Close to 1500 riders from seven countries take to bikes in Christchurch this weekend for the Armstrong Motor Group Festival of Cycling, among them some of New Zealand's brightest stars.
The festival kicks off on Saturday at McCormacks Bay Reserve in Redcliffs with the 80k Armstrong Motor Group Harbour Ride, the Avanti Long Bays Classic, the Benchmark Homes Kid's Mini Bays and a new mountain bike event on the historic trails of the Port Hills. The Harbour Ride is open to riders of all age and ability, while the Long Bays Classic is an elite-only affair with featuring Olympians, world and national champions.
Among the starters for the prestigious Avanti Long Bays Classic are recent Tour of Southland winner and runner up, Heath Blackgrove (Waimate) and Jack Bauer (Takaka). But defending champion Robin Reid (Nelson) will be keen to retain his title, and recent Round Taupo winner Patrick Bevan (Taupo) will be keen to carry that form to Christchurch and is bringing the support of his high profile Bica Vida team.
Other standouts include current national club champion Hayden Godfrey (ChCh) and Invercargill's man of the moment, Tom Scully, fresh from two gold medals at the UCI Track World Cup in Melbourne. But these two are more likely to feature on Sunday's Armstrong Motor Group Criterium.
Raced around the exciting Oxford Terrace circuit, the City Criterium has become a crowd pleaser for the Armstrong Motor Group Festival of Cycling. This year it is likely to be the most hotly contested event, with former winner and Olympic bronze medallist Marc Ryan (Timaru) adding his name to the start list. Athens Olympian Jason Allen is another taking on only the Criterium and along with his Subway Avanti team he is likely to ride in support of Hayden Godfrey, who is a specialist on these cut throat criteriums. But another with recent experience at the top level is Takaka's Jack Bauer, who spent most of 2009 cutting his teeth in the hotbed of world cycling in Belgium. But if New Zealand track squad teammates Ryan and Scully decide to team up, they'll be hard to beat.
It's hard to see anyone beating Cath Cheatley in Saturday's Avanti Long Bays Classic. The Beijing Olympian won the race last year in a last gasp finish against Australia Ruth Corset. Since then she has placed among the top 10 at the world road championships in Italy and appears to get better and better with every race.
Cheatley (Wanganui) won't have things all her own way. National reps such as Emma Crum (Auckland), Marina Duvnjak (Auckland) and Jeannie Kuhajek (Nelson) will mark her closely, while German-turned-Kiwi Britta Martin, a former pro cyclist turned pro triathlete, can't be discounted. But Cheatley herself will be watching a pair of Aussies in up and comer Laura Luxford and current Australian champion Carla Ryan.
If the Aussie pair decides to work together, they have the ability to share the spoils in both Saturday's Avanti Long Bays Classic and Sunday's Armstrong Motor Group City Criterium. Luxford, a former triathlete whose sister is ranked in the world's top 10, is new to the top level. But Ryan has tasted national success in road racing, time trial and criterium.
The women's criterium is very open, but the suspects above will have to watch for Rushlee Buchanan (Te Awamutu) and Rachel Mercer (Queenstown), two up and comers trying to turn their world class junior riding into world class open riding. Both have entered only for the criterium, so will have fresher legs, which in criterium racing is sometimes all you need for the home straight.
Amid all the world class racing, the Armstrong Motor Group Festival of Cycling is a fun-filled weekend of riding for all age and ability. The new mountain bike section has attracted almost 100 off road junkies, with former Olympic Kashi Leichs will face national rep Mark Leishman, while New Zealand number two Nic Leary is favourite for the women's race.