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The Life and Times | Axel's Army
Axel's Army

♫ Back then long time ago when grass was green
Woke up in a daze
Arrived like strangers in the night
Fab - Long time ago when we was fab ♫
• George Harrison

So, here we are. Season seven, finally a professional rider, and passed the point when the writing of this story began. I started writing this while I was still at Roanne… that was quite a while ago. I thought by this point I’d be writing live! Doubt that will ever happen.

So, the title. Lots of internal debate. Two earlier options: When We Was Fab and the original choice, Hot Fuss, two musical references of, as I can appreciate as a more worldly man than when I began this story, varying qualities. We at Axeon were talented, quite successful then and very successful after, so both would have fit.

I eventually came up with an alliterative answer with which I’m quite happy: Axel’s Army. Because as amazing as the talent I had the privilege to ride with alongside at Axeon was, it all came down to Axel. What a man, with such passion and care of nurturing young talent. A great manager, team director, father and man. Without him I might not have followed through into the professional peloton where I now ride - without him, tens of riders wouldn’t have.

The first thing you notice about Axel Merckx is his name. Obviously. It’s not unfair to say he can feel the pressure of that name, especially in his own pro career when he was younger. But now he has his own career and fulfilment. The second is that he’s still in great shape. The third, when you start to talk to him, is his passion for the sport and nurturing young talent, which he has been so successful at doing. He was the cool uncle and mentor figure, creating a fun but dedicated and successful environment to grow and learn the ropes of the professional peloton. But I’m getting ahead of myself (as usual). I believe I left you just as I was returning home…

That New Kit Feeling

"We looked good."

Late October and early November is the most decadent (though it's all relative) time of our year, but it took on a muted mood as we spent our days with Rose, still recovering from the shock and grief she'd experienced a few weeks ago. Don't get me wrong, we never resented it, but we had no idea what we were doing. She seemed to be getting better and was managing to get her future sorted. Uni, a little farm work for my parents and hopefully building towards some kind of European or American contract for 2016.

We got our first contact from Axeon in late November. The first team training camp was scheduled for January, and we would meet them in Arizona after nationals and before returning for the New Zealand Cycle Classic and REV Classic (not riding for Axeon) alongside countryman and future teammate James Oram. We would make our full Axeon debut in March in Portugal with a couple of stage races. Not much of our calendar after was set in stone yet until we could meet with the management in January, but we both had our eyes on the Tour of California in May and the other American HC races later in the year. In the meantime, we received our first Axeon kits in December to ride the nationals in, and they looked good.


But first we had a lot of hard training to do - for the season ahead and for the annual Boxing Day race, which would for the first time have major handicaps involved, now that there were a pair of pro riders in the mix. Riding with such purpose, knowing that we would be joining such a fantastic squad in just a few weeks, was electric. And that the training camp would be in Arizona - so we'd experience a lot less of a temperature drop (though still a notable one) than the last two years travelling to the Northern Hemisphere in winter, where we’d be getting 20+ degrees down. I was enjoying the New Zealand summer and soaking in the sun, but I couldn't wait to be racing again.
Can't wait to get it going"
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@Croatia14 - Me too! Have done some further in-depth planning of S7 and written a bunch of episodes and I'm excited to bring it to life. I know I say this every time, but hopefully a consistent-ish pace (at least no huge breaks) coming from now on Pfft


"A win here would be as sweet as ever thanks to the new rules."

The local Boxing Day race. For me still, a major event. It used to be something I dreamed of winning, then I did win it, and now it acted as a season opener (thanks to the enormous handicap Hayden and I had been given, it was still a challenge). It was a big deal for all the local cyclists, be they serious, weekend warriors or just happened to own a road bike, people actually did come from a while around to do it on occasion. After my brother, me and even Hayden McCormick had won it in recent times, and teenagers took four of the top five spots last year, the local Strava stars, including my old teacher Mr Becker, had decided it was time to reclaim fairness due to the local golden generation usurping them, and a few of them beginning to grey. A win here would be as sweet as ever thanks to the new rules, and it would bode well for my long-shot title defence of the New Zealand title in a couple of weeks.

