When the end of the year rolls around most riders are chomping at the bit to begin their off season, but there is one race in New Zealand that is worth extending a season for.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

The SBS Bank Tour of Southland, which begins this weekend, is a seven day, eight stage tour around the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand.

But the Tour of Southland is more than just another bike race, it is the blue-riband event of New Zealand cycling, the Kiwi equivalent of the Warrny, the historic race that everyone wants to win and the only cycling event that actually makes the nightly news - and on both channels!

What makes Southland special is the suffering.

Being so far south, cold weather is a given, rain is certain, sleet is likely and snow has cancelled stages on many occasions, and this is in November.

And then there are the crosswinds. Trees grow on a lean due to the severe wind that plagues the area. If you want to learn about echelons, come to Southland.

The race begins with a civilized 4.2km team time trial but soon erupts into days of chaos and carnage. There are two summit finishes, the brutally steep Bluff Hill on Stage 2, and the eight-kilometre climb to Coronet Peak which comes at the end of the tortuous 186km fourth stage. Riders will cover a total of 902km over the course of the week - with not a criterium in sight!

Invercargill, the small city from which the tour is based, is known in New Zealand for its hospitality, and the Tour of Southland start list reflects this. There is always an eclectic mix of riders in Southland, from New Zealand's top talents to Europeans trying unsuccessfully to escape winter, to development riders and masters wanting to challenge themselves in the iconic tour. Even Floyd Landis, the controversial American, has competed in the Tour of Southland twice, in 2008 and 2009.

When I asked Kiwi cyclists about what makes the Tour of Southland special they all gave me different answers.

Defending champion Michael Northey said "it's the one real big race in New Zealand that everyone knows and cares about. It's nice to race at home and its a good way to finish off your season."

While for Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Sam Horgan it is the history of the event and the past winners that makes the race meaningful.

The race dates back to 1956, making it New Zealand's oldest tour. It was once part of the Oceania Tour, but lost its UCI ranking in 2009.

The past winners list names many of New Zealand's finest cycling exports, Tino Tabak, Paul Jesson, Eric McKenzie, Stephen Cox, Jack Swart, Brian Fowler, Gordon McCauley and Hayden Roulston. Only one Australian has ever conquered this event, with Malcolm Powell claiming top honours in 1964.

The Australian Huon Salmon - Genesys Wealth Advisers team is contesting the tour this year, convinced by Kiwi team member Joe Cooper to race the event simply because it's awesome.

So I asked Cooper what makes Southland awesome.

"Everything. It's probably the hardest race you can do, period. For a seven-day tour anyway. There is nothing like it anywhere else that I have encountered.

"It's because of the weather conditions, the roads, the stages. They go out of their way to make it extremely hard. I think it's like an Invercargill thing, let's see how we can absolutely crack everyone so they never come back."

But everyone keeps coming back.

They come back because it's too good to miss. It's the one race that is iconic in New Zealand, even farmers stand at their gates to watch the peloton go by. It's a race that makes them stronger, better riders. It gives them war stories like no other, and those stories eventually become the legends of New Zealand cycling.

An experience like no other, it's a race worth delaying your off-season for.

The SBS Bank Tour of Southland begins in Invercargill on Sunday 3 November.