Gus Marfell works out at home on his cycle trainer. Photo: Peter Jones.

Gus makes most of lockdown

Sitting down for long periods during lockdown was not recommended, but it certainly paid dividends for one of the province’s crop of promising young triathletes.

Sixteen-year-old Gus Marfell, not one to let the grass grow beneath his feet, or in this case his wheels, decided to use the enforced stay-at-home period to sharpen his competitive edge.

Tri NZ, in conjunction with virtual training platform Zwift, created a six-week race series called the Saturday Race League, the best four races counting towards the overall results.

So, every Saturday, Gus hopped on his bike and trainer and hooked into a virtual race.

While the virtual series was initially aimed at triathletes it was open to whoever wanted to take part so attracted a huge variety of athletes. Each race attracted an average of 500-600 entrants from all over the world, with a special Anzac edition attracting 850 riders.

Six different courses were raced, distances ranging from 25-40km. This equated to between 30 and 50 minutes on the bike and Gus showed amazing consistency to finish in the top 30 in each race, his best placing being fifth in the first event.

After points were totalled he had won the under-19 category and finished fifth overall in the Elite A+ section, despite being up against illustrious names in the triathlon world.

Although he was shaded by Kiwi Hayden Wilde, a rising star on the international tri scene with a world ranking of 13, Gus managed to place ahead of senior national reps Taylor Reid and Ryan Sissons, ranked 57 and 61 respectively.

The modest Marlborough Boys’ College student decided to enter the virtual race series, as “there wasn’t much else going on during lockdown”.

Although he opted to continue his running training outdoors during the enforced break, he preferred to concentrate his cycling preparation on the indoor trainer.

Despite having previous experience on his trainer, he initially found the Saturday Race League demanding.

“It was much harder than being on the road, but a lot of fun,” said Gus.

“I thought that [the field] would back off the pace somewhere through the 30-40ks but they just seemed to hold the pace the whole time.

“In virtual racing if you drop the wheel in front that’s a good 10kph you slow down … there’s a big drafting effect and there’s no way you’ll get back on [to the bunch].

“So, you try to stay with the bunch the whole time … and you can’t really go off the front either because you lose that drafting effect and just get swallowed up again. In most races the bunch stayed close together with a sprint at the end,” he said.

Now lockdown restrictions have lifted it is back into full multisport mode for Gus, who is part of a group of young tri-ers under the guidance of local trainer Mark Grammer that is preparing in all three disciplines.

His cycling training continues, albeit back on the road, while he can be found in the swimming pool most mornings before school, working on what he considers his weakest event, covering 3.5-4km following a 5am alarm call.

Gus has his immediate sights set on the national cross-country running championships in Dunedin on August 29, where he will contest the under-19 grade, then later in the year he plans to participate in a newly-organised Triathlon NZ series, contesting triathlon and duathlon events based in the South Island.

While many sportspeople cursed COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, Gus saw a silver lining.

“It was tough not being able to swim or race, but I probably gained quite a bit with my cycling because I spent a lot more hours on the trainer than I usually would have,” he explained.

“But I do prefer being out in the fresh air.”

Callum Saunders on the victory podium. Photo: Supplied.

Saunders beats world class duo in Hong Kong

Marlborough cyclist Callum Saunders overcame both the reigning Olympic champion and the current world champion to take out the kierin title on day three of the World Cup track cycling meet in Hong Kong on Sunday morning [NZ time].

Saunders got the better of Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny and world champion Matthijs Buchli in a thrilling final.

Saunders has had limited opportunities for the powerful Kiwi sprint team but made the most of them in Hong Kong.

Under sprint coach Rene Wolff, Saunders only got to ride in the individual events with the team sprint trio returning to Cambridge to prepare for their home World Cup later this week.

Callum Saunders, centre, on the victory podium in Hong Kong. Photo: Supplied.
Callum Saunders, centre, on the victory podium in Hong Kong. Photo: Supplied.

Against many of the world’s highest-rated sprinters, including 11 of the world’s top 20-ranked keirin riders, Saunders was only able to place third in his heat, sending him into a winner-take-all repechage, where he held off a strong group to win and progress to the semifinal.

There he drew the No 1 spot to slot in behind the derny. Despite being swamped early when the pace went on he recovered to edge his way into third in a bunch sprint to claim the last place in the final.

He again drew the No 1 slot for the decider with Kenny behind. This proved crucial because, when the Englishman opened up his sprint to push to the lead with two and a half laps remaining, his speed was such that the Marlborough rider maintained his place in the trail.