And so we waited on the startline, soaking in the summer heat. Eventually, it was just Hayden and I left to go, and he leant over to me.

'Wait up for me?' he muttered.

'Catch me.' I grinned 'I reckon I can make it to Rose and to Mr Becker's group before you get to me.' When would Hayden learn? 20 years old and still waiting until the last minute to make alliances for the Boxing Day race.

Or maybe I was the naive one, because not three minutes after I set off, Hayden had caught me, clearly after a big effort, and proceeded to hang onto my wheel until he recovered. More fool me, I suppose.

Once he had recovered (or at least felt like helping out) we were nearly up to the first stragglers who perhaps still felt the effects of the Christmas meal more than the rest of us (or the Christmas drinks). We moved through them swiftly but it was then proven that I was doubly a fool, as Hayden's strategy of laying it all on the line to get to the next group at the start was clearly the way to go, and I had missed the boat on that front. The handicaps worked out very well and we didn't see any of the serious competitors until just before the final climb.

Having raced the course entirely as a two-man team time trial, we weren't in the best state for it and although we started to make our way through most of the better riders we never saw those we were looking for, namely Rose, my old rival Jack Hastings, and one of Mr Becker's friends, all of whom were left to fight for the win, eventually taken by Jack. We tried to catch up and could see them in the distance on the hill, but it was no good. We crossed the line fourth and fifth, Hayden at least letting me go ahead after sucking my wheel at the start.

Not the confidence booster I was hoping for but, I could recognise now that I had won it before, it's all in a bit of fun. We went back home with Rose and enjoyed the evening with our parents and the girls: board games, cards and some Christmas dinner leftovers (not too much), classic stuff. Everything was good.

"With no European pros, we had one of the strongest outfits next to Avanti."

The National Championships were down in Christchurch this year on a decently hilly course, not quite out to the Port Hills but still some steeper pitches for solid distances within the suburbs. I didn't fancy my chances of a title defence, but with James Oram and Hayden we had one of the strongest outfits next to the stacked Avanti team.

First up, though, was the flat time trial which I had quiet hopes of taking out the U23 title at least, and perhaps looking at a solid top 10 placing given the lack of European guys racing in the TT - no Bewley, Bennett, Bauer, Sergent and more. However with Oram, Hayden, the track cyclists Kennett and Gough, as well as Ollie here, it would be a tough one, not to mention Richie and Mac, both turning out for the Lotto U23 team.

I came into it with good feeling, I knew the course decently well (though not as well as Christchurch boys Kennett and Ollie) from a couple of rides of it and I paced myself really well. I came in early and was second, about a minute behind Joseph Cooper, so I didn't have to sit around in the hot seat, though it was certainly a nervy wait. However as first Hayden, then Kennett, then Ollie and Gough all came in behind me, I started to dream of the U23 title and maybe even a podium in the senior race. I couldn't quite get that thanks to Bevin and eventual winner Vink, but as Jacob came in 20 seconds behind me I had done the former! A really nice feeling and an awesome way to start the year.

The road race saw the return of a couple of the WT guys in Bennett and Bewley and so the field had a different feel with such big hitters, especially Bennett. A solid 183km with 12 laps. I tried to get away on the first lap, but Avanti weren't having it. Worth a go, but I had to pay the price for that amazing day last year somehow I suppose!

The action didn't really get going until a couple of Avanti riders slipped away with 30-ish kilometres to go. Jacob chased after them so we could get a man in the move, whilst Hayden and I stayed near the front for any counter-attacks, which didn't come. From there it was inevitable they would stay away given nobody else really could get organised in the chase, and they fought it out for the win, with Joseph Cooper coming out on top with Jacob a few seconds behind. A good result, but we had ambitions to take the jersey to America with us with such a solid team presence. With Jacob the U23 title was also gone so there was no fun and games to be had for us in the group behind, so we stuck it out in the main group, ending up with Hayden in 8th and me in 11th. Not an awful start to life in Axeon colours by any means, and surely some good results to take with us to the training camp in California.
Copper State

"Ka pai boys!"

thecyclingreport's Top U23 Riders to Watch in 2015

#6 - Hayden Vaillenos, 20 - Another young gun riding in the colours of Axeon Cycling Team, Vaillenos has been consistently there or thereabouts when the road goes up in the age grades and many of his rivals have graduated to the big leagues, whilst he decided to go to the talent machine that is Axeon, in the CT. This year will give him his first taste of .1 and .HC racing as well as another shot at finally turning podiums into wins in the U23 grade. His brother Joseph, himself already a surprise New Zealand champion last year, also looks a promising talent, and together they make me mighty excited about the future of my home country on the world stage - ka pai boys!

