The pressure was piled upon Bolton Equity Black Spoke’s Mark Stewart today by numerous teams … and yet, he responded to everything thrown at him.
So much so, the Scottish road and track cyclist, who has been living in New Zealand since the first lockdown, came away with the UCI 2.2 New Zealand Cycle Classic stage 4 victory, the King of the Mountain Jersey and he retained the yellow jersey by 38 seconds over St George Continental’s Ollie Jones, and another 10 seconds over New Zealand National teammates Laurence Pithie and George Bennett.
In the searing Wairarapa heat, atop Te Wharau Hill in Gladstone, Stewart told the appreciative crowd he wanted to pay respect back to the country and people who have adopted him.
“New Zealand has adopted me over the years, and I wanted to come here and put on a good show and I hope I did that,” he said.
Stewart finished the gruelling 137.2km stage, which included five significant hill climbs and fast descents with riders reaching speeds of up to 100km/hr, in 3hrs 26mins 22 seconds. Jones crossed the line in second place while Bennett finished third six seconds later. Stewart paid tribute to his teammates who ensured he absorbed every attack that began right from the get-go.
“I came last year and really enjoyed the hard course. I think it lends itself to really aggressive racing. Last year I thought, I’d really love to target this race and it worked out pretty well. It was nice to have team mates today to do the work for me … the boys gave it everything, so it was nice to deliver at the end. The harder they went, the better I felt so it was a nice day for me.”
The action in today’s race began early when six riders including Nick Kergozou (St George), Shane Archbold (NZL), Raphael Amouroux (Trust House), Finnegan Murphy (Fagan Motors), Myles Gibson (ITM), and Kiann Watts (NZL Selection) formed a break away and had three minutes on the peloton heading up Te Wharau Hill for the first time. By the time the riders hit 33km, this group had splintered with Kergozou, Archbold and Watts leading the Tour for the next 20 or so kilometers. Behind the peloton was driven hard by Bennett, St George and Black Spoke riders.
After winning the only sprint of the day, Kergozou dropped back, shortly followed by Archold and Watts. Nearing the 95km mark, the race had changed considerably with St George’s James Harvey and Mito Q’s Theo Gilbertson taking the lead, racing hard in the hot conditions. The duo were eventually caught at the 3km to go mark – near the base of the final hill climb, known locally as “The Wall” due to its steep gradient.
Stewart found his legs on this final climb and worked tirelessly to stay ahead of Bennett, Pithie and Jones. With about 10m to go, Stewart knew he had the victory and threw his arms out in sheer relief, later telling the crowd as the day’s pressure had built and built, he was so relieved to have delivered for his team and all his supporters.
Harvey, whose hard work earlier in the stage earned him the Most Aggressive Jersey, said his team had a clear strategy for today’s “Queen Stage”.
“We hoped Nick would get the sprint and he did, but the main goal for us was to protect Campbell and Ollie for the GC and they had a really good day today,” he said. “It was pretty aggressive from the Cycling New Zealand boys in the first laps so I just assumed that was going to continue just them attacking Black Spoke and trying to isolate Mark. We tried to attack and extend our lead. We did that for a while, but it just got a bit too hard out there.”
Laurence Pithie said his New Zealand mates also heaped the pressure on Stewart.
“We were tying to make it a hard race all day and isolate Mark and put him under pressure all day. Of course, he’s such a strong man at the moment he gave us a big challenge. We couldn’t quite get there in the end, but it was a good day.”
In today’s other classification jerseys, Pithie won the U23/Young rider jersey and Kergozou retained the green Sprint Ace.
The fifth and final stage of the NZ Cycle Classic will be held on Sunday and include a circuit around Wellington’s streets, including along Lambton Quay. Prior to this, there will also be an opportunity for recreational riders to participate in a fun event called Cycle the Golden Mile, which debuted this year and was very successful with riders of all abilities taking part on a variety of different bicycles – including a Penny-farthing.