Cycling: Last mountain to climb

By Brenton Vannisselroy

Today could add another winning chapter to Greg Henderson’s long career, writes Brenton Vannisselroy.
Greg Henderson has ridden in cycling's premier events such as the Tour de France but says a national road title would cap his career nicely. Photo / AFP
Greg Henderson has ridden in cycling's premier events such as the Tour de France but says a national road title would cap his career nicely. Photo / AFP

Greg Henderson has one gaping hole in his cycling career and plans to fill it today.

The 39-year-old has built one of the most comprehensive rsums in New Zealand cycling - after claiming Commonwealth gold and a world title on the track, he's won more than a dozen races on the road and established himself as a key member of Lotto Soudal's Tour de France team.

But Henderson has never won the national road race title and had the opportunity to wear the New Zealand champion's jersey in Europe.

"I've been second on I think three or four occasions, but it's just one of those things, I just haven't been able to win it," Henderson said. "One day. Maybe Sunday."

It will have to be. The national men's road race in Napier today is likely to be Henderson's last as he reluctantly contemplates retiring at the end of the season.

"It's not nice to say, but in reality this will be my last nationals, all going to plan and we do have a plan."

He will have a better chance than previous years, given the event moved from Christchurch where it was held for six years. That circuit, which included a hill climb over Dyers Pass, didn't suit Henderson and the veteran sprinter will prefer the shorter climbs on the more technical city circuit in Napier.

"It's going to be aggressive racing which, when I'm fit and ready to go, usually suits me."

Henderson has established himself as one of the world's best lead-out riders, setting a sprint up for his team's premier speedster, but he's also got a good kick himself. He started his pre-season early and believes he's as fit as he has ever been for nationals.

"I'm really fit, like my fitness level is super. But there's that difference to race fitness and, as I get older unfortunately, it's not an excuse, it's the fact, I take a week of racing for my legs to respond."

As well as being a slow starter, Henderson will be alone. Cycling is a team sport, with riders often working for a team leader, but officially Henderson will be without any team-mates today.

"It's going to be difficult. I have to keep a cool head. I've got to ride smart and key-off key men. When they make a move, it's probably time to go.

"They will be the World Tour riders, because we don't have team-mates and we'd like to take the New Zealand jersey over to Europe for a year. It won't be so much of a collaboration, but if I make a move I'll probably have those guys with me and, if they go, I'll go at the same time."

Challenging Henderson will be the next generation of New Zealand cycling talent, led by Patrick Bevin who won the national men's time trial title on Friday.

Bevin is the country's newest World Tour rider, having signed with the Slipstream-owned Cannondale team, and acknowledges the path Henderson and Julian Dean paved has helped him.

"Their reputations are really good in Europe," Bevin said. "Julian spent time in the Slipstream team, which I'm going into, and he set a good precedent."

Bevin will also be alone this year after being part of the Avanti team which swept the podium in 2015.

"I was kind of directing the guys last year and we came away 1-2-3 and I think some guys were unhappy that a team dominated nationals.

"I'm on my own this year and I'm happy to wear that. It's bike racing. We all know how it works."

Rising talent Hayden McCormick is one rider who will be able to play the team card. McCormick and fellow 22-year-olds James Oram and Dion Smith have joined British outfit One Pro Cycling, who will effectively compete in the second division of European cycling this year.

"It's exciting. It's the first time I've done nationals with a team," McCormick said.

"It's going to be a race of attrition and we're going to have numbers at the end hopefully to get the win for One Pro Cycling."

McCormick also hopes to crash Henderson's farewell party: "We'll send him home crying, hopefully."

- Herald on Sunday

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