Wow, this was exciting! Soon after nationals we landed in Tucson, AZ for our training camp and our first meeting with the team. It was a colourful and very cycling-friendly city, and although we didn't spend too much time at all doing touristy things there it seemed like a great place.

Soon we got to the team base and it was striking how young all the guys were - nobody older than 21. Luckily the staff were great so we were not wanting for mentors or experience. Everyone being English-speakers (almost all native, barring Ruben Guerreiro who spoke it well) was a nice change as well, particularly for Hayden who, unlike me, did not take French very far in school.

Our first bike fittings and training rides went off without a hitch, as did our first meetings with the boys. No instant friends but everyone was upbeat and nice and speaking to them and listening to Axel instilled a great sense of excitement about the season ahead. We didn't have a super set team structure but I had the feeling that Tao Geoghegan Hart, Logan Owen, Hayden and Guerreiro would likely be the main men for us, though guys like James and Greg Daniel both had good results to their name. I wasn't sure quite where I'd fit in but I did want to make an impression outside of being Hayden's brother that tagged along with him.

My planning meeting with the team staff went well, I already knew my early schedule of NZ races with the national squad and then off to Portugal in March after our California camp, but I then got the early hilly U23 classics such as Belvedere and Liege, as well as both RVV and Roubaix Espoirs, which I was excited to try. Then, if I did well, as it was for everybody, the golden goose of California in May was definitely on the table. Too far beyond that was unknown but it seemed likely I'd race a lot of the U23 calendar, similar to Hayden, James and Tao, as well as a bit in America. Everything was looking bright.

Loved it already, but seeing Hayden grow is awesome!
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Very enjoyable reading. Have not been following since the start, but Season 7 has started off great by the looks of it with the U23 title for Hayden. I'll have to try and work my way through the first 6 seasons once I have some time off from school in a few days time Smile
@Croatia - Thanks! Yeah Hayden is looking like quite the young talent at the moment and getting attention after his consistently great 2014.

@valverde - Awesome to hear, thanks a lot Grin The first few seasons will be hard work (bad quality and vague dating to follow) but at least they're short Pfft
In Profile

"Is a hot dog a sandwich or a taco?"


Joseph Vaillenos
Age: 19
Training Base: Wanganui, New Zealand
Language/s spoken: English, French, a bit of Italian
Favorite city: Lyon, France
Favorite Food: Italian
Race you'd one day like to win: Milano - Sanremo
Favorite Christmas Film: Die Hard
Is a hot dog a sandwich or a taco? Taco
- 1st New Zealand National Championships RR, 2014
- 1st Stage 4 Giro del Luningiana, 2013
- 2nd Ronde des Vallés, 2013
- 3rd Rund um den Finanzplatz U23, 2014
- 1st New Zealand National Championships U23 ITT, 2015

Bursting onto the New Zealand scene in 2014 with a solo victory in the Elite Road Rave, Joseph Vaillenos has quietly amassed a very impressive palmares over his time in Europe.

'Yeah the last two years have been tough but I'm really happy with them, I really loved my time with CR4C [his French amateur team] and I think I improved a lot. Axeon was such a perfect next step when they came along and I am excited to learn a lot here.' Joseph said.

Although he spent a lot of his time working for his older brother, Joseph has got some very good results to his name, notably his stage win in the hills of North Italy at the Giro del Lunigiana in 2013 and his breakaway podium at the U23 classic Rund um den Finanzplatz last year. He's still reticent to give us a specialty, like many young riders preferring to develop broadly before honing in.

