Southland’s brightest young track cycling talent have a great future ahead of them, it’s just not clear exactly what that future looks like.
Emily Paterson and Conor Shearing have returned from the UCI world junior track championships in Frankfurt, Germany after post-event holidays. The two Academy Southland members were named joint Under 19, Hub and Junior riders of the year at the recent Cycling Southland awards.
The jet lag has worn off, there's schoolwork to catch up on and the Oceania Championships on their home velodrome in October to look forward to.
What happens beyond that is uncertain.
Unlike some other codes, where there’s a natural progression from the junior ranks through to senior squads, New Zealand’s relatively late arrival as a significant player in world track cycling has meant that there’s often more talent than opportunities in the senior ranks.
Take the New Zealand men’s team pursuit, for example. Up until recently the team had an average age of just 22, with Southland’s Nick Kergozou the old man of the squad at 23.
All of which presents Shearing with a significant challenge, one that he’s well aware of.
“I’m thinking about what the best way will be to get myself into that elite environment. There’s a high level of guys in there now coming into the Olympics next year, so I’ve got to come up with a plan to show myself and take any opportunity that I can,” he said.
Shearing was part of the junior men’s team pursuit which finished fourth in Frankfurt. The teams which forced them off the podium all broke the world record to get there.
Shearing also backed up with a fifth in the 1000m time trial, despite not training specifically for what is a specialised event. His time would have been good enough for a medal at other recent junior world championships.
According to Southern Performance Hub coach Sid Cumming, Shearing remains an untapped talent on the track. Until recently he has mixed his cycling with hockey, but despite that lack of experience he has an uncanny ability to ride to any time the coach specifies, making him the ideal lead off rider in the team pursuit.
Cumming rates Shearing as a quiet, very intelligent individual.
“He’ll tell you what he wants to do and then I’ll tell him how to do it. He’s never failed me yet.”
In an exciting move, riders from the past two men’s junior worlds endurance teams will form a New Zealand development squad and they will get an opportunity to show their wares on Invercargill’s SIT Velodrome at the Oceania Championships.
“It’s going to be cool to show people down here how I can ride and the racing that I do,” Shearing said.
Meanwhile, Paterson was part of the New Zealand junior women’s team pursuit which finished just .007sec away from a world championship title in Frankfurt, beaten in a photo finish by the highly-fancied Italians.
And it was Paterson who turned on a powerhouse display for the New Zealand team, underlining the way her stocks have risen in the national programme over the past 10 to 12 months.
“She’s always been talented, but that hasn’t always been recognised. Now people can see that she not only has a great engine, that’s she’s very quick and has that endurance as well,” Cumming said.
According to Cumming, Paterson is eminently coachable.
“She’s got great manners, she’s always on time and she’s passionate about what she does. She’s just a great person.”
That was recognised early on when Paterson was accepted into Academy Southland as a Year 11 athlete, a year earlier than most of her peers.
“It really benefited me going through the Academy,” she said.
“The mental skills, that was very helpful, because I’m a person who tends to overthink things and get very nervous before a competition. The nutrition was very helpful, as well as the gym training. It’s an amazing programme which really opens doors for young athletes.”
Cumming believes that Paterson will be well placed to take advantage of any post-Tokyo retirements based on the improvements she has made in the past year.
The depth in New Zealand cycling could mean that the hubs, like the one based in Invercargill, have a greater role in the ongoing development of riders.
That would have benefits for Southland cycling, with some of the best talent remaining in, or being attracted to, Invercargill and providing inspiration for those below them.
Southland has the facilities, the coaching, the support and the history to produce world class track cyclists. There’s no sign of that slowing down.