Saunders held off the threat by world No 2-ranked Malaysian Mohd Awang on his outside and in the final straight the New Zealander pushed past Kenny to win by the width of a wheel, with world champion Buchli flying home for third.

Saunders said immediately after the race, “It’s my first-ever time lining up at a World Cup so I just went in with an open mind … didn’t set myself any goals, just went for it.

“I can’t put into words how much it means.”

The next leg of the Track Cycling World Cup series takes place in Cambridge from December 6-8, followed by the December 13-15 leg in Brisbane and the January 24-26 round in Canada.

Endurance cyclists Christoph Strasser, right, and Craig Harper managed to fit in a quick ride around the local roads during the RAAM winner’s time in Marlborough. Photo: Supplied.

Race Across America legend celebrates milestone in Marlborough

The man widely regarded as the king of the world’s ultra-distance cyclists celebrated his 37th birthday in true Kiwi style – with a backyard BBQ in Blenheim.

Christoph Strasser, six-time Race Across America [RAAM] solo champion, was in Marlborough at the invitation of local endurance rider Craig Harper and enjoyed a birthday BBQ at his Kiwi rival’s home on Monday.

The pair met during the most recent RAAM – Strasser’s ninth attempt at the iconic race and Harpers’ first – after which the Kiwi invited the Austrian cycling legend to visit New Zealand, a trip that had always been on Strasser’s radar.

He duly arrived for a five-week trip around the country, with partner Sabine, taking a well-earned break from the rigours of training for some of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet.

Strasser was unstoppable in the 2019 RAAM, finishing nearly a day and a half in front of his nearest rival – going west to east in eight days, six hours, 51 minutes.

Harper produced an outstanding rookie effort, coming home fourth among the solo riders, crossing the finish line in 10 days, 15 hours.

Strasser described the 2019 RAAM as his “hardest ever”, due to extreme weather issues, which involved flooding, detours and periods of constant rain.

He has previously been quoted as suggested that the key to conquering the RAAM is, “one third body, one third mind and one third support team”.

“That’s my personal formula, but of course everyone is different. In my first years I was thinking that there is much more happening in your mind, but over the years I found out that physical fitness is very, very important because it is your body that allows you to go fast or to go slow. Your mind dictates whether you go on or you stop, to know the reason why it is important to finish, but how fast you can go, this is depending on your physical fitness.”

He said his RAAM recipe was, “a combination of being fast and keeping your breaks really short”.

In the 2019 race he closely monitored his breaks, sleeping just eight and a half hours over the course of the race, among a total of 15 hours “off-bike time”, which includes toilet stops, red lights and road works.

“It’s nearly the minimum,” he suggested, “it would be hard to improve on that”.

In recent years Strasser has become used to having a target on his back at the start line, but says, despite his favouritism, he felt no pressure to prove anything.

“I never talk about my goals [beforehand], the most important thing is to reach the finish line and stay healthy … even if you have won the race several times you can get sick and DNF the next time.

“When you have crossed the desert and Rocky Mountains, which are dangerous for your health, you enter the second half of the race, which is easier on your body … then you can begin to think of your finish time and your ranking.”

As regards race tactics, Strasser says although common sense suggested a slow start, thereby saving energy for the second half of the race, he favoured a strong push from the start line.

“In reality it is complicated, because your mind plays a lot of tricks on you, especially when you are sleep-deprived, and that happens in the second half.

“Therefore it is much better to be in front [early], then you have positive thinking, a clear mind and self-confidence.

“My tactic is to go as fast as possible on the first day and when you are in the lead a lot of things get easier.”

Like Harper, Strasser suffered from nerve damage in his hands and lower arms following the race, a result of constant vibration through the bike’s handlebars.

“My knees, my muscles, my backside and all that stuff … a few days after the race everything is perfect again. The pain is gone, only the damage to the hands and fingers remains.

“One year it took me three months to be able to tie my shoelaces and do up my belt. When I ate I wasn’t always able to hold onto my fork and spoon.”

Despite claiming the record for most wins this year, Strasser has no desire to be remembered as the RAAM’s greatest soloist, preferring to set his unique goals.

“There is a challenge to improve yourself, when you reach the finish line and know you gave your best performance, then you are happy with yourself … you are not happy just to have the number one before your name.