'I've always been a bit like that, not getting lots of top results but a good all-rounder. I guess I'm a decent puncheur but I like to keep my options open, at least at the moment.' In 2015 Joseph is looking forward to riding in the team environment and learning more about cycling, gaining international experience around America and Europe. He made a winning start to the season, taking out the U23 time trial at the New Zealand National Championships ahead of teammate James Oram.

Hayden Vaillenos
Age: 20
Training Base: Wanganui, New Zealand
Language/s spoken: English, a bit of French and Italian
Favorite city: Brussels, Belgium
Favorite food: Mexican
Race you'd one day like to win: Il Lombardia
Favorite Christmas Film: Home Alone
Is a hot dog a sandwich or a taco? Neither
- 1st Tour de Jura, 2014
- 2nd Junior World Championships, 2012
- 2nd U23 Liege - Bastogne - Liege, 2014
- 2nd Tour de l'Abitibi, 2012
- 3rd Piccolo Giro di Lombardia, 2014

One of the top riders on the U23 circuit in 2014, Hayden Vaillenos makes the step up to the Continental Tour as part of a two-man package with his younger brother, Joseph.

Hailing from the North Island of New Zealand, Hayden, alongside his brother and his countryman James Oram, follows in the footsteps of Axeon alumni George Bennett, Jesse Sergent, and Sam Bewley as they try to make a name for their small country on the world stage through Axeon.

"Axeon is just such a great team with a lot of respect in cycling and for good reason, the set-up here is fantastic and the list of former riders speaks for itself, it was an instant yes when we were offered a contract here. I'm really excited to be here to try and go to the next level." said Hayden.

A versatile rider with results in sprints and on tougher stages, with podiums in both the junior and U23 Liege - Bastogne - Liege, a top 10 in the Tour de l'Avenir and 2nd in the Junior World Championships in Valkenburg 2013 speaking to his credit, Hayden continues to set his sights higher as he enters his third year on the U23 circuit.

'At the moment I really want to do my bit for the team, we don't know yet what capacity we'll all be in and that will be race-by-race I suppose. I'd like to get my results and improve my knowledge and riding, but I'm excited to be part of such a strong team environment as well. I know we can win a lot of races and that's never not a great thing to be a part of.'
I dont think I've ever heard the "is a hot dog a sandwich or taco" take before. sandwich maybe but taco never. I think we can all agree Home Alone and Die Hard are the two best Christmas movies so good picks there.
valverde321 wrote:
I dont think I've ever heard the "is a hot dog a sandwich or taco" take before. sandwich maybe but taco never. I think we can all agree Home Alone and Die Hard are the two best Christmas movies so good picks there.

I hadn't even considered it but the official Axeon website included it when I was looking over it so I assumed it was a popular argument in America :lol: For me it's neither, possibly a sandwich if it's American-style with a proper bun but still weird Pfft

And great to hear you're a man of taste when it comes to Christmas movies, those two were very much lifted from myself Grin

"The race was entirely in the Manawatu, so our family would be on the road."

In the New Zealand Cycle Classic we did not enter as Axeon riders but as part of one of two New Zealand national teams, the 'White' team as opposed to the 'Black' one. Both squads looked very strong, the other side had Dion Smith and our Axeon teammate James Oram, whilst Hayden would lead us, with me and a couple of other Kiwis. There was some strong competition from the other NZ team as well as solid teams such as Avanti and Budget Forklifts. The race this year was entirely in and around Palmerston North, just over an hour from our house, so somebody from the family would be somewhere on the road for all of the stages, which was nice.

The race opened with a short prologue won by recent National Champion Joseph Cooper, I had hoped to be in white at the end of the day (I was U23 TT champion, after all) but I had to settle for second in that competition, two seconds off the mark of Fraser Gough. However this did put me fourth on the stage which I was pretty pleased with - Hayden was 10th so we made a good start.

Stage 1 featured a very tough time at the start with a lot of competition before a wild 15-man group got away, I managed to be in it, we saw that Avanti and other major players were in there and we knew how that would turn out in a smaller race. We were right as at least some of the group stayed away, as Jason Christie won ahead of Gunman and Barry. I was the last one dropped outside of the leading four, and came in with the best of the peloton including Hayden and Dion Smith, 1:11 down and leaving me 5th on GC with Hayden in 7th. I moved into the white jersey as Gough finished minutes behind. It was looking like a three-way battle between me, Hayden and Smith, but I was still committed to working for Hayden on the tougher stages.


