United States-based cyclist Heath Blackgrove has enjoyed the biggest day of his life, winning the 53rd PowerNet Tour of Southland before rushing off to get married.
His super-strong Zookeepers-Cycle Surgery team only had to cover the options on the final 65km stage into Invercargill after main rival Marc Ryan (Timaru, ColourPlus) missed the key break in the morning 79-km stage from Te Anau to Lumsden.
Blackgrove, the Waimate rider who competes for Team Hotel San Jose, had the luxury of enjoying the final three laps around Queens Park in Invercargill to savour his first major stage tour win, in a race that has become special to him.
The 28-year-old met local triathlete Sharyon Johns at the Zookeepers Cafe where she worked on the 2001 Tour of Southland. Blackgrove barely had time to complete the formalities after his victory before he was whisked away to marry Johns at the home of team manager Paul Clark.
“It’s obviously a big day for me,” Blackgrove said. “In terms of the race I am very proud to be a New Zealander to win this race. While I’ve won the nationals twice, this is the premier road race in the country and it’s eluded me until now.”
Blackgrove, who has twice finished third in the Tour, said the weather is the key factor and he was delighted to be able to bounce back after losing the tour leader’s yellow jersey midway through the tour.
“I had a great team around me and they really did it for me.”
Blackgrove, the Athens Olympian, fronted a strong combination including Beijing Olympians Sam Bewley (Rotorua), Wes Gough (Waipukurau) and Glen Chadwick, who lives in Europe, along with world rowing champion Hamish Bond (Cambridge).
He held a meagre 11 second lead into this morning’s eighth stage from Te Anau to Lumsden from Ryan with a minute back to Nelson’s Jack Bauer (Share The Road). However Ryan and his ColourPlus team missed the crucial break in the 79km stage. With the leading group of six riders, including Blackgrove, his teammate Chadwick, Bauer and under-23 leader Tom Findlay, rushing along at an average speed of nearly 55kph, the tour aspirations of Ryan, known as Dream, turned into a nightmare.
American Michael Olheiser (Jackson Plumbing) won the stage into Lumsden from Chadwick and Blackgrove, who had opened a generous buffer of more than a minute over Bauer and Findlay with the final 65km stage from Winton to Invercargill to contend with.
While the winds blew fiercely, Blackgrove’s team were always on the ball as a group of 25 riders broke clear before Frenchman Romain Fondard (Share The Road) took out the final stage in a sprint.
Blackgrove took the overall honours by 1m3s from Bauer with Findlay (Bici Vida) third at 1m16s,
Ryan fourth at 1m34s and Peter Latham (Bissell Pro) fifth at 2m45s.
It proved an outstanding performance from the 24-year-old Bauer, who held the yellow jersey for two days and impressed with his power on the flat and fortitude on the hills. The winner of nine races in Belgium this year moves to his first full professional contract with a UK-based Pro Continental team next year.
Findlay showed his considerable potential to win the under-23 honours which he dominated, while another talented young rider, Patrick Bevin (Taupo, Ascot Park Hotel), who competed in the world junior championships this year, took out the sprint honours as well as two stage victories. Zookeepers-Cycle Surgery easily won the team honours.
The high profile American Floyd Landis, caught in the chaos of the mass crash on the opening day, finally rode with prominence on the final two days to finish 17th overall.