The south will once again become the epicentre of New Zealand cycling this week as Queenstown plays host to the Club Road Nationals, starting Thursday.
Over 760 entries have been received for the four day time trial and road race event and a 75-strong southern contingent will line up at the start line across age categories spanning the best part of 60 years.
It's the first time the event has been held in the South Island since 2009 in Nelson, so it's pleasing to see the big local numbers who are taking the chance to ride the event in our own back-yard.
The Queenstown basin is a spectacular race destination. We fielded hugely positive feedback from riders at last year's Oceania Championships, which were held on the same circuit, and from Cycling Southland's recently-completed Vital Signs Tour de Lakes at Easter. You can see why it is developing in to one of the key regions for national cycling events.
Racing will be based from Speargrass Flat Road (behind Millbrook Resort) with 28 categories from as young as Under 15, all the way up to the inspirational Masters 8 Men and Women who are 70-plus. Time trials will be held on Thursday with the road races contested across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The course is a challenge, fitting of a national championship. For those taking on the full circuit, (Under 19 and above), they get to enjoy two gnarly climbs each lap, up McIntyre's Hill and Littles Road, while the Under 15s and 17s shorter circuit means they miss out on all the fun up Littles Road. All I know is that watching the Elite and Under 19 Kiwis and Aussies battling up those climbs at last year's Oceanias looked a lot easier then pushing the pedals up them!
It is difficult to predict the chance of local success, given the large entries, many of whom are not well known. 26 Central Otago-Wakatipu riders will know the course well and are headlined by double 2012 titleholder Sophie Williamson. The mercurial talent from Alexandra won both events as an Under 19 last year in Hastings and showed she is getting back to top form after an injury lay-off in winning the Graperide Open Women's race in Marlborough last weekend. Williamson is set to join the high-profile Vanderkitten Women's Cycling team and will no doubt be targeting her first senior road title in her home patch.
Junior World Track representative Liam Aitcheson will start as one of the favourites in the Under 19 race while double World Masters time trial champion John Alabaster is also a strong medal chance.
A 49-strong Cycling Southland contingent will look to emulate some of its track success on the central highways. As with the velodrome racing, our Masters contingent looks full of podium promise. Kylea Gough and Erin Criglington will be at the sharp end of their racing while Derek Tan, Neil Familton and Sier Vermunt all showed winning form at last weekend's Southland Champs. Throw in names like Mike White, Garry Smith and Bruce Jones and you can see why our masters lead from the front.
Elsewhere the continued progress of Luke Macpherson will be watched in the Senior Men while Josh Haggerty looks to be in dynamic form and is a real threat in the Under 19s. Some of the other names to watch include Gabby Vermunt (Senior), Hamish Keast, Corbin Strong (both Under 15), Makayla Smith, Tom Sexton (both Under 17), Jennifer Muhl (Under 19), Bradley Tuhi, Matt Zenovich (Under 23) and my dark-horse for the weekend, in-form triathlete Robert Huisman.
I nearly achieved my goal of mentioning every Southland entry, but space prevents the full list. There are bound to be others that feature strongly and that's what makes this week so exciting. Follow the Southlanders progress at cyclingsouth.org.nz or follow Cycling Southland on Facebook.
Nick Jeffrey is the CEO of Cycling Southland