“When I look back on my successes in the RAAM, it’s not because of the number of wins, it’s just having the feeling of training for a goal, working towards that goal, putting the crew together then being on the road towards the finish, this is what make me happy …. then the finish is just a little part of the whole thing. It is the journey, the trip that is the motivation.”

Strasser does not intend to ride the RAAM in 2020, but has another target on his radar.

He is the current holder of both the world track and road 24-hour records, 896km on the road and 941km inside, and want to go further.

“I hope to be able to get 1000km in 24 hours one day, maybe in the upcoming season, but it will take a lot of organising.”

He is unlikely to race in New Zealand, although quickly developing an affinity with the country.

“I was very impressed with Craig’s north to south crossing. Before we got to know each other this year I was reading about his achievements, because I want to know about my competitors, and I didn’t realise how difficult [The Long White Ride] actually was, with such narrow roads and constant ups-and-downs.”

The man, who ironically was born the same year as the first RAAM, feels he has a good work/life balance and is relishing his lengthy break.

“I can do five weeks off the bike, so I am not a cycling junkie.

“I may gain three kilograms but it doesn’t matter because when I start training again I will soon be in shape.

“This is just about meeting great people, seeing a great country, having a beer here and there and thinking about other things than cycling.”

The Graperide’s finish line at Forrest Wines. Photo: Matt Brown.

Graperide changes revealed

Two major changes are in store for an iconic Marlborough event.

Organisers of the long-running Graperide announced a new naming rights sponsor and a different start/finish location on Monday.

Whitehaven Wine Company is to take up the naming rights to the event, previously sponsored by Forrest Wines, while the event will next year begin and end at The Vines Village complex.

Whitehaven Wines, who will celebrate 25 years in business this year, view the Graperide partnership as a continuation of its advocacy of Marlborough and commitment to the region.

“Being a family-owned and operated business means that creating positive impacts on our community is vitally important to us” says Whitehaven co-founder and managing director Sue White.

“We see the Whitehaven Graperide as a way to promote inclusivity of communities, sustainable choices and a focus on health and keeping active.”

Sue says she is looking forward to the opportunity of giving the event a fresh focus.

“While we want to retain the core of what has made the Graperide such a nationally and globally renowned cycling event, we look forward to adding our unique stamp to it,” she says.

Founding sponsors Brigid and John Forrest said “the event has become an integral part of our brand over the last 15 years. Our staff and family have grown up with the Graperide as part of their lives and we’re thrilled to be passing the baton to another wine brand who is equally focused on community and sustainability, and who also happen to be our close neighbours at Whitehaven”.

Graperide event director Duncan Mackenzie said “right from the beginning Pete Halligan (event founder) and I had a focus on the rider experience.

“Whitehaven have that same focus and together I’m sure we’ll be adding to the enjoyment and memories riders take away.”

The event will relocate from Forrest Wines to a start/finish location at The Vines Village on Rapaura Rd.

Jeff Fulton of The Vines Village said, “as a unique indoor/outdoor events venue in Marlborough we’re looking forward to adding our special touches to the event.

“Cycling has always been a major focus for us and the opportunity to play a significant role in delivering one of the region’s premier events fits well with our event-focussed ethos.”

The first Whitehaven Graperide is scheduled for Saturday March 28, 2020 with entries opening online shortly.

Callum Saunders, centre, after winning in the United States. Alongside him is Thailand’s Jai Angsuthasawit, left, and NZ team mate Sam Webster. Photo: Matthew Jones.

Callum’s sprint career tracking well

Since leaving Marlborough in early 2014, Callum Saunders’ cycling career has hit its share of speed bumps.

However, the 23-year-old track specialist is currently on top of his game, following a successful stint in the States during late May and June.

As part of a 20-strong New Zealand elite male and female sprint and endurance squad he spent a month competing and training while based in Trexlertown, Philadelphia.

Over 200 riders from 15 countries offered tough opposition, but Callum was thrilled to pick up his first two international victories on his third trip to the States.

Kiwi teammates and rivals Callum Saunders and Sam Webster, nearest camera, are wheel-to-wheel on the last bend of the sprint final. Photo: Matt Jones.
Kiwi teammates and rivals Callum Saunders and Sam Webster, nearest camera, are wheel-to-wheel on the last bend of the sprint final. Photo: Matt Jones.

He achieved double success in the kierin, claiming a class 2 win then a much-prized tier 1 victory.

“I hadn’t even podiumed at an international event, even as a junior,” said Callum, “so that was pretty special.”

