World Tour riders confident of showing at Vantage National Road Champs



A later race date is expected to encourage the burgeoning number of New Zealand World Tour and UCI Pro riders to post a more competitive challenge for the prized kiwi jersey at the Vantage National Road Cycling Championships in Cambridge this week.

Dion Smith in action for Mitchelton-Scott

The traditional New Year’s date had been a road block for the leading international professionals who had barely started training with their focus on the European season, but the mid-February timing means most have some racing in their legs after the opening round of UCI racing across the Tasman.

It has brought the likes of George Bennett (Jumbo Visma), Shane Archbold (Deceuninck Quick Step), and the Mitchelton Scott pair of Dion Smith and Sam Bewley, along with some strong riders from UCI Pro Teams in the men with more form to match their credentials.

It is the same for the females where UCI World Tour riders Georgia Williams (Mitchelton Scott) and Ella Harris (Canyon SRAM) are joined by UCI Continental team riders Sharlotte Lucas (TIBCO SVB), Grace Anderson (BePink), Mikayla Harvey and Niamh Fisher-Black (Bigla Katusha) and Jenna Merrick (Doltcini-Van Eyck) and Nicole Shields (DNA Pro Cycling) in an exciting new era for Kiwi women.

The new date goes with a new venue in Cambridge which hosts the championships with the time trials set for Friday and the road races on Sunday while the RIDE Festival competitions for recreational riders takes place on Saturday.

The time trials over 20km for women and 39km for men start from 10am on Friday on a course based at Podium Lodge on Peake Road near the Avantidrome.

The road races will see women (108km) and men (174km) compete on the same day taking in two rural loops including Scotsman’s Valley Road and French Pass before returning for laps around the Cambridge Town circuit.

With Patrick Bevin (CCC Team) recovering from illness, the 2018 champion Hamish Bond has stepped out of his row boat to seek a second elite men’s title with contenders including Hayden McCormick (Black Spoke) third last year, Bennett fourth and Jake Marryatt (Moore Stephens Markhams) fifth along with Jason Christie (Aisan Racing) and James Oram (Black Spoke) all in with a shout.

In the elite women, Williams will chase a third straight time trial title with interest from last year’s under-23 runner-up Georgia Christie and IRONMAN star Teresa Adam. There are some exciting under-23 hopes including defending champion Merrick, last year’s third placed Libby Arbuckle (Manawatu) and fourth placed Harvey.

The road races will pose some interesting questions with some stern climbs early in the road race on the two big country loops but some fast and largely flat town loops that present a kermesse-style final component.

The 26-year-old Aucklander, Dion Smith believes the course could suit him. The Mitchelton-Scott Wold Tour rider has impressed in his first year at the top of the sport, including two Tours de France and the Vuelta a Espana.

“I like my chances but do not want to get too over-confident because it is a strong field of World Tour guys and some domestic riders. I am fairly confident in myself and I have a teammate in Sam Bewley there doing well,” said Smith.

He says that recent racing will help the likes of Bennett, Bewley and Archbold.

“You never know until the day. But it is better this year than having no racing in the legs. Technically it should make quite a difference, at least to me personally but you never know how you are going to feel until the day

“I have come close a couple of times but the more I have got into the pro ranks then the priorities changed and you have to peak a bit later in the season. Not being fit enough for nationals in the last two years has had an effect.”

Smith is driven by the thought of wearing the national jersey in Europe.

“It would be sweet to wear the national jersey. One day I would love to wear it. You have to do your best and try each year. It would be great for myself and my team. Going off what Georgia Williams looked like wearing the national jersey last year, it would be pretty sweet to wear.”

But he is unsure how the racing will pan out on the course.

“There’s a lot of climbing at the start and a lot of flat at the finish that will make for an interesting race. It is quite a long way from the finish after the final climb over French Pass and you don’t want to go too hard too early. You need to find that balance to make that select group and on the flat make the right moves at the right time.”

No doubt all the World Tour riders – Smith, Bewley, Bennett and Archbold - should pose some threats, while some of the other teams including the new Black Spoke team, have the benefit of strength in numbers.

Jason Christie is a two-time winner which can’t be ignored while Dylan Kennett and mountain biker Sam Gaze have credentials in the elite men.

With last year’s overall winner James Fouche out injured, the under-23 title will be a tight contest with strong combinations from Black Spoke and Skoda Fruzio teams who should control the pace and tactics, and interest in exciting young stars Finn Fisher-Black, Drew Christensen and Connor Brown, who will all ride for World Tour development teams this year.

Williams is hoping she has returned to full fitness after a fall in Australia to chase a second elite women’s road race crown with strong competition from defending champion Christie, Lucas, Anderson and Oceania mountain bike champion Samara Sheppard who finished top-10 in the recent Herald Sun Tour, track star Jessie Hodges and the experienced Kate McIlroy.

The big charge may come from the under-23 pack with real interest in Dunedin’s Ella Harris, after her first pro victory in the Herald Sun Tour and a stellar first year on the World Tour.

Sunday’s road races start at 8am (women) and 9.30am (men) based from the Cambridge Town Centre.