It was surprises all round in Day two of the Armstrong Motor Group Festival of Cycling as two young up and comers toppled a field of world champions, Olympians and national champions.
Christchurch threw up perfect racing conditions and a huge crowd for the second day of the Armstrong Motor Group Festival of Cycling. The Festival moved downtown for the exciting City Criterium around the Oxford Terrace cafe strip. The fast, flat, cut throat criterium format was expected to be dominated by world champions like Hayden Godfrey, Olympic medallists like Marc Ryan, former Olympians like Robin Reid and Heath Blackgrove, and form horses such as national criterium champion Rushlee Buchanan, recent World Cup gold medallist Tom Scully and yesterday’s Long Bays Classic champions, Jack Bauer and Cath Cheatley. But when the dust had settled it was two unheralded riders from Auckland and Australia who stood atop the podium.
Laura Luxford could hardly believe her luck when she shot through a gap in the final 100m to emerge as the unexpected winner of the Armstrong Motor Group women’s criterium today. “I came out of the last corner about fifth wheel,” she said after winning ahead of world top-10 Cath Cheatley. “I honestly didn’t think I could get up there, but a gap opened up and I went for it.”
Luxford played the perfect waiting game in a race that was affected by light rain and crashes. In an ominous start, the rain began as the riders were being introduced to the crowd. This led to a nervous opening 10min to the 30min race renowned for its tight corners and lightening fast straights. At one point three riders in three consecutive laps went down.
“It was pretty scary in the early laps,” said Luxford, who admitted that with only a year in the sport she has limited experience in the tactics and handling skills of top level criterium racing.
With the pace fluctuating wildly one rider after another tried to break away in the hope of being able to ride their own steady rhythm out front. Luxford was the first to try, but Cheatley and Nelson’s Jeannie Kuhajek combined to bring her back.
The series of crashes created a cautious few laps until national criterium champion Rushlee Buchanan tried a surprise move that was quelled after only a lap. Former national criterium champion Marina Duvnjak counter attacked past Buchanan and rode solo through the first sprint prime.
The sprint primes almost caused the most serious break of the day when Luxford and New Zealand’s Josie Giddens attacked. Duvnjak followed, but brought them back only after Luxford took the sprint prime.
Into the final 10min the racing became cagier until Queenstown’s Rachel Mercer tried to steal away. Mercer has been among the top 10 juniors in the world, so was a serious threat. Nailing the corners so fast her rear wheels skipped across the road, Mercer's break almost worked as Rushlee Buchanan sat on the front of the chase bunch waiting for someone else to chase while they waited for her to chase. Mercer soloed through the final sprint prime with six seconds in hand, but Cath Cheatley decided someone had to do something and stepped on the throttle for two laps to shut Mercer down with less than three laps to go.
It was this effort that possibly robbed Cheatley of the win. After passing Mercer she kept the pace high before drifting back into Marina Duvnjak’s draft as they started the last lap. Out of the last corner Cheatley, Duvnjak and Wellington’s
Emily Collins fanned out across the road into a long sprint. Luxford had their draft, but appeared shut out until a gap opened right in front of her. Like a seasoned pro she shot through it, rocketing past to win by a wheel from Cheatley, Collins and Duvnjak.
Despite only a year in the sport, Luxford already has a close affinity with New Zealand cycling. She is coached by former Kiwi Olympian Blair Stockwell, who lives now in Brisbane. Earlier this year she finished second in the Christchurch Le Race and yesterday she was second again to Cheatley in the Avanti Long Bays Classic.
The 23 year old came to cycling with a long sporting pedigree as an elite gymnast and triathlete. Her elder sister is triathlete Annabel Luxford, who is currently ranked fifth in the world. Injuries forced the younger Luxford into cycling, where she has tasted instant success and hopes to catch the eye of Australian selectors in their national championships in January.
Another rider catching the eye of selectors is Auckland teenager Alex Ray. Against a field full of established champions the 19 year old simply watched, waited and then sprinted. It was that simple.
With a race so full of talent the established stars spent their legs countering each other. Despite the roads having dried up crashes marred the race at crucial moments, with Olympian Robin Reid twice caught behind crashes and eventually retiring after spending his legs playing catch up.
In the end the race came down to a battle of teams. Ultimo’s Anthony Chapman and Jack Bauer attacked continually in the opening 15min of the 45min race, with Chapman stretching the field for Bauer to try and launch a break. But none of the breaks stuck as Team Bica Vida and Subway Avanti consistently brought them back.
Olympic bronze medallist Marc Ryan and Tour of Southland champion Heath Blackgrove worked well during the middle stages for the local Belgian Bar team. Ryan worked the bunch over with several attacks while Blackgrove sat back before launching himself at the 30min mark. Unfortunately no one joined Blackgrove and he was reeled in just after taking one of the Primes. Then in a classic pro move as the bunch came up on Blackgrove, Ryan launched himself as Blackgrove blocked.
But on a breezy day solo attacks weren’t likely to stick and as the bunch came up on Ryan, Subway Avanti’s Thomas Vink and James McCoy took a flyer. The two worked well together, taking the last prime for Vink, but then settling into defending their lead all the way to the finish line.
With two laps to go they were still leading, which should have meant one of them would win or Subway would get a free ride behind the chase bunch to launch specialist sprinter Hayden Godfrey. But a huge move by Heath Blackgrove shut them down in one lap and as the bell rang Blackgrove kept the pressure on, stretching the entire field single file on the back straight at close to 60k/hr.
Blackgrove’s move should have been tailor made to launch Mark Ryan, but the Ryan had been too far back at such high speed found himself unable to move up. This turned out to be the case for other favoured finishers such as Jack Bauer and Tom Scully, but not Hayden Godfrey.
Into the final corner Blackgrove saw Ryan wasn’t close and pulled wide to let the sprinters do their thing. Godfrey, a 2008 world champion on the track, is renowned internationally for his criterium ability and had enjoyed a free ride for most of the day as his team covered for him. So it should have been Godfrey’s day, and 50m out it looked it would be as he powered past national criterium champion Roman van Uden and Vink, until Auckland pocket rocket Alex Ray exploded off Godfrey’s wheel to claim a upset win for his Team Bica Vida.
At only 19 Ray illustrated a bike savvy beyond his years, showing his hand only when it mattered. “It was really messy early on and I wasn’t feeling good, so I just stayed away from the action until it settled down a bit,” he said.
“I started feeling better toward the finish and when Heath Blackgrove came past chasing that break I thought, ‘there’s my wheel’. When he went all the way to the last corner I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Asked if he had felt a bit over-awed early on against such a high powered field the quietly confident Aucklander shook his head. “No, I was quite crook yesterday and it took me a while to get going today. But I always back myself. You have balls against guys like this because they aren’t going to give you an inch. You have to be willing to make something happen for yourself.”