Lovelock-Fay wins Tour of Southland stage four

LEADING THE WAY: Avanti Racing’s Mitchell Lovelock-Fay, front, took out stage four of the Tour of Southland today.
LEADING THE WAY: Avanti Racing’s Mitchell Lovelock-Fay, front, took out stage four of the Tour of Southland today.

The Avanti Racing Team finally played their hand on stage four of the Tour of Southland and only a joker in the pack can now stop Mitchell Lovelock-Fay from winning this year's race.

The Australian, known as the "nice guy" in the Avanti team, proved that particular species doesn't always finish last, with a strong ride up the imposing 8.4 kilometre Coronet Peak climb at the end of today's Queen stage, to not only take the stage but also a torque wrench-like grip on the yellow jersey.

Avanti, winners of the teams classification in this year's National Road Series in Australia, were always the strongest team in this year's SBS Bank-sponsored tour.

The question was going to be when they would try and prove it.

Today they did.

"It was an excellent day," Avanti team director Andrew Christie-Johnston said.

"We've got a good group of climbers and we just thought [we could win] if we could get it close at the base with the two climbers that we brought here in Joe [Cooper] and Mitch, along with Taylor Gunman, who won here last year, but has just been lacking a bit of form toward the end of the season. It's a perfect result for us today."

A dozen riders made the early break out of Te Anau at the start of the 186km stage.

The group included Thomas Stewart, who would use the escape to firm up his lead in the King of the Mountain standings, and Southland's Matt Zenovich, who would take over the sprint ace classification.

Tom Scully, Hamish Schreurs and Swiss rider Simon Pellaud were prominent, while local rider Liam Aitcheson led for a significant portion of the climb before eventually finishing third behind Lovelock-Fay and Michael Torckler.

In other developments, there was an air of inevitability as Gordon McCauley finally pulled the silver jersey for over 40s from Justin Stott.

Overnight leader Ben Hill tried bravely to defend his lead on the climb, but eventually blew and finished the day down 3min 23sec in 10th place.

"We came out and rode it last Wednesday. It's a nice climb, steep, but not steep the whole way," Lovelock-Fay said.

"It suited me perfectly. I'm excited to be in yellow and I know we've got the team to defend it. We've got a very strong team here and I know that I've proved myself in time trials in Australia this year. Hopefully I can pull off another good time trial [on Saturday] and keep the yellow until the end of the tour."

Christie-Johnston has been running a team in Australia for 14 seasons, helping seven riders, including Richie Porte, earn promotion into the WorldTour.

Next year Avanti will be registered as a New Zealand team, with bases on both sides of the Tasman and 60 percent of the riders coming from New Zealand.

Signings for next season include Patrick Bevin, Fraser Gough, Tom Davison, Regan Gough and Luke Mudgway.

"It was a natural thing for us. We see a lot of talent over here and we'd like to think we can help out and maybe get a few more Kiwis across to the WorldTour," Christie-Johnston said.

Lovelock-Fay's closest rival is now under 23 leader Hayden McCormick, who trails by 18sec.

It could well be the time gap that the Australian wins by in Gala St tomorrow.

Today's 160km stage from Invercargill to Lumsden will be a chance for Avanti to consolidate their lead.

"We will be trying to let a break go with riders who aren't high in the [standings]," Christie-Johnston said.

"It won't be our job to bring them back and it will be an opportunity for those guys that are 10 minutes-plus to get up the road and stay out there and win the stage. Hopefully teams get on board with that and send the right guys up there, if they are the wrong guys up there, then obviously we'll be hard on their heels chasing them back."

If Avanti can navigate their way through today safely, they look well-placed.

Lovelock-Fay is the team's second strongest time trialler, behind Joe Cooper, and won't be planning to lose any time on Saturday's penultimate stage, an individual time trial around Winton.

After pacing their week nicely, it's time for Avanti to reap the rewards - or for the rest of the peloton to try and stop them.