20-year-old Ben O’Connor claimed his first UCI tour yellow jersey following a dominant display during the five-day UCI 2.2 New Zealand Cycle Classic which concluded in the Wairarapa, New Zealand, this afternoon.
Like previous tour winners him including Julian Dean, Robbie McEwen and Hayden Roulston, O?Connor looks certain to be one of the next young riders to make an impact on the international stage.
Making his debut in this tour with Avanti IsoWhey Sports, O?Connor finished top of the general classification points ladder in 15hr52mins54secs, 31 seconds ahead of his Avanti team mate Mark O?Brien while Englishman Stephen Williams, racing for JLT Condor, was third overall.
There was no denying how happy he was after upon being presented his yellow jersey in Masterton – his smile was a mile wide.
?It?s unbelievable. I am super relieved to get through today and the Avanti one, two ? we couldn?t have done any better, I am super happy,? said O?Connor.
His comments came after a day of fast and furious racing during the fifth and final stage of the tour – a 122km route that took riders through rolling countryside north east of Masterton.
The final stage was eventually won by State of Matter/MAAP?s Mike Cuming from Australia, who came off the front of a breakaway group with 10km to go. Cuming managed to hold onto his lead heading and crossed the finish line in 2hrs51mins04secs, seven seconds ahead of New Zealander and current road cycling champion Jason Christie, racing for Kenyan Riders Downunder Australia, and team-mate Jesse Kerrison. This was followed by a group of 17 riders five second behind which included O?Connor and O?Brien; ONE Pro Cycling?s James Oram, Dion Smith and Hayden McCormick and New Zealand National team member Michael Vink.
With valuable GC points on the line O?Connor said he knew it would be a tough day.
?(The other teams) threw everything at us ? it was unbelievably tough,? he said. ?There was a little bit of cross wind today and short punchy climbs out there and it left us isolated. The first half, the boys rode brilliantly and then we went to get some bottles and there were some cheeky moves made, which left the boys out, and left me and Mark to try and nurse her home.?
?You?re kind of hoping for an easy (final) day where it?s all nice and controlled and have a team bunch sprint but that didn?t happen at all today. That?s bike racing, that?s what makes it such a great sport,? said O?Connor.
Cuming said he knew he had the stage win in the bag with 1km to go.
?I looked around over my shoulder and knew there was a bit of distance there, so just went for it,? he said.
Prior to that, however, it could have been any number of riders to take the win with an active peloton chasing several breakaway groups featuring riders from ONE Pro Cycling, Kenyan Riders DownUnder, Oliver?s Foods and Data#3 Cisco Racing.
?It was non-stop today. Our break got away and got two minutes but it was just real hard all day. There were little splits going and with the cross winds and stuff it was tough ? you could even say it was painful,? said Cuming.
Christie, who finished second across the line, was thrilled to end the tour on the podium. It comes just after a week of being crowned New Zealand National Road Cycling Champion.
?The whole week wearing the National Champ jersey I?ve been a target in the race. I can?t move without 10 guys following me, but today I managed to get into the break and had a team mate there with me, Morgan Smith, and we kept riding steady. Then the peloton split in half and then there was another split with 15km to go so I jumped across to the front group and finished second. I just love riding in the heat.?
Also finishing their tour on a high was State of Matter who won the overall team classification finishing 16 seconds ahead of runner-up ONE Pro Cycling and third place Data #3 Cisco third.
Kiwi Ryan Christensen, racing for Oliver?s Real Food, won the Mitre 10 Mega King of the Mountain Jersey two points ahead of Avanti?s Sam Crome; Australian Dylan Newberry, racing for Data #3 won the Fagan Motors Sprint Ace jersey two points clear of Cuming and O?Connor also won the Ricoh U23 jersey 34 seconds ahead of JLT?s Stephen Williams.
At the presentation ceremony race director Jorge Sandoval thanked the New Zealand Police who helped make the event safe for riders and the public; UCI representative Peter Tomlinson; Destination Wairarapa, the regional tourism organisation; Trust House, NZ Community Trust; sponsors and all volunteers who?d helped out during the week. Sandoval also said he looked forward to staging the event again in 2017.
Meanwhile Huri Huri: Wairarapa?s Bike Festival being held in conjunction with the New Zealand Cycle Classic continued this weekend. In fact on Saturday four of our pro team riders who were unable to continue the tour after being timed out took part in the Pedal for Parkinsons Cycle Race.
Carl Wells and Chris Sanson from Bikebarn, Charles Salmon from MCS Cycling and Alex West from Team Seasucker were happy to ride with ?weekend warriors? who completed the road race around Gladstone and that finished atop of Admiral Hill. The quartet said it was great to support a good cause and be given the opportunity to keep the legs turning over.
The four pro riders stayed with the main bunch through the first 60km of the ride until they got to Admiral Hill when they showed they’re class. West cleared off and lead the way to the top of Admiral Hill.
Catherine Rossiter-Stead, Huri Huri Festival organiser said she was so pleased to see these pro riders out mixing with the community in such a worthwhile event.