Friday, April 16
Twenty-four seconds. After five days of racing, that was the sliver of time Las Banditas had over our racing team, Rod mentioned to Kieran, Corrie, Kaye and Geoff over breakfast this morning. Surely they could best their tormentors in today’s final stage of the Tour, 62km to Picton?
Yep, they reckoned. That’d be real pleasure. Savouring the goal, we set off to the stage start at the Allan Scott vineyard, one of the pioneers in Marlborough winemaking, on the outskirts of Blenheim. It was a gorgeous early autumn morning, with the leaves just starting to brown on the recently harvested vines.
Wave 6 of the start was just Team Ākina and Las Banditas. Introducing them to the small but enthusiastic crowd of spectators, Gary, the race director, welcomed Las Banditas team leader Anna as “the loudest voice on the Tour”. There were knowing chuckles from some riders in the starting waves behind.
Anna’s famous for her strong management of bunches. When male riders have had enough of taking turns at the front of a paceline, she tells them in no uncertain turns to get back to work. She’s equally vocal about tight riding discipline. She and her three team mates are very determined and experienced riders who are assets on any ride. But one of the quartet was missing today. She was saving herself for an up-coming triathlon.
But Team Ākina was also missing its fourth rider today. Kaye was almost ready to ride when she stepped back in to our bus to pick up her water bottles. But exiting the bus, her shoe cleats slipped on the step and she fell forward to the ground, landing hard on her left hand and wrist.
Kaye was in agony but insisted on still riding. Just strap up my wrist, she said. We begged to differ and called on Di and Tony, our St John’s paramedics. It’s broken, they said. You’re getting a ride to the Emergency room. You’re not pedalling to Picton. Fortunately, Kaye’s daughter Nikita, a local winemaker, was coming to watch the start. She arrived soon after with two of her three young kids, and took charge of her Mum.
On the blast of the starting horn, the three Banditas and the three Ākinites set off into a brisk headwind for the first half of the stage, 30km down the valley to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds.
Corrie, Kieran and Geoff did all the work at the front of their small paceline. Every time they pulled over to make the Banditas take a turn, Anna told them to keep pedalling. When Corrie and Kieran decided enough was enough, they dropped back a little, leaving Geoff to work with the ladies. About half way to Havelock, they picked up a few more riders who helped share the effort into the wind.
At Havelock, the riders turned right on to the Queen Charlotte Drive, a spectacularly beautiful 30km road along Mahakapawa and Grove arms of the sounds to Picton. Initially it’s a longish winding, climb up and over to the first cove, followed by a long largely flat stretch through subsequent bays. By now the bunch had grown to about 30 riders, which helped force the pace, requiring tight discipline and strict concentration as each curve of the narrow road flowed immediately into the next.
Team Ākina’s plan was to mark the Banditas until the last climb up to the finish line at Lookout Point above Shakespeare Bay, just outside Picton. They hoped to power away from the Banditas in those last few, high energy kilometres to overtake the Banditas in the general classification.
But about 15km from the finish, Geoff spotted the Banditas had split. Anna was near the front of the bunch but her two team mates had drifted back. With the team time taken on the third rider home, they were in trouble. Geoff and Kieran were merciless. They poured on the power, knowing Corrie, who was a short distance behind them, would easily catch them on the next downhill. He’s a fast and fearless descender.
So, rather than a do-or-die final hill, Team Ākina slogged up a series of hills, never daring to look back for Banditas. Geoff, Kieran and Corrie’s efforts were richly rewarded. They crossed the line six minutes ahead of Las Banditas, and one place higher in the Tour standings – a big margin on the day but a slender victory after 430km and 14.5 hours of exhilarating racing over six stages in seven days.
Meanwhile, Team Ākina Too lived by their touring ethos. Leonie, Donna, Katie, Mike and Rod plus Dave, a solo rider, opted for an early start. They rode well together, taking short turns at the front into the headwind down to Havelock.
Once they turned on to the Queen Charlotte Drive, Katie and Mike pulled ahead up the hill with another bunch, while Leonie, Donna and Rod maintained a purposeful pace all the way to Picton, loving the swooping road and gorgeous scenery all the way.
Right behind them was Trevor Mallard, the Parliamentary Speaker, a mad keen cyclist who had ridden the first three days of the Tour with us, scooted back to Wellington to keep order in the House for three days, then came back for the final stage.
From the hill top finish we rolled a kilometre or so down to the outskirts of Picton. Our speedsters were waiting to cheer us home. Then the eight of us rode together to the ceremonial end of the Tour on the town’s waterfront where riders, support crews, friends and families congregated.
An official team photo followed, then a quick dip in a nearby hotel swimming pool (which the establishment had opened for free to all riders), and our last drawbar lunch. We then scooted down to the ferry terminal to load our bikes and bags. We were delighted our ninth team member, Kay rejoined us there, still in her Ākina riding kit but with her left arm in plaster and a sling.
The four-hour ferry ride across the Cook Strait to Wellington was plenty of time for a bit of a snooze and blog writing. We have a celebratory team dinner tonight in Wellington, with some family members and Paul of Bikes in Schools joining us. Then tomorrow, the Tour grand finale – the criterium races in front of Parliament and the Tour prize-giving in the Grand Hall of Parliament.
…and some more photos from the day: