Atkins poised to become youngest tour winner
The Tour of Southland is a live and wondrous thing going into the final two stages of the seven-day race today.
PowerNet rider Josh Atkins, 19, is bidding to become the youngest winner of New Zealand's most prestigious stage race and the first under-23 rider to take the honours since Karl Moore in 2001.
With a 13-kilometre time trial and an 80km final stage from Winton to Invercargill today, the winner will probably come from the leading four riders.
Atkins has 1min 5sec on second-placed Tim Gudsell (PureBlack), who took out yesterday's 167km stage from Invercargill to Gore from Jason Allen (Calder Stewart) and Chris Macic (Share the Road).
Fellow under-23 rider Patrick Bevin (Ascot Park Hotel) is a further 4sec back overall, with Macic 1min 19sec behind Atkins.
"You've got to stay optimistic and believe in yourself," Atkins said ahead of arguably the biggest day of his career.
"You've got to visualise being on that top podium with the yellow jersey on the last day. There's the time trial and even on the 80km road stage – you saw today [yesterday] how hard it was in the first 80km.
"It's definitely a lot of mental [pressure] but it's just as mental for those other guys. They have to bring back a minute on me.
"It's going to be tough."
Gudsell's stage win came after he broke away at Riversdale and drove his way solo back to Gore with a raging tailwind behind him. Intent on cutting into the lead of Atkins as much as possible, Gudsell's PureBlack team-mates rode the rubber off their tyres as they tried to stretch the defence of the PowerNet team and isolate Atkins.
"Hats off to PowerNet, Josh Atkins and his team – they rode an amazing race today," Gudsell said.
"It was probably the toughest day of the race. Conditions-wise it was blowing a gale all day long, there were so many guys still in contention for the lead so they kept having a crack," Gudsell said.
"They fought to the bitter end and I was just lucky to have the support of my team-mates around me till that last 30km section where the race was going to get really exposed."
The peloton rode under threatening clouds and were driven on by gale winds.
The difficult conditions contributed to several riders losing their way on the course or being misdirected by tour officials.
One group were sent on a wrong turn at Wyndham and rode 10km off course. Their fate was being decided last night.
Hayden Roulston, who was leading the tour before having to withdraw on Thursday with a kidney infection, watched the race from a helicopter and a Calder Stewart team vehicle yesterday.
Still feeling the effects of his illness, Roulston predicted he would bounce back quickly and be in good form for the Oceania track championships in Invercargill later this month where he will stake a claim to be New Zealand's omnium rider at next year's Olympic Games.
The man he will have to impress, national track coach Tim Carswell, has shown no lack of determination in his comeback to the Southland tour. Carswell, 40, last rode this race 10 years ago and is hoping to finish the tour and collect a $500 bet.
That's despite a difficult day in the 180km stage from Te Anau to the Crown Range, which Carswell described as the hardest day he'd had on a bike.
Atkins has won a national under-19 time trial title and been fourth at under-23 level, only a few seconds off the podium.
When asked what his biggest time trial win had been to date, team-mate Shane Archbold called out: "tomorrow".
"I kind of have to pinch myself a bit," Atkins said. "I never thought I'd be in yellow. I'm very proud to wear it and it's all because of my team really."
- © Fairfax NZ News