Tradition and common wisdom says that endurance events are the realm of older more experienced athletes. But a host of young cyclists turned tradition on its ear in New Zealand’s toughest road cycling race, the Cranleigh K2.
More than 1200 riders from six countries and all ends of New Zealand lined up for the 13th Cranleigh K2 cycle classic. The gruelling 200k lap of the Coromandel Peninsula is unique in cycling circles in that it starts from a different Coromandel township every year.
This year racing got underway in Coromandel Town itself, opening with two short, sharp climbs before a sedate 40k along the Pohutukawa Coast to Thames and K2’s signature climb, the 14k long, 425m high Kopu-Hikuai Hill. Following 40k of downhill and flat through Tairua and Whitianga, the race finishes with a series of progressively tougher climbs over Pumpkin Hill, Kuaotunu and Whangaparoa before a downhill finish back at Coromandel Township.
Traditionally, the mountainous 200k lap of the Coromandel Peninsula is simply a test of the toughest. But at the top level road cycling can be as much a test of tactics as talent. And so it was for the 13th anniversary event where up and coming neo-pro, Josh Aldridge, saved his strength for when it mattered.
A year ago Aldridge had tried to steal K2 by sneaking away on the climbs, but faded to finish sixth. He did take consolation in winning the King of the Mountain title, but a year older and wiser he was happy to wait and make a move when it mattered most.
The opening kilometres were a non-committal affair with a 20-strong peloton, including defending champion Nick Lovegrove, keen to save energy in the opening 50k to Thames. The long climb up Kopu-Hikuai strung the bunch out, but it re-grouped on the descent. Aldridge, the clear favourite after a strong winter’s racing in the highly competitive Australian national series, tried to go it alone a few times but was shut down by riders teaming up against him. But leaving Tairua the race finally blew open when Hamilton’s Ryan Christiensen took a flyer at Pumpkin Hill.
Pumpkin Hill shredded the peloton and eight men went into the final three climbs of Kuaotunu, Myundermans and Whangapoa. Christiensen efforts netted him the King of the Mountain award and forced the chase bunch into action, but he couldn’t stay away. Then with less than 15k to go Josh Alridge took an unexpected flyer before Whangapoa climb.
With the chasers all wanting to save their legs for the final climb they watched and waited for someone else to chase as Alridge built a 20sec lead. As they hit the hill Auckland youngster Sam Lindsay made a now-or-never attack that got him to within a few seconds of Alridge only to have the leader find another gear and pull away again.
Over the top less than a minute separated the first three, with Hamilton’s Dean Peterkin closing in on Lindsay. Aldridge, however, was long gone as he hammered down the last descent into Coromandel to stop the clock with 30secs still in hand in 5hrs 29min 23secs.
“This is one I’ve been targeting for a few years,” said the clearly elated winner. “It’s one of my favourite courses in New Zealand, so it’s great to get a win.”
“It was pretty tough out there. I tried to get away a few times, but a couple teams wouldn’t let anyone get away. Then approaching the last climb no one wanted to do any work so I attacked and managed to get a gap and hang on to the finish.”
Behind Aldridge, Sam Lindsay held off Dean Peterkin by 16secs, while defending champion Nick Lovegrove settled for seventh this time around.
While the elite race was a tactical watch-and-wait affair, the open K2 race saw a strong bunch of riders work together for a faster finish time as former national rep Karl Murray (Akld) took line honours in 5hrs 23min 09secs, 13secs ahead of world veteran champion Jim McMurray (Akld).
New Zealand rep triathlete Rebecca Kingsford (Tirau) was first woman. Looking for some quality training miles, Kingsford chose the 200k rather than the elite Women’s Halycon K1 race over 100k. Finishing 44th overall she recorded the second fastest ever female 200k time with 5hrs 49min 57secs.
