The 20-year-old world points race champion has ridden the punchy climb above the port town plenty of times and he was welcomed home by Motupōhue with a cozy blanket of fog as he ground his way into a narrow overall lead with three stages remaining in this year’s race.
The PowerNet rider, who also won the bunch sprint into Te Anau on Tuesday, edged out 2016 winner Aaron Gate (Black Spoke) and defending champion Michael Vink (Transport Engineering-Talleys) to take a 9 seconds overall lead from Vink, with 2013 winner James Oram (Black Spoke) at 15 seconds.
“Before this tour started this is one stage I noted down and thought I could perform well in and to pull it off was pretty special,” Strong said at the end of the 157km stage from Invercargill to Bluff.
After his superb climb up the Remarkables yesterday, 19-year-old Reuben Thompson was part of a 20-strong breakaway group which headed up the road early and included most of the heavy hitters in this year’s race.
As he desperately tried to hold onto the yellow jersey, he received admirable protection from his Vet4Farm teammate Mark Stewart, but as the raiding party approached Invercargill with Bluff Hill on the horizon, the pressure told and his defence came to an abrupt end.
“Everyone knew it was going to be crosswinds today and poor old Reuben had a target on his back in yellow and with a lot of riders wanting to see some crosswind action,” Strong said.
“As soon as we turned the corner it was into the gutter and it was all go from the start. Reuben had a really gutsy ride, he was there for all of 140km of the stage and then he unfortunately fell victim to the crosswinds, but it was an extremely gutsy ride from him and I’ve got a lot of respect for how he rode today. I’ve got the same target on my back tomorrow so hopefully I can fight another day and be on the right end of the splits.”
Strong has already achieved a huge amount in a short career, but winning Bluff is a highlight.
“It’s definitely pretty special. I grew up watching the Tour of Southland, watched it go past my primary school, followed it in the vans for eight years. It took me eight years to win the Yunca Junior Tour of Southland and I’m in my third Tour of Southland. I really want to win it this year but there’s a long way to go and it’s a big ask for me and my team.”
The challenge ahead is a significant one, starting with tomorrow’s 170km stage from Invercargill to Lumsden, the longest in this year’s race.
“We are just going to have to be very attentive and watch whoever is going up the road. I’m a big fan of offence rather than defence, so we definitely won’t shy away from the challenge tomorrow,” Strong said.
There’s also Saturday’s individual time trial in Winton which the likes of Vink and Gate will be eyeing with hungry looks.
“They are all pretty strong time triallers and I’ve got a wee buffer on them at the moment but it’s definitely going to be a big ask. The PowerNet team has been riding really well this tour and we’ve still got Ollie Jones right up there too, so we’ve still got a couple of cards to play but we’ll have to ride exceptionally over the next couple of days to defend this jersey,” Strong said.
Strong has a significant lead in the under 23 classification, while his teammate Paul Odlin rode his way into the silver jersey for over 35 riders.
With Matt Zenovich (Vet4Farm) not making the crucial selection, James Fouche (Creation Signs-MITOQ) took advantage to leap ahead in the Sprint Ace classification while his teammate Paul Wright continues to dominate the King of the Mountain category and Black Spoke lead the team classification.