What's Cool In Road Cycling

The 2018 Gravel And Tar Classic

The New Zealand ‘Gravel & Tar Classic’ recently held its 3rd edition and for the first time this year it was classified as a UCI 1.2 event. 131 kilometres of rolling gravel and tar roads and tracks, set in the beautiful lower half of the North Island of New Zealand. Bob Selden was on hand to check out all the action from this up and coming race.

Contributed by Bob Selden

The New Zealand ‘Gravel & Tar Classic’ recently held its 3rd edition and for the first time this year it was classified as a UCI 1.2 event. 131 kilometres of rolling gravel and tar roads and tracks, set in the beautiful lower half of the North Island of New Zealand. Bob Selden was on hand to check out all the action from this up and coming race.

So, what’s unusual about this event? Well for starters, there is 40kms of gravel in the parcours including a brutal part towards the end of the race where the riders had to actually traverse a working gravel pit where road gravel is mined and crushed on a daily basis. Staged in around the city of Palmerston North the riders climb 1545m and have two torturous descents down a long gravel road that tests the best bike handlers to the limit. But there’s more to this event – the Gran Fondo and the River Bank Ride – even a Retro Ride – more on these shortly.

Back to the 2018 Gravel & Tar Classic – raced on Saturday 27th January. After finishing their five-stage New Zealand Cycle Classic Tour in the prior weekend, many of the leading elite cyclists from New Zealand and Australia arrived in Palmerston North in the Manawatu Region, to focus their attention on Bike Manawatu’s UCI Gravel & Tar Classic.

The Mobius-Bridgelane team from Australia travelled across to New Zealand for the trip and came away with the win

Eleven teams of five riders each started the race. Due to some of the roads being very narrow with a few on gravel or sand, smaller teams are essential to allow for team strategies to emerge over this challenging parcours. And strategies there were! Described as the toughest race in Oceania, just 26 riders out of 55 starters crossed the finish line.

Last year’s winner, Palmerston North’s Robert Stannard, riding for Bike Manawatu-Cyclista (and soon to join Mitchelton-Scott’s Under 23 Development Team for races in Europe this season), placed ninth in this year’s race, five minutes and 55 seconds behind the race winner, Australian Ethan Berends (Mobius-Bridgelane) having punctured at the top of the first climb.

“It was a pretty key part of the race and took a little bit of time to get a spare wheel. I spent the rest of the race chasing” said Stannard.

Robert Stannard trying to chase back to the front

The winner, Ethan Berends, who rode the race last year, said it was a team effort and, despite some close calls, they managed to stay on course. “The whole team did well. They put me in a good position for the whole race and I was able to pull it off in the end.” he said.

As you might expect in a race such as this, breakaways featured, almost from the gun, with one occurring before the first climb. “I had a teammate bridging the gap, so I was lucky enough to be able to sit at the end of the breakaway for a little while just to save the legs” Berends commented.

Taking in well deserved refreshments

One rider who can attest to the challenging conditions was pre-race favourite, Hayden McCormick, winner of last week’s New Zealand Classic and riding for the New Zealand National Team. McCormick had two punctures, the last one being 10kms from the finish when in the leading breakaway. He recovered well to finish third.

McCormick chasing after yet another puncture

However, despite a few close calls and going off the road a couple of times, the eventual winner, Berends said the saving grace for him was having no punctures. “It’s a pretty hard race. I was confident on the gravel, having done a lot of gravel since the Gravel & Tar Classic last year, knowing this gravel is loose stuff.”

GPM-Stulz’s Cameron Roberts pushing hard on the gravel

Getting back to the smooth roads was a relief for many

Testing out one of the five drones that were used in the race’s coverage

Battle scars…

The win for Berends’ Mobius-Bridgelane team, means valuable UCI points that will contribute to their entry into races in Europe and the U.S. later in the season.

Michael Torckler, of Blindz Direct, was in the leading breakaway and just got pipped on the final sprint to the line by Berends. “I had a good ride, but just didn’t have the legs for the final sprint. But I’ll be back next year” said Torckler.

Now for the Gran Fondo. Rarely do amateur riders get to ride part of the course, unless it’s the day before or early in the morning of the actual race. Well, if you’ve ever hankered to ride the course almost with the professionals, here’s your chance! The Gravel & Tar Classic starts at 1pm, with the Gran Fondo starting 15 minutes later on the same course.

The start of the Gran Fondo

Gran Fondo riders get to experience the vibe of a big race start line and then traverse about half of the route (70kms) with all the frills of the professional race – spectators, press, moto cameras, and so on – then finishing where the pros will finish about an hour later. Now that’s an experience not to be missed. There’s even presentations and spot prizes for Gran Fondo riders on the podium with the pros!

Oh, and of course, the Gran Fondo does include the short, but tough, 2km Valley Road climb and the two longest gravel sections of the Gravel & Tar Classic. These will challenge even the fittest riders and if you decide to try it, will certainly be something to tell your friends about.

If you or your support crew do not feel up to the 70kms Gran Fondo, there’s a 30km (flat) River Bank Ride (no gravel, but some lime based, easy riding tracks) that will suit the entire family. There’s even more fun – a Retro Ride – where antique bikes and cyclists dressed in period costume, take a leisurely ride through the city and then out along the beautiful Manawatu River, returning to Cycling Central before the start of the other festivities and events.

Having just moved to “Palmy” (as the locals call Palmerston North) myself, I can guarantee great riding and real cycling hospitality. If you feel like testing your legs at the 2019 Gravel & Tar Gran Fondo, come on down. Or maybe you have a retro bike or costume? Or if you’d just like to be a spectator at the ‘toughest race in Oceania’ consider the 2019 Gravel & Tar Classic as the place to be. Whatever your taste, we’ll welcome you to the Manawatu!

Check it out at https://gravelandtar.com/

2018 Gravel and Tar Top 10 Results:

1 Ethan Berends (Mobius BridgeLane) in 3.25.40
2 Michael Torckler (Blindz Direct)
3 Hayden McCormick (New Zealand National Team)
4 Steven Lampier (Blindz Direct) at 1:38
5 James Oram (New Zealand National Team)
6 Ben Hamilton (Team Skoda Racing) at 1:40
7 Angus Lyons (Mobius BridgeLane) at 4:17
8 Glenn Haden (Tank Guy / Bike Box)
9 Robert Stannard (Bike Manawatu – Cyclista) at 5:55
10 Luke Mudgway (New Zealand National Team).

Bob Selden is an organisational psychologist and the author of “Don’t: How using the right words will change your life”. He’s also previously worked as a coach to sports coaches at the New South Wales, Australia, Academy of Sport. He’s been a cyclist for many years and has recently helped his son and former Pez editor, Chris set up a cycling gite in the South of France, Hidden House

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