The next day was another lumpy one, one of our teammates joined the breakaway which was caught midway through the stage, followed by a second break attempt which saw most major contenders in there, including both Hayden and I. Avanti had a very strong presence with four riders including their GC men Christie and Gunman, Symantec and us both had two apiece. The group stayed together and distanced the pack by a long way. Avanti controlled affairs but going into the final kilometre it was I who grabbed the initiative and set Hayden up for a sprint against Gunman, Smith and a Symantec rider. It was looking like a close thing but in the last 50m Hayden got some distance and grabbed stage victory with room to celebrate. Reduced sprints are pretty easy for him when Caleb Ewan and Dylan Teuns aren't around, it turns out.

No bonuses but we did drop 3rd and 4th on GC, moving me into third with Hayden in fifth - I was still a minute behind the Avanti 1-2 of Christie and Gunman with the hardest stages still to come - a summit finish followed by a rolling day with a steep climb 10km from the line.
@ALL - Spent some time re-reading seasons 1-5 since it's been a long old time with negligible speeds the last few years to connect with some storylines and these characters, gained a lot of motivation from it and did a decent amount of editing of mistakes and fine-tuning, so, (since I'm constantly thirsty for new readers Pfft), if anybody wanted to catch up or current readers to re-read, I can actually kind of recommend it even though I didn't rewrite so the first seasons aren't stunning still Pfft

Palmy II

"Staying off the road markings seemed a good idea."

Early on Stage 3 around 15 riders got away from the pack. Some bigger names such as Oram, former yellow jersey Barry and KoM leader Gillet but none of the contenders still on GC. They got around three minutes at max over the course of the day but eventually started to come back. The route was a circuit for the most part including one significant but not too difficult climb before turning off for the final climb (1.8km at 7.5% with slopes at 15%), the only summit finish of the race and a GC moment waiting to happen.

Later in the stage, Dion Smith put in an effort over the main climb to try and bridge across to the front group with one of his teammates, I followed closely and this all triggered a response from Avanti, with Hayden tucked comfortably into the wheel of race leader Gunman. It all ended up back together though under the control of the stacked Avanti team, with national champ Joseph Cooper, second place in that race Tom Davison, and the powerful Fraser Gough working for the green jersey of Christie and Gunman's yellow. Up ahead, the break saw a big move from fan favourite veteran and all-around great guy Gordon Macauley, James Oram and Nick Bain which saw them go clear to try and hold off the GC men in the fight for stage honours.

My plan was to initially attack the penultimate climb but Avanti's stranglehold was too strong - we decided to rethink and just go for it on the final ascent. Up ahead, our Axeon teammate Oram showed his class and rode away from his companions before the final climb, taking the stage by the best part of a minute.

Avanti wanted to diesel the final climb and neutralise it until their top duo was ready to go, but we were not having that if we could help it. At the bottom of the climb I attacked hard and Smith had to follow, and when Gough and Davison couldn't stay on our wheel we got a gap which Christie himself shut, eventually towing away the rest of the top five on GC plus a Budget Forklifts rider for a six-man GC fight. Delicately poised with two sets of two and two solo riders, we had to think on the fly for the plan of best attack. Luckily Hayden thought and he flew from Gunman's wheel and nobody could latch on. I followed in behind Gunman, sat back and enjoyed the show. Ok, I was suffering too, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Hayden rode hard to the finish eventually catching Macauley and very nearly Bain, coming in 23 seconds ahead of our group and moving ahead of me on GC and into the white jersey. A show of power but still the best part of a minute - 44 seconds - back up to Gunman.


The final stage was the longest of the tour, 167km with a tough hill at the start which was repeated from the other, steeper side at the end before a descent and short uphill finish. Any GC action would most likely be kept until the end, but in this race with a much smaller field and often different tactics than we were used to in Europe, anything could happen. It was raining but still hot, so it would be slick and staying off the road markings seemed a good idea.

