Cycling Southland will face its sternest test in recent years to retain the national points shield when the national age group championships start next Tuesday.
The symbol of track cycling supremacy has spent the off-season at Stadium Southland Velodrome for the past five years but Southland will need to turn around a five-point deficit after the elite and under-19 championships held in Invercargill three weeks ago.
Auckland leads the table on 59 points, thanks largely to Aaron Gate's domination of the elite men's endurance events and the sprint trio of Simon van Velthooven, Sam Webster and Ethan Mitchell. Southland sits second on 54 with Canterbury in third on 30.
The burden of keeping up the south's proud recent tradition rests with a 65-strong squad of junior and masters riders, the largest in number of the 10 centres at the championships.
Cycling Southland Coaching Co- ordinator and team manager Dale Tye is confident of another strong showing. "Our squads have had a thorough buildup with quality track racing over the last few months and they are looking strong, fast and ready to go.
"We've got close to maximum entries across all grades and it's particularly pleasing to see another strong masters (35 years and older) contingent. Most of our under-17s are in their first year in the age category and have really stepped up while our under-15s include lots of new riders who have come through our velodrome learner programmes and are now racing at national level."
Southland looks set to dominate the masters women's categories with nine of the 13 entrants from the host centre, including Erin Criglington (masters 1) and Jacqui Dearlove (masters 2), both undefeated in their age categories.
The masters men categories shape as being even, with interest surrounding the return of world record holder Reon Park. The Mid South Canterbury stalwart set the New Zealand record in the masters 1 men individual pursuit in March of 2009 before going over 4 seconds faster to win gold at the World Masters Championships in Sydney later that year.
Another Mid South Canterbury team member, Jack Ford, looms as the one to beat in the under-17 boys' field with West Coast North Island youngster Campbell Stewart looking to follow his title- winning deeds from last year's under-15 category. Cycling Southland fields one of its strongest squads in this age group, headed by Tom Sexton, Hayden Strong, Hamish Beadle and Brayden Stephens. Makayla Smith will lead the under-17 girls' squad with first-year Emma Cumming.
Kain Bowles has looked in supreme form recently in the under- 15 boys and looms as a strong medal chance.
The elite women and under-19 men and women back-up from their track nationals earlier in the month to contest their respective omniums. A trio of 2012 Junior Worlds representatives in Racquel Sheath (Auckland), Alysha Keith (Otago) and Cassie Cameron (West Coast North Island) will look for a winning start to their elite racing careers. Sheath won a bronze medal in the event at last year's Junior World Championships and may repeat those deeds against Olympian Jaime Nielsen (Waikato-Bay of Plenty) and Liz Steel (Canterbury), with Southland's interests represented by Kirstie James.
Southland's Josh Haggerty will start the under-19 men's omnium as one of the favourites, along with East Coast North Island's Regan Gough, while Laura Heywood will hope to take another step towards Junior Worlds selection in the women's event.
The Age Group Championships begin on Tuesday at 6.30pm with daily sessions at 10am and 6.30pm from next Wednesday (26th) to Saturday (2nd).
Tickets, including discounted event passes to all five days, are available at Stadium Southland.
- The Southland Times