More riders needed to make spectacular cycle race viable

BRUTAL: Overall race winner Jeremy Yates carrying his bike over the line, in Te Anau township.
BRUTAL: Overall race winner Jeremy Yates carrying his bike over the line, in Te Anau township.

The Milford Mountain Classic may be New Zealand's most visually stunning road cycling race – the challenge for organisers now is to let the world know about it.

About 120 starters, 75 of whom did the full 120km Classic race from Milford Sound to Te Anau, entered Wednesday's inaugural event.

They will be the race's best promoters in the next few days and weeks as they tell their story about how they conquered the climb to the Milford Tunnel or survived the headwind from Te Anau Downs, all the while taking in some of the best views this country has to offer.

A race from Milford Sound has been mooted for some time and was raised at a Fiordland College PTA meeting 2 1/2 years ago as a potential fundraiser for the high school.

It was to have got under way in 2011, but a lack of entries saw it postponed for 12 months.

Funding from the Community Trust of Southland allowed the race to start on Wednesday after months of preparation, but more than twice the number of starters will be required next year to make the event viable, event director Matt Sillars said.

"We definitely need to step it up. We've had that seed funding from the Community Trust and we know times are tough in the tourism industry, so we can't take any [sponsorship] for granted. I think we need to go to 300-odd, maybe 120 for the shorter race and 160 or 180 for the Classic, with a few more logistics to look after those bigger numbers. It was probably ideal this year to have smaller number that was more manageable to sort out those little glitches."

Sillars said it was exciting to see the race finally get under way. "It was all about the logistics this time – that it was practical and safe, and that appears to be the case. We will no doubt get a detailed report from the roading guys, but they seem relatively happy."

The logistics of taking a race into the wild and relatively remote environment of Milford Sound cannot be understated.

The race was held midweek and started after 4pm to cause as little disruption to the tourist traffic as possible. To give an idea of the framework around the race, there were 1.2 signs and 2.2 cones for every rider.

Local volunteers worked alongside Sport Southland and Cycling Southland and feedback from the riders was almost overwhelmingly positive, a good sign for the event's future.

As for the course itself, the scenery is worth the ride, with views that rival anything we see on television during the Tour de France. The first 30km, and the first 16km climb to the Homer Tunnel in particular, require a high level of fitness – or at least a high level of stubbornness, as Ray Willett can attest after rolling into Te Anau at 11.30pm.

The Te Anau community has a history of hosting quality events and if the Milford Classic can capture the imagination of cyclists it could join the list of "must-dos" on the event calendar.

The Southland Times