New Zealand track cyclists take their first pedal strokes towards the 2016 Rio Olympics at the Festival of Speed meet at Invercargill at the weekend.
Riders from six nations, led by a powerful contingent from Australia, will compete in the first UCI Tier One event held in this country, which provides ranking points for World Cup competition for next year and ultimately to the2016 Olympic Games.
It begins a week of top level international cycling at the SIT No Fees Velodrome in Invercargill, with the international meet on Saturday and Sunday followed by the four-day Oceania Championship starting next Tuesday.
The Tier One competition is a new initiative by the UCI, the sport’s ruling body, which has created significantly more international racing opportunities around the world.
There are riders from Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia and Scotland competing as well as hosts New Zealand.
Australia is sending a strong group led by the brilliant Shane Perkins, the London Olympic medallist, defending Commonwealth Games sprint gold medallist and 2011 keirin world champion.
He is joined by fellow star sprinters Mitchell Bullen, the current national champion, Dan Ellis, the Athens Olympian who is back out of retirement, and Jacob Schmid who won two junior world titles at Invercargill in 2012.
The leading women include London Olympic team sprint medallist Kaarle McCulloch, current points and individual pursuit champion Annette Edmondson and 19 year old Taylah Jennings, who was the individual star of the junior world championships staged in Southland.
The New Zealand team is based on the group that contested the recent World Cup in Manchester including omnium world champion Aaron Gate, Olympic medallist Simon van Velthooven and the team sprint and endurance riders. Added to this will be the New Zealand sprint and endurance women, who will make their first international appearance as they begin their campaign towards next year’s Commonwealth Games.
“Manchester was the first hit out and gave us an indication of where we are at and what we need to address,” said head coach Dayle Cheatley.
“In the main the results were as we expected and we will be looking for improvements both at the Tier One event and the Oceania Championships.
“They present some invaluable international competition before we head away to the next World Cup in Mexico next month. But at the same time they are extremely important competitions in their own right in terms of the ranking points both for World Championships and Olympic qualification and of course an Oceania Championship title is much sought after.
“Our new young riders learned a lot in Manchester and will be much the better for it. The sprint boys were solid but will want to step up against a strong Australian group.
“And it is the start of the journey for our female riders in both sprint and endurance, which of course is a new ball-game with the team pursuit changed to 4000m and four riders to match the men.”
Cheatley said that the next echelon of riders will also gain some invaluable experience both on and off the track in both competitions.
He said the fast Invercargill track will no doubt have helped attract the international riders and he expects some excellent performances over both competitions.
The Festival of Speed is from 12.30pm to approximately 3pm and 6.30pm to 10pm on Saturday, and 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 5.15pm on Sunday.
CAPTION: Olympic medallist Simon van Velthooven in action.
Photo: Guy Swarbrick.