Avanti tried to put someone in the early breakaway moves but I managed to mark them and so they didn't get anybody away. One of our teammates, as well as one of Dion Smith's, made it in there over the climb, though, so it would be on Avanti once again to do the work. The breakaway would eventually split up leaving just a Symantec and a National Team Black rider up ahead with, at one point, over six minutes' advantage, with neither one being much of a GC threat. However they would get brought back on the final climb.

Just before the final climb, the Budget Forklifts rider I finished with yesterday, Prete, launched a big attack. He was no GC threat but he looked very strong yesterday and now today as he blew through the breakaway ahead of us. Oram launched a counter-attack looking for the stage and Hayden followed them, leading to Avanti stepping up the chase, but given the acceleration onto the climb, Hayden had a big gap already. Over the top they had a good 20-25 seconds so they'd need a fast descent and to keep it going, but all three were very committed, I guess Hayden probably said that he wouldn't go for the stage win.

He would lead out the sprint ferociously for more seconds and Prete would eventually edge out Oram for the win, but the real race for us was going on behind. Unfortunately there wasn't enough time and he only made around half of the gap he needed back up to the Avanti duo, leaving him 3rd on GC. With his stage win, it was a great result but it did seem like he was the strongest guy here (though of course, we couldn't know that as Gunman and Christie never had to respond to him with their super strong team). I would end up 4th, hanging on despite losing a few seconds to Smith on the final uphill drag. I was over the moon with that. I didn't feel like the fourth-strongest here and I definitely wasn't, but I played the game well and I still earned that one! A brilliant race for us both in what was basically a home tour for us, and continuing our fine start to the season - even if this one wasn't in the Axeon colours. Easily my best result in a .2 race to boot - the absence of French PCT teams did help me out slightly, I admit.
Edited by jandal7 on 20-04-2020 10:52
4th is a really good result! Also I love the write-up, and the racing fills my soft-spot of those lesser known races. Can't wait for Saso to beat his ass once he's reached 2020 though Pfft
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Croatia14 wrote:
4th is a really good result! Also I love the write-up, and the racing fills my soft-spot of those lesser known races. Can't wait for Saso to beat his ass once he's reached 2020 though Pfft

Yeah really good stuff from Joseph! Thanks a lot, I really enjoy writing the smaller races and doing research where I can - found an hour long summary video on youtube which helped greatly on this one in addition to reports Grin

Joseph has four or five years on Saso, hope he can stay away. And at the very least I am able to tell Saso to eat some cookies to slow him down Pfft
Little Baa Baa

"Little Baa Baa was all alone."

Just the REV Classic, New Zealand's answer to Strade Bianche and only UCI classic, to go for our time in New Zealand with the national team, but that wasn't for another month. It would be a hard month with no racing but also not in America or even Europe, just training at home. Then three weeks in Cali for the team's major camp and five in Europe for our first major block of racing.

The schedule:
- GP Alentejano e Costa Vincentina (2.2)
- Volta ao Alentejo (2.2)
- Trofeo PIVA (1.U23)
- Giro Belvedere (1.U23)
- Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften (1.U23 National Team)
- La Côte Picarde (1.U23 National Team)
- Liege - Bastogne - Liege Espoirs (1.U23)

A big month for us all. All of Hayden, Ruben Guerreiro, Tao Geoghegan Hart and James Oram would be at the first two hilly Portuguese races and Liege, with all but Guerreiro at the Italian classics. I knew Hayden would want to lead at least the U23 races given his results there last year but we were a team with an embarrassment of climbing riches, and I still wasn't quite sure how they'd handle it. At least the structure was somewhat more clear in La Côte Picarde where we'd work for Hayden, and Ronde van Vlaanderen Espoirs, where we'd just kind of see how it went.

However, our month of training in Whanganui ended abruptly halfway through, when Hayden came over to the outdoor table one evening, where I was helping Eva with her reading and Dad was drinking a beer, having finished up the day's farm work.

'Dad, I just got off the phone with someone involved in the Colnago case. I have to go to Italy for the 23rd to testify.' he said slowly, looking surprised.

