When you’ve just won a stage in New Zealand’s most prestigious bike race – a race you’ve been following for almost as long as you can remember – there aren’t many better words to describe it.
As Josh Burnett checked his phone on the long van drive home from Queenstown after conquering the Remarkables hill climb on the SBS Bank Tour of Southland, he was able to reflect on one of the best days of his young life.
“It was pretty surreal; I just couldn’t believe it for a while. I had a lot of messages to reply to, which was pretty cool. From a team perspective we won every sprint and KOM point on the road and the Queen Stage of the race, so the boys were pretty excited. It was a great vibe and a day I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.”
A week later and the Otago University third year law student is sitting in a library studying for exams and reflecting on a superb debut in his home tour with the NZ Cycling Project and Creation Signs-MitoQ.
Better known as a mountainbiker, with a national under-23 title and the elite men’s cyclocross title on his resume, the 22-year-old was something of an unknown quantity at the start of this year’s tour.
He had a rough introduction on the first open road stage.
Another rider collided with him on the first gravel section, leaving him with a broken derailleur and a cracked frame. After working his way back up to the front bunch of five riders, he had more issues with his replacement bike and finished the day more than eight minutes down on the race leader.
“It was pretty tough. It was the longest stage and ridiculously windy coming to the finish. I just wanted it to be over. That night I had to reset. All the pressure had come off to get a good result overall and I was just looking forward to the stages I thought I could do well on later in the week.”
And he did do pretty well.
Two days later, Burnett rode away from eventual winner Michael Vink to claim a rare stage win by a Southlander on the brutal climb up the Remarkables.
Since Doug Bath won the Tour of Southland in 1994, it’s believed only four Southlanders have won stages – John Alabaster, Matt Zenovich, Corbin Strong and now Burnett.
He backed up the next day by powering his way to a runner-up finish on Bluff Hill behind Campbell Pithie, who won two stages in three days in his sixth Southland tour. Burnett went on to finish as the highest placed Southlander, sixth in the under 23 classification and 10th overall.
“I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I just wanted to do well on those two climbs, learn as much as I could and do as well as I could on the other stages.”
Success has been hard earned for the Academy Southland graduate, who has probably had more racing opportunities cancelled than actual races since the pandemic began.
“For sure it’s been difficult the last couple of years, just having races taken away from you due to Covid. A large part of it comes down to what I learnt with Academy Southland and just controlling what you can control. I do really enjoy riding my bike and sometimes you have to just bring it back to that.”
The future holds plenty of possibilities for Burnett.
He has a year to go on his law degree but will probably take a little longer than that as he pursues opportunities on the bike.
Whether that bike has fat tyres or skinny tyres is something else he is contemplating.
The protracted endurance required for stage races on the road probably suits his athletic ability more than the punchier efforts in cross-country mountainbiking. As he looks to balance his riding with study, choosing races which suit his riding style and which will get the most attention, becomes a strategic imperative.
That’s why he’ll be targeting the NZ Cycle Classic, the only UCI-ranked race in New Zealand, in early January. It also doesn’t hurt that last year’s winner was fellow Southlander Corbin Strong.
And it’s why he’ll ride both the national road and mountainbike champs next year.
“It’s cool to be able to do both. Cycling is so mentally hard but having a bit of both just keeps things fresh. Even this week, my road bike is having some work done on it so I have just been riding my mountainbike, and that’s been fun,” Burnett said.
“Growing up I played rugby and going into cross-country mountainbiking, in particular, it’s probably one of the most individual sports there is. With road cycling the whole team thing is so cool. Everyone has different jobs and is going for different things, but at the end of the day you all share that common goal and it’s pretty special when it all comes together.”