New Zealand’s elite cyclists have embarked on an arduous journey in pursuit of Olympic glory.
The London 2012 Olympics might still be 17 months away but Bike NZ has developed an extensive agenda to ensure every minute counts.
Invercargill-based BikeNZ coach Stu MacDonald believes the intense nature of the programme will leave New Zealand’s cycling heroes in peak condition for the medal fight.
“With the Olympics next year, this year needs to be really, really big so that the guys really take a step up in terms of physical strength,” he said.
Inclusion in pro-tour teams was a distinct advantage for some riders, while Bike NZ had also included several prominent under-23 races in its extended international race schedule.
“It’s a big year for them with a two-fold objective. One is to get them in peak form for October, which is when our Olympic trials are, and two is to ultimately get them into a bigger professional team, especially for next year because with the Olympics in August, they’re still going to need a big road programme from April to June-July,” MacDonald said.
The roads of Europe provided valuable preparation.
“Especially for the endurance guys because they need that volume and they’ve got be aerobically fit ultimately. There’s a lot more resistance on the road than there is riding around on the boards so that just gives you that deep down strength,” MacDonald said.
“The road really sort of teaches you how to suffer – especially in Belgium where you’ve got the wind and the rain and 200 riders in a race who are all pretty much as good as each other. Getting a result over there is really quite tough so it does play an important part of the year.”
Development coach for the under-23 programme, MacDonald has a talented group of riders under his tutelage – Myron Simpson, Shane Archbold, Aaron Gate, Cam Karwowski, Jason Christie and Will Bowman.
With the exception of Bowman who has just entered the senior ranks, all have World Cup medals to their credit, boding well for the future of New Zealand cycling.
“The good thing about it now is there’s a structure in place and there’s a definite clear pathway for the riders to really strive for. The younger guys coming through can see the success the older guys are having and want a piece of it,” he said.
Kiwi cyclists were no longer intimidated by the aggressively-competitive international scene, with riders like Simon van Velthooven regarded a formidable force in Japan’s professional keirin ranks.
A new realisation they possessed the ability to dominate globally had installed a confident steak into the New Zealand contingent.
“We a fairly small team with regard to going to some of the bigger races but we’ve got that Kiwi grit and determination – everyone goes there and wants to win but the Kiwis really dig deep for it,” MacDonald said.
“Now we’ve had some success at world level the belief is there and it just sort of breeds … there’s a really good atmosphere in the team and everyone picks each other up and bounces off each other.”
International commitments have ruled some of New Zealand’s elite riders out of this week’s RaboDirect National Elite and Age Group Track Championships.
“We had to change our plans quite late in the piece but we wanted to try and replicate what we’re going to do next year in the Olympic year this year so if we make any mistakes we can learn from them and won’t end up making them next year,” MacDonald said.
“That’s why we’ve just had our strongest team in Manchester. They’re going to be jetlagged and it’s likely most of them will be going to the track worlds as well.”
Surprisingly, actually keeping the riders off the track was a tough task.
“They all want to race which is a great thing. They want to be national champion. They’ll probably all be down here too which is frustrating for them having to watch from the stands but, unfortunately, we have to think bigger picture and that’s Olympic performances and World Championship performances.”
Claiming a New Zealand title was a proud moment in any cyclist’s career.
“You get to wear the jersey for the year and you get your name on some silverware and some very talented people have got their name on it so far,” MacDonald said.
“The level of competition here for the nationals will be really good even despite the top guys not being here. There’s strength and depth so there will be some good racing.”
The championships were an important cog in the overall Bike NZ operation, particularly for selection purposes.
“It’s a competitive event and they get that race day boost on so it’s very important for us,” MacDonald said.
“The selections for the world championships aren’t closed so there’s still potential for riders to step up. They know that’s definitely on the cards so I think the racing will be pretty action-packed and full-on.”
MacDonald joined the BikeNZ team in 2009 after lengthy stints working with both the British and Welsh cycling teams.
“I’ve got quite a good inside knowledge of how it works over there,” he said. “Working for the Kiwis is a lot more enjoyable. The Kiwis get the job done but we have a good laugh as well, whereas the Brits get the job done, there’s no question about that, but it’s a very serious environment to be in.
“I’ve really enjoyed coming here where the riders have a high work ethic, love riding their bikes and do it because they enjoy it. The staff around them are just fanatical and they’re looking for every last possible tenth of a second we can get – it’s just a really happy environment.”
The personable Welshman etched out a credible riding career on his local European scene.
“My racing career was okay, it was average. I tried my best but I didn’t get to where I wanted to get. I could have preserved and got a bit better but I wanted to be right at the top. Now I’m pursuing the same goals but as a coach. I want to coach an Olympic champion.”