A courageous solo effort propelled Wellingtonian Joe Cooper to a second national elite men's road race cycling title in Napier yesterday.
"I had no teammates. I can't sprint my way out of a wet paper bag so I needed to be solo ... I had to roll the dice," Cooper said after stopping the clock at 4hrs 14m 58s for the 169km race.
"That's what made this title special. When I won two years ago I had eight to 10 teammates. This time I had to be a bit more crafty and consistent," said Cooper, who hardly had a sweat up despite the gruelling event which involved an initial 87km circuit in the hills beyond Taradale before returning for eight laps of an inner city circuit including the climb of Napier Hill and a final 13km flat lap.
Isowhey Sports team rider Cooper, 31, displayed considerable strength on Napier Hill. He made his move on the final of eight ascents and held on over the flat lap to beat Tasman's defending champion Jason Christie by 14s and Aucklander Dion Smith by 18s.
A group of five riders pushed clear on the initial rural circuit. It included New Zealand's 2016 rider of the year Smith. They pushed out to a 3:35 advantage until they returned for the urban segment.
The big players included time trial winner and pre-race favourite Jack Bauer of Tasman, Christie, Tour of Southland winner Aaron Gate, Hawke's Bay Olympian and eventual under-23 title winner Gough, under-23 world mountainbike champion Sam Gaze and new World Tour rider Tom Scully. They caught the leaders on the third lap and from that point attacks from Cooper, Smith and Christie up the climb were neutralised by the lead group on the flat.
Cooper had a 17s lead going into the final flat lap and was surprisingly able to hold off the powerful chasers into the headwind over the first 5km and from there he was able to enjoy the final 300m. Despite "savouring the moment" for the final stretch Cooper was diplomatic and said he did not believe he had the title until he crossed the finish line.
"Today was about keeping calm and waiting for the right move. I was forced to save energy and then unload at a certain point and hope that it stuck," Cooper said.
"You had to give respect for the World Tour and Pro Continental guys and so if you are able to hang around their wheels long enough you land in the right moves and get an easy sit in the peloton which was a key to the strategy today," Cooper added.
Quick-Step Floors team rider Bauer said he did not have the legs and he felt the pain on the first climb up Napier Hill.
"I knew I was in for a hard day from there. This course was tough, possibly tougher than Christchurch [where the nationals were held before Napier began hosting last year] but it was an excellent test. I just did not have enough miles in the legs today."
Waikato Olympian and United Healthcare team rider Rushlee Buchanan created history on Saturday when she won the women's elite road race title for the fourth time. She out-kicked fellow Rio Olympic track rider Georgia Williams of Auckland and Wellington's triathlete-turned cyclist Kate McIlroy in an exciting sprint finish to the 112km race to retain the title she won in Napier last year and also in 2010 and 2014.
Buchanan's time was 3:23:28.
"I knew I wasn't the best climber out there and had to save my energy when I could and dig very, very deep when Kate and Georgia were putting the hammer down. I backed myself for the sprint finish. I knew I had the better jump and that played into my hands.
"It has not sunk in yet but to win the 2017 national championship is awesome. Number four is pretty amazing to put myself in the history books. For me I just want to represent the jersey well on the international stage and do New Zealand proud the whole year," Buchanan said.
McIlroy, who will move to the Specialized Women's professional cycling team in Australia this year, was pleased with her first serious efforts in the sport, after an injury-plagued final year in triathlon for the London Olympian.
"I came here wanting to see where I stood racing against these girls who are pretty classy and experienced so to come third, I am pretty happy. The key was getting in the break up the hill and I managed to jump on to Georgia's wheel.
"I am new to road cycling and hope to learn from my experiences this year and see how it goes. I am now working fulltime and fitting cycling around a job. I still love racing and until I lose that competitive spirit I will keep going," McIlroy said.