'Again?' I asked.

'Yeah. It's just getting bigger. I don't think it goes to the top but the police seem to be working hard to get it all. Hopefully it's done this year I guess.'

'Well of course, you have to go.' said Dad warmly. 'You're a good man for this, Hayden. You know Mum and I, we're very proud of you doing this and we'll help you see it to the end.'

'Thanks, Dad.' Hayden smiled briefly. I knew he wanted it over, but also that my brother wouldn't stop helping out with testimony until it was done - he wanted the dopers gone as much as anyone.

'Guess you'll have to race REV alone Joey.' Hayden said, sitting beside Eva and slapping me on the back. 'Oooh, alone. Little Baa Baa was all alone.' he said slowly, pointing at the corresponding words in Eva's book and then at me, resulting in a good giggle for Eva and Dad. I smiled dryly. I'm always happy to entertain.
REV it Up

"I'm really running that joke into the ground now aren't I?"

The REV Classic took place in the Waikato in the centre of New Zealand's North Island, starting and finishing in the town of Cambridge, the home of NZ Cycling (housing the country's top-class velodrome used for UCI events) and a lot of high-performance sport in general. I hadn't spent as much time there as many of my fellow Kiwi cyclists but naturally we knew our way around thanks to various meetings, testings, junior tours and just generally because the velodrome is cool and we had been there.

A mostly flat course with one decent-sized climb (4km @ 7%) 30-40km out. The main attraction was the multitudes of gravel road sectors. I was no expert on the gravel, but we'd done it before and paid it extra heed in the month leading up to the race. I'd be in a very similar set-up to the NZCC, but this time with only one NZ national team I'd get to race with James, which was nice. Oh and we rode past Hobbiton early in the day, which was also pretty neat.

The race went as smooth as we could have hoped for on a warm late summer's day, and the break was beginning to be caught as we got to the climb. After a day of punctures and deceptive attrition given the gravel sectors, the already small startlist had been whittled down into a much reduced peloton of around 20, given credence to the idea the first attack here might well stick. We (James, myself and teammate Roman van Uden) all stayed near the front, the plan being to have one, preferably both, of James and I in whatever the front group would be over the top. I was somewhat surprised to be a leader, but after my performance in the NZCC I was starting to confirm my presence in NZ Cycling after my shock NC win last year. I was no George Bennett or Greg Henderson, but people knew my name - my first name and everything! No longer Hayden Vaillenos' brother - now I could be Hayden Vaillenos' younger brother who's quite good actually. I'm really running that joke into the ground now aren't I?

Last year's victor Paddy Bevin attacked and both James and I knew that there would be a selection over this climb that would likely stick. He followed Bevin directly with a sharp kick up to join the Avanti leader, whilst I stayed near the front and kept an eye on the counterattacks as I found myself in a group of around 15 forming quickly over the climb with representatives from most teams.

Of us, Avanti and Budget Forklifts, the three strongest teams, only Budget Forklifts didn't have a leader in the front group and experienced Kiwi rider Michael Torckler looked to rectify that pretty quickly before Bevin and James road too far away. I didn't much fancy him joining James and marked the attack, looking to promote failed attacks rather than an organised chase. However Torckler was on a great day and nobody could follow (with Avanti and Budget discouraging anybody from doing so by blocking out the front) and he ended up dragging me away from the group. We had a third card to play in sprinter van Uden, who was riding well on the climb, and so I had no qualms in seeing where this could go - if I could end up in the front group with James I'd be a very happy bunny.