These results follow on from his two podium placings at the 2019 nationals where he claimed silver medals in the team sprint with NZ team-mates Ethan Mitchell and Zac Williams and the keirin, behind the powerful Eddie Dawkins.

While he has obviously enjoyed recent success in the kierin, Callum divides his loyalties between that format and the sprint events.

“They are both appealing … and hugely different races. I think I’ll just keep training for both and the team sprint, which is what our national programme is based around and see how things progress.”

While at Marlborough Boys’ College, Callum represented his country at under-19 and junior world level, but his progress stalled soon after travelling north to Waikato University. Illness and injury derailed his 2014 season and left him questioning his sporting intentions.

“At the time I told myself that I was doing enough to stay in shape, but it was far from the truth … there was always a subconscious intention to go back to cycling but it wasn’t always shown.”

However, a “kick up the arse” from a close friend in late 2015 reignited the flame and, with the help of long-time mentor Chris Ginders, he got back on the bike and smashed out two personal bests at the 2015 Oceania champs.

After rediscovering his love of the sport, he set his sights on the national champs in February 2016.

A serious accident while training threatened to derail his plans, but he battled through to claim bronze in the team sprint and register another two PBs.

After shoulder surgery resulting from the accident, he raced at the 2017 nationals, bagging silver in the team sprint with the Waikato/BOP team and finishing fourth in the elite individual sprint, his efforts gaining him a place in the elite NZ Sprint programme, based at the Cycling NZ Avantidrome in Cambridge.

Although he was dropped from the elite squad at the beginning of 2018, Callum again rebounded, working his way back into the top tier, being re-selected in May, 2019.

He is now among a group of eight riders in the national elite sprint group, a group that includes several world champions.

While fully aware that the pedigree of his fellow riders makes it difficult to force his way into the chosen sprint team, Cambridge-based Callum acknowledges the benefits of rubbing shoulders with such world-class performers.

“I have found it really humbling to find how gracious [the top riders] have been and how willing they are to share their knowledge.

“They know that they can’t be the best they can be without everyone else people pushing them, so it’s mutually advantageous and healthy competition.”

However, sometimes he has to pinch himself when he realises how far he has come.

He recalls a time in the States recently when the Kiwi team had spent 15 hours at the track, grabbed a few hours sleep then were back into it.

“Bodies and minds were wearing down at a rate of knots and I was sitting in the pits with Sam [Webster], waiting to ride our semi-final.

“Suddenly I thought, eight years ago I had these guys as laptop screensavers and now I’m racing alongside them, talking to them like the great mates and good buggers that they are.”

Next up for Callum is the Oceania champs followed by the annual World Cup events, then the World Champs in March in Berlin.

“I’m hoping to get some rides in the team sprint during the World Cups and I’ll have a go at some individual competitions too.”

He knows all about setbacks, but stresses, “My appetite for the sport is stronger than ever now, it seems to be growing.

“I’m in a really good place at the moment, surrounded by clever, intuitive and forward-thinking people.

“I’ve got a really good level of personal motivation and really cool support from family and friends in Marlborough … that makes it pretty easy to love the sport and what you are doing, eh?”

Tony Le Sueur at Antelope Wells, the final stop on his Tour Divide ride. Photo: Supplied.

Cyclist crosses USA from north to south

While Marlborough eyes were focussed on Craig Harper’s Ride Across America last month, another cyclist was racing across the US mainland, albeit in a completely different direction.

Former Marlborough Boys’ College student Tony Le Sueur, now a police officer in Taupo, tackled and conquered the Tour Divide, an annual event with a lower profile then the RAAM, but with a unique set of challenges.

The mountain bike race, of which 90 percent is off-road, follows a 2745 mile [4418km] course from the Canadian town of Banff, Alberta to the US/Mexico border. Riders are unsupported, meaning they must carry their own sleeping gear, medical supplies and food, resupplying their stocks along the way. There are no entry fees, prizes or checkpoints, riders carrying GPS trackers at all times so their paths can be monitored.

In his first attempt, Tony finished fifth overall, arriving at the finish line in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in 16 days, eight hours, 24 minutes, well within his 18-day target time.

The 45-year-old, who rode the Tour of Aotearoa in 2016 and 2018, warmed up for the Tour Divide by cycling from Alaska to Panama City with his wife Karen, covering around 26,000km in 11 months.

Sometimes Tony had to make do with some rudimentary sleeping arrangements. Photo: Supplied.
Sometimes Tony had to make do with some rudimentary sleeping arrangements. Photo: Supplied.

