COMPETITIVE cycling will return to the streets of Invercargill on Sunday, with the running of the annual inner city criterium held as part of the 35th Yunca Junior Tour of Southland.
The event will start tomorrow at Teretonga Park, Sandy Point, and will continue on Saturday visiting other parts of the province, including a trip to Gorge Rd.
However, it is Sunday’s inner city criterium which is expected to draw the most attention.
Tour director Danielle Ralph said 130 riders in under-13, under-15, under-17 and under-19 divisions from throughout the country would race around the Tay, Clyde Forth and Nith Sts circuit from 8.30am as part of stage 5, the Wensley’s Inner City Criterium.
Last year 97 riders competed.
“It’s an exciting and popular part of the Yunca Junior Tour of Southland because the riders get to show off their skills and speed right in the centre of town. Often they’re racing out in the countryside somewhere, but here they can be easily seen and they love that,” Ralph said.
“It’s free to come and watch and it’s a great way of introducing young riders into the sport – we always get new members come along who have seen them racing and want to have a go themselves.”
Tour numbers are up noticeably this year as the growth in road cycling continues.
“The under-13 division is usually combined, but because of the larger numbers of riders we’ve had to split it into boys’ and girls’ grades, which just shows how big it’s getting,” Ralph said.
Numbers in the under-19 grades were the biggest they had been for some time, with Southland rider Corbin Strong looking good to take out the male title after claiming an under-20 schools title at the weekend, she said.
“We also have 10 Southland riders unable to take part because they’re off to the Oceania track champs in Adelaide at the same time, so we could have had even more, which shows how well road cycling is going at the moment.
“There’s been a real resurgence in junior cycling on the road and track in Southland the past two years, as well as through schools’ cycling, and we’re really seeing the benefits from that,” Ralph said.
Many North Island riders are heading south for the Yunca-sponsored tour, including 10 Northland youngsters from the pink-clad Far North Flash team coached by Kaitaia schoolteacher Phil Gibbs.
Yunca sponsored Gibbs and two team members to come to the event last year and he is returning this year with more riders keen to experience some southern hospitality.
A change to the course this year will also see riders competing over the infamous Letterbox Hill, which features on the SBS Bank Tour of Southland.
“It’s a tough section of road, so it will be fascinating to see how they handle it. It’s not meant to be an easy title to win – the tour is a true test of skill, strength and ability.”
The tour attracts a high calibre of junior riders looking to gain invaluable road cycling experience while staking a claim for higher national honours. It has been a breeding ground for young cycling talent, with the likes of last year’s Tour of California winner George Bennett, Grand Tour rider Tom Scully, Piet Bulling, Nick Kergozou, world junior omnium champion Campbell Stewart, Alex Frame and Michael Vink among those taking part.
Spectators are welcome during the criterium on Sunday – racing begins at 8.30am and usually finishes before noon.