As well as the feature Cranleigh K2, the Halycon K1 over 100k, the Focus K150 and Nicholas Browne 50k offer options for all age and ability. 2014 also saw the return of K4, where some 40 riders took on a gruelling two lap, 400k ride.
The K1 runs from Tairua to Coromandel and doubles as the elite women’s race, which saw Hastings Hannah van Kampen defend her title. Much like last year van Kampen outclassed her competition on the last climbs and crossed the line two minutes clear of Auckland’s Ruby Livingston in 2hrs 50min 39secs. Third placed Hannah Gumbley was four minutes further back, but kicked off a strong family theme in this year’s race as her 15 year old sister Rebecca won the associated Nicholas Browne Memorial 50k event.
The Focus 150, Halycon K1 and Nicholas Browne 50k were all dominated by teenagers. Fifteen year old Aucklander Nicholas Young won the 50k from Whitianga to Coromandel ahead of 13 year old Bay of Plenty rider Campbell Browne in 1hr 39min 19secs. Interestingly, the 50k race saw six teenage girls in the top 10 overall, with Gumbley first, five minutes ahead of Cambridge 15 year old Nia Dixon in 1hr 42min 17secs. Although Dixon must have taken consolation in beating her father Colin.
Waimauku teenager Sam Wightman also beat his father Sam in the Focus 150 from Thames to Coromandel. But even more impressively he won the race outright in 4hrs 27min 11secs, four minutes clear of Auckland veteran Dave Williamson. Sarah Thompson was first woman in 5hrs 08min 24secs, eight minutes ahead of fellow Aucklander Bridgette Haysom.
The open K1 race was another teenage affair, with 15 of the top-20 aged under 19. In an exciting finish, Auckland’s Connor Brown outsprinted Tauranga’s Tom Carter. Both riders recorded 2hrs 31min 21secs, with Carter second for the second consecutive year. Cambridge 16 year old Sophie Pulford made short work of the women’s race, finishing six minutes clear of Madelaine Park in a time (2hrs 51min 34secs) that would have placed her second in the elite women’s race.
One of the highlights was seven hardy souls keeping their streaks alive as the only riders to have finished every K2. Rob McLeod (Orewa), John Cottingham (Morrinsville), Darren Donnelly (Thames), Dennis Magness (Milford), Alastair Borwick (Akld), John Badger and David Blanchett (Ham) all finished their 13th K2, with Borwick and Magness actually racing the K4.
The 400k race started at 10pm on Friday and raced strong winds and rain during the night before finding sunshine on Saturday. While youngsters dominated the other racing the K4 podium were all over 40 years old with Auckland’s Murray Arthur taking line honours in 13hrs 07min 31secs and Cambridge Matt Douglas and Hamilton’s Scott Adern finishing next in the same time of 13hrs 53min 10secs. Cambridge’s Genelle Willers was first woman in 15hrs 27min 19secs, with Auckland’s Tracey Parke second.
Another K2 repeat offender was Olympic gold medal rower, Mahe Drysdale. The London Olympic gold medallist and five time world champion finished in a respectable 6hrs 25min 16secs.
While no records were broken among the elite winners, well-known cycling aficionados, Gary Ulmer and Donald Worrall became the oldest K2 finishers, finishing in a few ticks over 7hrs 30min. Thames riders Darren Donnelly and Michael Jones also became the first riders to break six hours on a tandem, finishing in 5hrs 56min 10secs, while Coromandel township retirees Willem Lakman, Phil Brown, Pete Stephton and Sue Swan were popular finishers.
No one got a bigger cheer, however, than Team Gascoigne Racing. Until a few days ago the group of riding mates, led by Cambridge’s cycling-mad Gascoigne family were taking on K4 as a fundraiser for Hamilton cancer patient, Angela Sunkel, a family friend who was hoping to travel to the USA for stem cell transplant treatment. Unfortunately, Mrs Sunkel passed away earlier this week and they attended her funeral the day before K2 where they decided to race in her memory.