Christchurch cyclist Keagan Girdlestone revisits a happy hunting ground on Saturday as his remarkable recovery from a near-death crash in Europe last year continues to defy initial medical expectations.
The South African born 19 year old, who went through the window of a team vehicle during a race in Italy in June last year severing his carotid artery and jugular vein and sustaining bruising to the brain, will be on the start line of Le Race, a 100 kilometre Christchurch to Akaroa cycle race he won in 2014.
Organisers have seeded him number one for the event, recognition of his winning effort three years ago when he became the youngest ever winner of the iconic event, and for winning his life back as well.
"It is an honour to be given number one and I will feel very privileged lining up on the start line, and I look forward to finishing with it pinned on my back," Girdlestone said. "I'm very honoured that Hayden (Roulston) has given up his number one for me to use on Saturday."
Two time Olympic medallist Roulston won last year's Le Race after he had left his professional contract with WorldTour pro team Trek Factory Racing at the end of 2015 to focus on riding on the track at last year's Olympics. He is riding this year's event 'for fun' to support a number of cyclists he has been coaching.
"For Keagan to wear that number, it's pretty special," Roulston said. "If it hadn't been for the accident he would have won the race again, and who knows how many times, as he's such a talent. For him to have number one it signifies just how far he's come in such a short time. He's very lucky to be alive and riding a bike."
Le Race will be the first event to head up through the Port Hills above Christchurch after February's terrible fires destroyed nine homes and left over two thousand hectares scorched and after almost dying and being told he may never ride seriously again Girdlestone hopes to do the race in under three hours, a time only considered by serious cyclists.
"I'd really like to finish the race under three hours. I think it's a reasonable expectation but it will be pushing my limits, which of course is what I like." Roulston's winning time last year was two hours and forty one minutes and Girdlestone won as a sixteen year old in two hours and thirty six minutes.
Girdlestone is still focused on his dream of becoming a successful professional cyclist, and has made significant progress as he slowly regains more movement in his right arm and strength on the bike.
"The body is much better, slowly adapting to the load of training I'm doing and the right arm is also improving a lot," he said. "Compared to a few months ago the difference is quite vast."
He plans to enjoy Saturday as much as he can, happy to be back in the peloton mixing it up with the knowledge his current progress one hundred percent defies what the initial reports suggested could ever be possible with his recovery.
He would like to race in the elite grade in the Calder Stewart Series this year and then potentially focus on a start in the SBS Tour of Southland in November, and was more than happy to see the roads open and accessible again in the Port Hills.
"After the fires I think it's great the roads are open," he said. "It is an amazing place to ride a bike and it is incredible training grounds."
Others on the start line on Saturday include a mix of some of the country's best domestic based riders, top age group and masters cyclists and a large number of recreational riders keen on tackling the climbs, fast flats and descents between Christchurch and Akaroa.
2016 New Zealand elite national champion who was runner up this year Jason Christie, 2015 Tour of Southland winner Brad Evans who rides for Australian continental team Pat's Veg Racing, Southlander Matt Zenovich, North Otago's Tim Rush and locals Tom Hubbard, Sam Horgan, Jake Marryatt and Paul Odlin should all feature in the battle for podium places in the men's race.
They will have two teams from one of New Zealand's leading cycling team's Team Skoda Racing cycle that is stacked with young talent to also contend with. Riders include junior world track champion Connor Brown, current under 17 national time trial, criterium, cyclocross and individual pursuit champion Finn Fisher Black, Chris Denholm and local Christchurch rider Max Jones.
The women's field has two time winner and twice runner up Sharlotte Lucas and former NZ Sportswoman of the Year Kate McIlroy as the two favourites. Georgie Catterick, who is racing for American team, Team Illuminate this year, Annamarie Lipp, Jeannie Blackmore, Elyse Fraser, Kate Smith and Amy Hollamby should all also feature.
Lucas, who races for Australian team Roxsolt Attacquer enjoys the course, saying it suits her climbing ability. She has been recovering from a crash in the first round of the Calder Stewart Series late last month, but had some good results at the recent Oceania Championships finishing fourth in the time trial and eighth in the road race, the first Kiwi home on both events.
"The forms ok after the crash last month," Lucas said. "Kate (McIlroy) will be one to watch, and the course is almost about how good you can descend so a bit of experience is going to be critical; it can get pretty fast and technical on the downhills."
Former mountain running champion McIlroy has tasted athletics success in the steeplechase, representing New Zealand at the 2006 Commonwealth Games before turning her attention to triathlon where she was 10th at the London Olympics and raced for New Zealand at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games before turning her back on the international triathlon circuit last year to join the Specialized Women's Racing team in Australia.
The event provided a real boost to Christchurch's rebuild when it was the first major sports event to return to the central city for its start in 2015, four years after the regions devastating earthquakes saw its start line relocated.
Le Race has a mixture of challenging hill climbs, fast flats and exhilarating downhills that travels from Christchurch, across an extinct volcano, to the French surrounds of Akaroa.
Riders also tackle the event on tandems, mountain bikes and in teams of two with prizes for also up for grabs for the HireKing King and Queen of the Mountains, the Ross Bush Memorial Trophy for the best under 16 rider and the Envormation Vintage Cup, where the winner is determined based on a combination of bike frame age and race time.