Less than 24 hours to go now until the only UCI 1.2 race in Oceania kicks off and the excitement is mounting in Palmerston North as riders gather and get ready to tackle the roads, the gravel, the conditions and each other in a bid for the title and a $3000 first prize.

The 2020 edition of the Gravel and Tar is looking set to build again from last year which saw the introduction of a UCI women’s race back into the New Zealand cycling scene.  This year men and women will be competing once again for equal prize money over two slightly different courses; although both will be riding longer distances than last year.  We caught up with race director Steve Stannard on what’s coming up this weekend.  

This year the women will take on 115km of racing, with the men tackling 133km and one extra 3.5km Junction Road gravel sector.  From there though all is equal on the course with the 3.9km Levett Line sector, the 10.6km Ridge Road sector, the 8.4km Midland Road sector and the final 7.7km Riverpath sector.  Stannard and the team have also opted to add a good deal more tar to the equation this time around, something he explained to us when we caught up with him.

Kate McIlroy gets to grips with the gravel during the 2019 race, photo Ed Wright / RoadCycling.co.nz

“One of the things that’s going to make it even harder for the men is that we’re going to send them up the Mangaone climb which is a 0.5km climb at about 8%, and unless they’re warmed up it’s going to be a tough ride for them.  They’ll need a good warm up, keep their wits about them and ideally have a look at the course the day before,” Stannard told RoadCycling.

“The first gravel sector will string things out and by the time they get to the end there will be no big bunches there; only small bunches to try and get back together.  The difference between this year and last year is that instead of going fairly directly onto the next gravel sector at Levett Line, there’s a much longer bitumen section in between which allows the smaller bunches to get back together.

“I think that creates a much more interesting bike race, it creates a harder bike race.  The women miss the first gravel sector so they ride a lot more bitumen to start with before they hit [Levett Line]; so it’s more of a traditional bike race.”

While the first gravel section for the men is set to be a bit more of a shock to the system, coming into it from high speed and into a very Belgian cobbled classic-style narrow funnel where positioning will be absolutely fundamental.  But even when the riders get off the gravel there are a number of other potential traps that could make for a very demanding day out.

“One of the things about the Manawatu for those who haven’t been here is that sometimes it gets a bit windy and the gravel sectors are generally fairly well protected; whereas the bitumen sectors when they go up on ridges can blow about.  The extra bitumen when it’s windy will make it particularly hard,” Steve said.

The Levett Line sector is not expected to be decisive for the races tomorrow with a downhill start leading into a tough uphill climb.  Reason being because again after hitting the gravel there is another extended road section.  “Another change in the course is that rather than heading straight down to the river we’re going to take a left and go up Kimbolton.  That adds another 8km of bitumen again and allows us to have the race potentially come back together a bit.  The texture of the race is going to change, it’s not just about who the best gravel rider is.  It’s now giving the capacity for the race to come back together a bit for those who aren’t so strong on the gravel but are on the bitumen.  We hope that’ll change the race a little bit,” Steve told us.

“Once we get back down from Kimbolton towards Ridge Road which is a fair slog on gravel, at that point with 70km into the race things will start to sort itself out; and it’s much the same.  For the women’s race and the Slicks and Stones riders that’s where the going gets tough and the tough get going.  But the wind could play a big role, and the last few years it’s been hot; I wouldn’t mind a bit of rain to be honest.  That would calm the dust down and make it something a bit more European and a bit less Kiwi-Australian summer-ish.”

This year’s edition sees a lot more opportunities for the purer road riders to bring the race back together with a lot more tar kilometres, photo Ed Wright/RoadCycling.co.nz

Despite the longest of the sectors being the Ridge Road gravel stretch – a segment I have not so fond memories of myself – that’s not the biggest challenge of the five; that comes later and has as much to do with the nature of the surface as it does the fact that by that point everyone is just exhausted.

“I think the hardest sector is sector 4 on Midland Road to Watershed Road.  The reason is it’s windy, there are little hills, and at that particular point where you’re 100km into the race – and gravel riding is about skill, concentration and fitness – your concentration can go out the window and that’s where you crash.  Every year getting through that Midland Road-Watershed Road section is the hardest and then there’s the short flat final section along the Riverpath and the dreaded gravel pits.”

“It’s the corners on gravel – especially if it’s slightly downhill – that makes it hard and that’s what Midland Road is all about.”

The women’s race will depart from Fielding at 11am tomorrow, with the men following an hour later.  Get ready for plenty of fireworks that start tonight with the women’s criterium, and then let the battle commence!

For more information on the Gravel and Tar Classic click here.  For more information about the course and its layout check out the full race manual.

Photo: Colleen Sheldon

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