In just five years Coromandel's K2 road cycling classic has established itself as one of New Zealand's must-do events. In 2006 more than 1200 riders lined up for what the cycling community consider to be the toughest road cycling event in the country.
The 200k lap of Coromandel Peninsula is as savage as it is scenic, with more than 2000 metres of vertical climbing offsetting the scenic mix of bush and beaches. The event format is also unique: with the start/finish alternating annually between the four major Coromandel Peninsula townships, the demands and tactics of the race change every year.
With three times K2 champion Glen Mitchell not returning from the US to defend his streak, this year's K2 was wide open. On such a mountainous course climbing specialists like Auckland's Aaron Strong and Wairarapa's Scott Lyttle were tipped as the one's the watch. But after a race of non-stop attacking and counter attacking it was track specialist Fraser McMaster who proved strongest.
Starting in Coromandel township this year, the route opened with two tough climbs in the first 15k and then 40k of flat riding along the Firth of Thames coastline to Thames. With so much flat riding before the serious climbs no one was expecting a break away, which was exactly why Tokoroa's Justin Kerr managed to take a flyer.
Smacking a big gear up the two 2k climbs over Kerata Hill, Kerr quickly opened up two minutes on a big chase bunch behind. With the truly tough riding still to come no one was keen to organise a chase and the bunch stayed together all the way through Thames to the base of Kopu-Hikuai, the biggest climb in the race.
Tucked almost anonymously in the middle of this bunch during the early kilometres was lead woman Linda Villumsen, a 21 year Danish professional who is considered one of the big up and comers on the international women's scene.
Villumsen broke through at the highest level this year when she won the Route de France Feminine, the women's Tour de France. The European time trial champion is currently enjoying her off-season travelling and training in New Zealand and decided to enter K2 just a few days before the start.
Although not in top race fitness Villumsen outclassed New Zealand reps Michelle Hyland and Gina Waible and would eventually stop the clock at 6hrs 3min 58sec. But early in the race she impressed onlookers by staying close to the front bunch as they chased early leader Justin Kerr.
It was at the 60k mark, at the base of Kopu-Hikuai, that the race began in earnest. The 14k long, 500m high Kopu-Hikuai Hill is the single biggest climb at K2. In past years it has decided the winner, but with such a strong field this year it served simply to cause an elite selection as five riders broke clear, caught Kerr, and established their own break away.
The quintet included climbing specialist Aaron Strong, elite triathletes Kieran Doe and Matt Gilbert, national under-23 time trial and mountain bike champion Clinton Avery and McMaster. They stayed clear on the long descent back down to the Pacific Ocean and through Tairua, which marked halfway. Behind them, however, a second chase bunch of 12 riders had formed and worked well along the rolling coastline to catch the leaders at Whitianga.
With 40k remaining the 26-strong bunch sat up to eat and drink before this tough final section of the race. Sitting on the outside of the bunch Fraser McMaster decided this might be a good time to shake things up and rolled off the front to see who was keen.
It turned out no one was keen and in the space of 8k McMaster opened up two and half minutes. With five tough climbs this final 40k is the toughest section at K2 and no one in the bunch thought McMaster, a track specialist, would last all the way by himself.
On the first climb over to Kuaotunu, however, he held on to his margin. On the three smaller climbs after that the chase bunch was broken apart by an attack from Auckland's Geoff Burndred and Stratford's Brett Tivers.
After a fourth place in last weeks national road championship, Tivers had good form coming into K2. Burndred, who rides professionally in the U.S., is also a class act and the two worked well to cut McMaster's lead in half as they hit the final climb, where the Rotorua rider attacked in a last ditch effort to bridge across to the leader.
On the 6k long, 400m high Whangapoua Hill, Burndred got to within 30secs of McMaster. But with less than 10k go, and all of it either downhill or flat, he wasn't likely to reel in the fast man. And so it proved as McMaster crossing the line with arms aloft and 20secs still in hand as the clock stopped at 5hrs 17min 26sec.
McMaster's first win at K2 puts him firmly in the driver's seat as an early favourite for next week's Tour of Southland.
Organised by Adventure Racing Coromandel - community based outdoor events organisation who also organise the popular Moehau Man multisport race, ARC adventure race, Intrigue mountain bike event and the Kauri Run - K2 takes it's name from the 200km distance and the Coromandel township of Kuaotunu, which in Maori means "to inspire fear in young animals." And that's exactly what it did to the 1200 riders who completed the 200k epic this year.
For full results see http://www.arcevents.co.nz/k2cycle/race_coverage.html