PowerNet rider Strong, riding in his third Southland tour, punched his way off the front of a bunch sprint to win the stage into picturesque Te Anau under a stunning blue sky.
“I’ve followed this tour for as long as I can remember, being a young Souhlander growing up and sitting outside of school watching the tour go by Otatara primary school and then sitting in the vans before I was old enough to do it,” Strong said.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve had a lot of near misses in this tour already in the last two years, so to pull it off was a great feeling and one I’ll remember for a long time.”
The major break of the day featured PowerNet’s experienced Paul Odlin, Alexander White (Black Spoke), Dylan Kennett (Transport Engineering-Talleys) and Paul Wright (Creation Signs-MITOQ), who has been prominent in the first two stages.
Wright took out the Blackmount Hillclimb, but the break was shut down between Manapouri and Te Anau, with Strong edging his New Zealand endurance track teammates Campbell Stewart (Base Solutions Racing) and Tom Sexton (Business South) to the line.
“We went in with a good plan for today, all the PowerNet boys were committed and I owe them a lot, it was an awesome team effort and we are riding awesome as a team together and hopefully there’s a few more wins to come this week,” Strong said.
“There wasn’t much wind but it was still a hard day. There were a lot of attacks going in and it was quite aggressive racing, which was nice. It hasn’t been as hard a start to the tour this year, but that just means that when it does get hard it’s going to be that much more exciting.”
Gate (Black Spoke) crossed the finish line in the main bunch to retain the lead for a second day, surviving a scary moment when he was edged towards the barriers and dropped his chain over a speed bump near the line.
He leads teammate and fellow former Southland winner James Oram by 6 seconds, with Tom Sexton (Business South) third at 9 seconds and Strong fourth at 15seconds.
Defending champion Michael Vink (Transport Engineering-Talleys) is in ninth place, 19 seconds in arrears.
“Luckily all the guys were excited this morning so it was good to get stuck in,” Gate said.
“The racing was definitely on right from the gun with a group of us rolling off the front up the first little climb. It’s always a tough start coming out of Riverton and today didn’t disappoint.
“It’s definitely the best weather I’ve had coming out of Riverton. It was quite nice to sit in the peloton and take in some of the sights. It was a pretty magical stage to come into Te Anau today.”
Strong’s efforts saw him take over the Under 23 classification, with fellow Southlander Matt Zenovich retaining the Sprint Ace jersey and Wright in the King of the Mountain jersey.
Glen Haden retained the silver jersey for the leading over 35 rider.
The 64th edition of the Tour of Southland heads into uncharted territory tomorrow with a 6km climb up the Remarkables access road on the end of a 111km stage starting in Mossburn.
The climb is shorter and steeper than the Coronet Peak stage that it has replaced and will provide some stunning views across the Wakatipu basin for those with enough oxygen in their lungs to enjoy it.