Talk about jumping in at the deep end. I’ve been in New Zealand almost six weeks and after missing the last two rounds of the local cyclocross series my first race to cover was the New Zealand Criterium Championships.

The races took part on a fast, technical 1.1km circuit around Takapuna’s CBD. It’s a tremendous course, with Dutch-classics level road furniture and a fast loop down by the beach before heading back to the start/finish straight.

Takapuna beach forms a stunning backdrop

Takapuna beach forms a stunning backdrop

I chose the slow route to the race, taking a ferry from downtown Auckland and arriving just minutes before the first under 17s race after hitting very slow traffic on the bus. I had time for a very quick course recce and picked out some good spots for photos as the first lap started.

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The racing was fast but at only fifteen minutes long there wasn’t much opportunity for attacking. The pace seemed to wind up every lap, thinning out the bunch until a group of around ten contested the sprint finish on Hurstmere Rd in front of a big crowd. Ally Wollaston  crossed the line a wheel ahead of Sophie-Leigh Bloxham with Renee Young rounding out the podium.

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Almost immediately the under 17 boys were on the course and there was no building up – this race was fast from the start. The pace took it’s toll early on with a couple of riders being dropped on the second lap. As the bunch dropped onto The Strand on the final lap the leaders started to look around, gauging who would be strongest at the finish.

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I managed to make it back to Hurstmere just in time to see the uphill speed bump take it’s first casualty of the evening, leaving a group of nine to sprint for the championship. Kiaan Watts took the title by a bike length after leading from the u-turn, with Jarred Tremayne and Burnie McGrath one second behind.

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I have to confess I skipped a good portion of the non-championship all-comers event just to get some dinner as there was no break between races. When I came out the field had split into two groups with a couple of riders in between trying to bridge. After missing the finish another spectator told me the race had been shortened at the start, no doubt much to the relief of those riders doing massive solo efforts between the groups!

The last event of the evening to be run entirely in daylight was the elite women’s championship. The field had a host of international riders including Georgia Williams, Courteney Lowe and defending champion Rushlee Buchanan.

The race started at a steady pace but after the first sprint prime, Roxsolt’s Hannah Gumbley flew off the front and managed to build a lead of around ten seconds within a lap.  She was allowed to stay off the front for quite a while but when former champion Pip Sutton bridged the gap, Gumbley couldn’t stay with her and Sutton forged on alone. This prompted a concerted effort in the bunch to control the break and Sutton was brought back with around a third of the race to go.

Next to get away was the fearsome duo of Mikayla Harvey and Rushlee Buchanan, taking the gap up to sixteen seconds within a lap. Coming down the home straight I heard Buchanan shout “keep going, we’ve got this” and she wasn’t wrong – there would be no comeback from this. The leading pair shared the workload evenly for two laps but with the gap narrowing to around ten seconds Buchanan took some massive turns on the front to make sure they stayed away.

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The UHC pro led Harvey around the dead turn to start the finish sprint and was just too strong for the youngster. In a bunch sprint for the final podium spot Madison Farrant edged ahead of Georgia Danford and early attacker Hannah Gumbley.

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Sadly the uphill speed bump took it’s second casualty of the night on the penultimate lap, resulting in an ambulance on the course and a short delay before the men’s race. Hopefully all the injured riders are back on the bike soon.

Ten minutes before sunset the elite men lined up in front of massive crowds on Hurstmere Rd to take the start in what would be a terrifyingly fast race. Average speed was over 45km/hr according to the announcer and I definitely wouldn’t argue! The speed and fading light made for an incredibly challenging race to photograph, becoming impossible after a race official told me not to use flash.  I wasn’t too disappointed though as I got to be a spectator for a while.

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The race started ‘slowly’ in that the peloton stayed together for a couple of laps before Mike Northey took off on an unexpected solo attack. Aaron Strong bridged the gap and the pair worked well together until a co-ordinated effort in the bunch pulled them back before a full on attack-fest broke out. There was someone new off the front every time I saw the race on the next couple of laps until a group of eight established a gap that didn’t look like being closed.

Obviously keen to whittle down the numbers, Northey and Strong pushed the pace and broke away with Regan Gough. Dion Smith joined the three and James Oram tried but never quite got there. Coming into the final lap Smith was on the front and looking very strong but when they came back onto the final straight it was Northey who had attacked solo and was a few seconds ahead. Judging by the roar as he crossed the line it was a popular result.

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There has been a steady flow of male kiwis coming to the UK to race over the past few years and with three more from this race joining ONE Pro Cycling for next season that looks set to continue. Judging by the quality of racing on show in Takapuna they’ll have a huge impact.

The full set of images is available for tagging and sharing on Facebook with print resolution available for sale in the gallery.