Tour of Southland under way

Let the Tour begin

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 09:39 28/10/2012
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ROBERT CHARLES/Fairfax NZ
Taranaki rider Michael Torckler.

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Every rider in the Tour of Southland has got a story about how they came to be on the start line but few have a better one than Taranaki rider Michael Torckler.

The 25-year-old was almost killed in a hit-and-run accident while out training in California in June but just four months later he will take on a quality field and the Southland elements in what is New Zealand's most prestigious stage race.

Torckler was flying down Pine Flat road, a winding and quiet no-exit descent which is popular with local cyclists, when he was struck by a car travelling in the opposite direction.

The driver, Arthur Ben Yu, fled the scene but was later arrested after his flatmate called police.

Yu is facing more than 10 years in jail for four felonies including hit-and-run, reckless driving causing injury, car theft and possession of stolen property.

Torckler, who had won the Tour of Borneo the previous month, was left in a critical condition with multiple facial fractures and a broken hand.

But it could have been worse. Five cyclists had been killed in the same area in the six weeks leading up to Torckler's accident.

He remembers nothing of the crash, which could have cost him his life, or at the very least a promising cycling career and he holds no animosity against the driver.

For Torckler, the past four months have been about going about the business of re-establishing himself as a professional bike rider.

''Things have been going pretty smoothly, which is awesome,'' Torckler said.

''I've done a few races and done a few big training rides and I'm really happy with how things are going. I still can get a little bit tired if I've done a race or a big training ride, but other than that things are really good.''

Despite the extent of his injuries, Torckler never considered quitting cycling.

''I think instantly I wanted to get back into it again. Certainly during the rehab process you have times where you think to yourself whether you want to do it again but generally I've been pretty positive and keen to get back into it.''

Through it all, the Tour of Southland has been something to aim for, with his Bissell Pro Cycling team, managed by New Zealand's Glen Mitchell, leaving a space open for him.

''It's definitely been a bit of a carrot but at the same time there's been no pressure to actually be here, which has been really good,'' Torckler said from Queenstown where he has been training.

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The United States-based Bissell team will be one of the favourites for the PowerNet-sponsored tour, the experienced Jeremy Vennell leading a squad which includes last year's runner up and fellow New Zealander Patrick Bevin.

Radioshack Nissan Trek rider and four-time winner Hayden Roulston is back for his 11th tour after having to withdraw last year while in the yellow jersey because of kidney stones, although his preparation has been hampered by a hand injury and illness.

Another former winner, United States-based Heath Blackgrove also returns having not ridden the race since he famously won in 2009 and then got married that afternoon.

Blackgrove replaces 2011 winner Josh Atkins in the PowerNet team, with Atkins preferring to concentrate on his shift to a Belgium development team next season, while Floyd Landis was a late withdrawal due to the presssure he continues to be placed under as one of the key whistleblowers in the Lance Armstrong saga.

Another former winner, Gordon McCauley could be a dark horse having undergone something of a late-career revival, but it will likely be young riders like Bevin, PureBlack's Roman van Uden, local hope Tom Scully and Calder Stewart's Michael Vink who are the biggest threats.

The Tour of Southland gets under way with the prologue time trial this afternoon, followed by the first of eight stages on Monday from Invercargill to Lumsden.

The race finishes back in Invercargill on Saturday.

- The Southland Times

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