When Karen returned home, Tony travelled to San Diego and trained in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges before tacking the Divide, an event he admitted “had been in the back of my mind for the past two years … it’s probably the premium bike-packing race in the world.

“The opportunity was there. I was already over there and had the time off work.

“It was definitely a hard race, very hard, but more enjoyable than I had expected. Because I find racing generally takes the fun out of things, it just becomes a grind.

“It was a lonely old ride though. Over 16 days I probably spent two hours riding with other people. You are all on your own.”

He was happy with his time in which was a fast-run race this year. “Normally 18 days would put you in the top 10, this year by the end of 16 days the top 10 had finished, so it was really fast.”

The winner, American Chris Seistrup, completed the course in around 15 days 11 hours 24 minutes. Nine Kiwis participated in the event.

With the course following the path of the Continental Divide, there was around 58,000m of climbing involved. Tony said his final day was the biggest, riding 539km in 36 hours on featureless landscape, with “a couple of half hour naps on the side of the road”.

He estimated that he chewed through 8-10,000 calories per day, foot-long Subway sandwiches being a favourite when he could source them.

The ride was not without its mechanical and natural challenges.

Around the halfway mark his front wheel “blew to pieces”, necessitating replacement and an eight-hour delay, then he spent 36 hours stuck in a lodge in Colorado after being unable to negotiate a mountain pass due to deep mud. The alternative to waiting was to carry his bike for around 16 miles, an option he quickly vetoed.

He was also struck by a bird at night and nearly skittled by a deer, but finished the race in relatively good condition, considering the magnitude of the journey.

“I just felt tired and worn out,” Tony said. “I had problems with an inflamed Achilles tendon, which was really sore for three or four days then disappeared, had a super-sore arse, and some serious chafing, which has just settled down a week later.”

Tony recalled the race finish was somewhat underwhelming. “The border crossing was closed, it was about 40 degrees and there was a sign basically saying ‘Antelope Wells’. It was kind of anti-climactic, but bloody satisfying. I enjoyed [the race] … in a strange sort of way.”

Another shot at the Tour Divide appears unlikely for Tony, although he hasn’t ruled out future endurance challenges.

“There is a race in Australia, from the east coast to Ayers Rock … around 3500km, which is quite appealing,” he added.

Craig Harper prepares for the RAAM. Photo: Supplied.

Harper hits start line tomorrow

The countdown is nearly ended. Around 8am tomorrow [NZ time] Craig Harper will set off on the race of his life.

He begins his bid to conquer the iconic Race Across America [RAAM] at Oceanside, California and will ride for 3000 miles, through 12 US states, finishing at Annapolis, Maryland.

The Marlborough builder sounded relaxed and quietly confident on the phone line from his US base near the start line.

“We have got the full [nine-person] crew here now so we are just getting our gear together, assigning jobs and making sure we are good to go for Tuesday [US time].”

There has been no last-minute hiccups or changes of plan from the race organisers, leaving the Solo Kiwi team confident that everything is on track at this stage.

“That’s part of the reason I have such an experienced crew with me, if anything does crop up, now or during the race, I have full confidence we can deal with anything that comes our way.

“Everyone is here now and raring to go … it’s starting to get really exciting,” said Craig.

“Lots of people say that a lot of the hardest work is actually just getting to the start line so it will be pretty cool to roll up there on Tuesday and start pedaling, absolutely.”

Craig met a few of the other competitors while training in the desert soon after his arrival in California, all staying at the same motel.

“Quite a few go out there to train and get used to the heat, plus get the legs ticking over after the travel. I had brief chats to them, and saw a few others out riding.”

He was happy with his efforts in the extreme heat, suggesting the work he did in the heat chambers back in NZ “made a huge difference”.

“I felt really comfortable and enjoyed my time in the heat.

“We are on the coast now, with temperatures around 20 degrees … so in comparison with what we have been in and what we are going to, it actually feels quite cold, so I’m pretty keen to get back into the heat. I really enjoy it.”

The former international rower feels fit and healthy heading into the biggest physical challenge of his sporting life, knowing that huge challenges lie ahead, notably handling sleep deprivation.

“I’ve had a lot on my mind but I’m sleeping pretty well at the moment. It’s pretty hard to try and bank sleep up … it is what it is.”

Craig’s progress across the mountains and plains of America can be followed on his website or on his Facebook page.