Waimate professional Heath Blackgrove regained the tour leader’s yellow jersey on a pivotal, penultimate day of the PowerNet Tour of Southland.
The Zookeepers-Cycle Surgery rider took advantage of outstanding tactics from his team as key teams including that of the previous leader Jack Bauer (Share The Road), Subway Avanti and US-based Bissell Pro all missed the vital early break on the 165km leg from Winton to Te Anau.
A group of 15 riders broke clear early and most remained intact for more than 150kms before brilliant junior Patrick Bevin (Taupo, Ascot Park Hotel) outsprinted a group of experienced riders to claim his second stage of the tour.
It also virtually assured the teenage Taupo rider with the overall sprint honours with two stages remaining to Invercargill tomorrow.
Blackgrove finished fourth in the same time to reclaim the lead that he relinquished when he missed the break on stage five from Tuatapere.
Tomorrow’s final two stages will be a monumental battle with Blackgrove holding just an 11 second advantage over Olympic track medallist Marc Ryan (Timaru, ColourPlus) with the honours likely to be decided between the two cycling heavyweights.
Bauer is now 1m 07s behind in third and Bissell’s best, Peter Latham is 1m 32sec down. Both will need a massive effort and upset to reach the top of the podium.
“We knew it would be an important day, the second longest stage in a row, and our tactics were to outsmart Jack’s team,” Blackgrove said.
“The break came earlier than we expected but we had two riders in the break and with Marc Ryan also there, who was high up on GC, I could not have hoped for a better bunch. We all worked hard to keep clear.
“It was a surprise that Bauer’s team, Bissell and Subway missed that break.”
Blackgrove, the Athens Olympian, said while he could have worked harder for the stage win, he was really focussed on the yellow jersey.
“That was the most important thing. It was still tight over the last 5km and I concentrated on working hard to maximize the time difference.”
Blackgrove said he was disappointed to lose the yellow jersey on day three and expects a huge battle tomorrow.
“This Tour has often been won or lost on the last stage so I expect it will go down to the wire. I have faith in my team to provide the cover and get me home.”
The leading pack opened an advantage of nearly four minutes with 50km remaining and while the peloton worked exceptionally hard, contenders Bauer and Latham lost more than two minutes to the leaders.
American Floyd Landis showed up for the first time to ride prominently in the front pack, finishing ninth to move to 14th overall on general classification, nearly 12 minutes behind the leader.
Zookeepers-Cycle Surgery extended their advantage in the teams’ battle and now have a seemingly safe 10m 25s advantage over Bici Vida, while Australian Ben King (Calder Stewart) has an iron grip on the king of the mountains title.
The final day will be decided with a morning 79km stage from Te Anau to Lumsden and 65km stage from Winton to Invercargill in the afternoon.