (men) – Keagan Girdlestone
Keagan Girdlestone is our men’s Rider of the Year because he, more than any other rider in 2016, has displayed what it truly is to be a fighter. We woke in horror to the news back in June that the Dimension Data for Qhubeka rider had been involved in a serious crash that severed his carotid artery, jugular vein, nerve and muslces, resulting in major blood loss and starving the right side of his brain of blood and oxygen. He suffered vocal cord damage, limited movement to his left side, no movement of his right arm; but incredibly he survived. Well wishers came from all over the cycling community from our shores to Tour de France winner Chris Froome and back again.
In all of this Keagan dug deep through the darkest time in his life and came out the other end. Since his freak accident he has been on the road to recovery and defying the logic that says take it slow! On 21st December Keagan took to social media to release a video after just returning from his first 100+km bike ride since the accident. Scars still very evident, voice still held back, and definitely going against doctors’ and mothers’ orders, he shared this major milestone which has been watched more than 7,000 times since. Keagan is pure inspiration of how to dig deep and come out swinging. His impact on the global cycling community is unmistakable and he is our Rider of 2016.
Coming up: People’s Choice & Unsung Hero Award