I took the lead for the first time as we hit the gravel descent, I had previously been making Torckler do the work but as the leading duo came into sight I decided to use my descending skills to shut the gap on the way down. The month of gravel training paying off as I didn't have so much as a wobble on the downhill sectors. Now with 15km flat and entirely paved to go, I was starting to feel the toughness of the day in my legs but I pushed through the pain with the adrenaline of the race coursing through me. It had been a tough day on the gravel with such a small peloton and it was weighing on us all - Torckler in particular. I pushed the pace for a while, as was my duty to a certain extent, and pushed us out of sight of the chasers. I swung out and to the back of the group for a chat with James. Usually, Hayden and I found it easy to have somewhat secret chats in English when we raced in Italy or France, but over here Torckler and Bevin knew exactly what we were saying if they could hear us, so we had to be quiet. Luckily, the tactics we employed were obvious even to the casual cycling fan - who let's be honest wasn't tuning in to a .2 classic but that's beside the point. We both knew of Bevin's sprint, and I didn't think we could shake him on the flats with only one gravel sector left. Torckler looked pretty tired. And so it only made sense that one of us - probably me as the 2nd choice - would have to attack and force Bevin to tow the other to the line. We just needed to know when to time it. Basic stuff, right?

That may have sounded like bait for me to tell you how awfully it went, but we executed it well. Oram put in his attack with 9km to go on the gravel and Bevin was the one automatically who had to chase him down as Torckler was on the limit now as the tempo kicked up a notch. I wasn't exactly freewheeling but I stayed tight on Bevin's wheel as he eventually got across. The flat gravel made for grindy racing which wasn't my strongest suit, so I was glad it was over as I immediately replied with an attack, I and broke the elastic enough that it would be a prolonged chase for Bevin, absolutely perfect for us. I doubted my chances of taking the win with 8km still to go, but if I could go for 5-6km and not blow up so that I could do something for James at the finale then I'd have done a good job.

Straight roads with only gradual bends awaited us on the way back into town which, as any cycling commentator will tell you whenever there is a rider being chased, gave a slight psychological advantage to Bevin as he kept me within his sights. I looked to stay within my limit and never got more than 10 seconds I wouldn't have thought, but I kept Bevin riding at or above threshold whilst James got a free pass. I checked behind me and was pleased to see that Torckler was gone now, we had whittled it down to a 2 vs 1.

I just kept riding my solid tempo expecting to be caught, didn't try that hard to not be, and I duly was. Maybe not the best attitude to head out there with, and I was probably too afraid to fail. There was two kilometres left and we were faced a tough situation, we seemed to be out of sight of the chasers but we would be swept up if we started playing about, and we couldn't give Bevin too much respite heading into a sprint. Did we attack again - either me who had just got reeled back in, or James, leaving our sprint hope as me, a guy who had just attacked? It had to be me, I had enough energy to attack, and I went for it after a few moments in the wheels. This time I was all in, I just needed to buy James some more time, and it was working! It was working really well, I was still out ahead, I glimpsed the duo behind me under my shoulder 8-9 seconds behind again and I didn't look back, I passed the final corner, 700m left to go along the Cambridge main street...

Shit. I felt it now, that feeling athletes dread - I couldn't keep this up. Damn it, come on legs! I had to keep going but the pain was too much and although I felt like I pushed through it, my legs just plain weren't going as fast now. 300m to go, I tried to get out of the saddle and give myself something, anything to keep me ahead, but as soon as I sat back down Bevin came flying past me, James still in his wheel. I thought for a second he may have given up, but clearly he didn't and he capitalised on my capitulation. I couldn't get on the wheel and so I briefly checked behind me. Nobody there. I slowed up and watched the finish. With 150m to go Oram started to come around, and he was too fast for Bevin at the death of such a tough race - we'd done it! I punched the air and grinned as I rolled across the line in third, a job well done by the both of us to tire out the race favourite, and a beautiful first non-NC race together for us ahead of a season where we'd be together constantly in both national and trade team colours - in fact we'd fly out two days after that victory to join the California training camp with Axeon.

After the race I finally had that special moment - the first little Kiwi to ask for my signature. It sounds dumb but it was a very surreal and super cool experience - I'd had a couple of little Frenchies but a young cycling fan from NZ who knew my name and thought I was pretty cool? That was awesome, and I enjoyed the moment, chatting to him and taking a photo. If there's a young Riley from Hamilton in the pro peloton in 15 years, you heard about him here first!

Was I disappointed I didn't take the win? A little, I never dared to think I'd won it but I should have from there - a better rider would have. But I had to keep my head on straight - this was one of my best career results, and I felt I could forgive my 19-year-old self cracking at the end of such a tough race where he'd set his leader up for a win.
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