Tour of Southland - more than a bike race
At 62, the Tour of Southland is approaching retirement age, yet shows no sign of slowing down.
Southlanders are rightly proud of this bike race, the most prestigious stage race in New Zealand, but we rarely take the time to celebrate just how special this event is.
Most of the time we leave it for others to say, and they aren’t shy in saying it.
Talk to just about any visiting rider or manager from last week’s race and you’ll hear a similar refrain.
Great organisation. Great sponsors. Great support from the community. A great course.
We joke about the weather, of course, but it’s the wind and the rain and the hail which gives the Tour of Southland its defining character.
Like a links golf course, the race just plays better if the elements play their part.
Steve Nicholls, a weekend warrior from Hawke’s Bay, rode his first Tour of Southland in 2017 as a bucket list event.
That year’s race featured a series of days in the mid-20s and the wind barely made an appearance. It was benign, and if it hadn’t been for a tremendous ride from eventual champion James Piccoli on the stage to Gore, it would have been a bit beige.
But this year, after surviving the screaming front which greeted the peloton at McCracken’s Rest on the wild southern coastline, and the hail on top of the Blackmount, and the head wind from Gorge Road all the way back to Invercargill before the climb up Motupohue, Nicholls has stories which will last him for the rest of his life.
“At the time I just wanted to get off my bike and jump into the team van, but now I can say I’ve ridden a real Tour of Southland,” Nicholls said.
And it’s those stories which nourish tour mythology, those stories which get spread around the cycling world and help to promote Southland.
What price can we put on an event which provides this level of exposure, with stunning images of our province going out around the country and the world?
In fact, could more be done to maximise that exposure and use the Tour of Southland as a platform for positioning Southland as one of the best places in New Zealand to come and ride your bike?
An essential aspect of cycling, which can be a hard, lonely and exhausting pursuit, is sacrifice.
Major sponsor SBS Bank this year opted not to have their branding on the Most Combative jersey, not wanting to distract from the awesome design work of 10-year-old Ruby Jackson, from Invercargill.
They also took their branding off a team they support all year so that room could be made for Ronald McDonald House. How many sponsors are willing to do that?
Tour director Bruce Ross and his family are closely linked with the Tour of Southland, you could say that they are the race.
Ross took over as tour director in the early 1980s and has been involved in some capacity for 49 years. Next year will be his 50th, and last as director.
The race will undoubtedly undergo some change when his successor, whoever that it is, takes over, but that’s nothing new for this race.
Over the years the tour has grown from three days to six. A big field for much of its history would have been 30-40 riders. Last Sunday, 108 riders started the race, with only nine of them from Southland.
Graham Sycamore, who has been involved with the Tour of Southland for 52 years, recalled being part of small group who were charged with reviving the race in 1969.
There were grave fears that the race was dying and those volunteers were given the responsibility of reviving it.
Every year the race has been tweaked, changed, improved on - a cycle of improvement, you might call it.
It’s the people who make this event special, however. The riders love the schools who come out to cheer them on, the people who gather on the climbs and in the small towns, the businesses who chip in with sponsorship both little and large.
There’s more than 120 volunteers involved in the race, donating thousands of hours of their time.
The Tour of Southland will endure, because this isn’t just a bike race, it’s part of who we are as Southlanders. It’s part of the fabric of this place.
Did you know….Southlanders and volunteering
41.2% of adults in Southland volunteered in sport and recreation at least once over the previous 12 months (compared to 28.6% of adults across all of NZ) – Active NZ 2013/14.
43.8% of adult men and 38.2% of adult women volunteered.
Parent helper (24.2% of all adults) and coach/instructor (15.3% of all adults) were the two most common volunteer roles in Southland (similar to all of NZ).
Over 4/10 (43.7%) of 10 – 18 year olds in Otago/Southland said they volunteered in sport or recreation in 2011.
35% of volunteers in NZ say that the reason they volunteer is to contribute to their community (GEMBA 2015 – Sport NZ Volunteering Insights Report).
It was estimated that in 2012/13 volunteer hours in sport and recreation contributed $38.5 million dollars to the regional GDP.