French connection the key
Nelson cycling's relationship with the VCC Morteau-Montbenoit race team is maturing like a fine French wine.
Nelson has had a cyclist based in the Swiss-border French town of Morteau every year since George Bennett rode for the road cycling team of the 2009 vintage. In 2013 three Nelsonians will don the purple race lycra of the French team.
The three travelling Tasman Wheelers, who will ride for the Village Cycles team in Nelson's Tour de Vineyards next week are Matt Black (under-19), Tom Filmer and Daniel Ellison (under-23).
They will all leave on February 13, travelling together to Geneva before heading to the south of France, where they will train while waiting for the snow to melt in Morteau.
The Kiwi riders have clearly impressed the French club's manager, Oran Locatelli, as he will have five New Zealanders riding for him next year. The others are Chad Elliston and Scott Ambrose, from Auckland. Blended with five French riders, the New Zealanders will make up half the team of 10.
The relationship between the Nelson riders and the Morteau club in France started with Bennett, who now rides for the professional team Radioshack Trek Nissan. Kieran Hambrook made the journey in 2010 and Joel Macmillan last year.
This year Hambrook's younger brother Sean was based in the small town, which has a population of only 6500 people. With Kieran signed to ride for a Belgium team in 2013 and Sean in the development squad of a pro team, the opportunity to ride for a European team has propelled Nelson's riders onto the top international stage.
Although his French vocabulary is limited to "just one word", the significance of the foreign break is not lost on the trio's youngest member.
"It is a really good stepping stone, in terms of getting opportunities to race week, in, week out against good competition," said Black.
"First of all I want to gain experience at that level of racing and second I want to get results that sets up a pathway to where George [Bennett] is now.
"In saying that, even going to Europe and riding for this amateur team would not have been possible without the guys who have gone before us . . . They really opened the door for us and a lot more guys to go overseas."
The astute teenager was also using this sojourn as a lifestyle trial.
"It's also about seeing whether that lifestyle in Europe is for you. Because if it's not for you and you don't enjoy it then you won't want to be a professional cyclist.
"The other guys who have been there said the hardest thing was probably the downtime and the cultural aspect . . . the guys from the past have just gone over by themselves.
"The best thing about how we are doing it, is that I am going over with a couple of mates and some other guys I know from around the country."
Black has had a great deal of success in 2012. He won the under-19 section of the Marlborough 80km champs and came second overall. In the Nelson 40km champs, Black came first overall.
In the Tour of Southland 2012 Black finished seventh in the junior section, and in last month's Source to Sea race, the 17-year-old Nelson College leaver finished second overall, to VCC team-mate Ellison.
Ellison won the 100-mile (160-kilometre) race from St Arnaud to Carters Beach, Westport, leading home the 330 participants, including Golden Bay Olympic road cyclist Jack Bauer.
Filmer, who is also a keen mountainbiker, has already had a taste of the European trappings this year. The Mountain Bike New Zealand rep spent several weeks in Switzerland and France warming up for the mountainbike world championships in Austria in August.
Jill Ellison, of the Tasman Wheelers, said the strength of the club has helped keep the gifted young athletes on track. "Our club Tasman Wheelers is fortunate to have such high quality racing which helps our young riders develop their racing skills.
"We put a team into the Benchmark series each year to allow our young riders to develop further."
The Nelson Mail