Sometimes it pays to go with the early breakaway. Sometimes, the breakaway stays away. For the first four stages of the of the Tour of New Zealand, Evie Stevens and Shara Gillow rode the early breakaways every day. In the end, the two riders finished first and second overall with Stevens winning by one second over Gillow. The general classification battle came down to the sprint for time bonuses on the final day.
The Tour of New Zealand unfolded as a back-and-forth battle between the U.S. national team and GreenEdge. Riding for the U.S., Kristin Armstrong won the prologue and held the race lead for the first three stages. Evie Stevens rode the break, while Carmen Small did solid work on the front to drive the field in the finishing kilometers each day. For GreenEdge, Shara Gillow rode the break while Judith Arndt, who won the 2011 edition of the race, looked set to challenge Armstrong for the overall. Arndt won stage 3, climbed to second at 11 seconds behind Armstrong.
The following day, that all changed. A nine rider break, including Stevens and Gillow, went up the road and stayed there. They finished 7:33 up on the main field. Two riders, Emma Crum and Amy Bradley jumped ahead with young rider Crum taking the stage victory. Stevens won the seven-up sprint for third ahead of Gillow, which put the American into the race lead. Five seconds divided Stevens and Gillow going into the final stage of the race.
With the general classification still in play, GreenEdge sent Judith Arndt up the road in the hope of drawing Kristin Armstrong into following. Armstrong did follow, and a lead group of five riders formed. With race leader Stevens back in the field, Armstrong soon sat up and dropped back. Linda Villumsen, meanwhile, attacked from the main field and together with Huang Dong Yan and Carly Ryan, Villumsen bridged to the break.
Reaching the front group, Villumsen did not linger. The local girl attacked the break and went up the road solo. With ten kilometers left to race, Villumsen had two minutes on the main field, and the stage win in sight. With her solo victory, Villumsen gave GreenEdge its second stage victory of the race.
Back in the main field, the general classification still hung in the balance. The bunch sprint for time bonuses would decide it. To win the overall, Gillow needed to win the bunch sprint for second, and she needed Stevens to finish outside the top three. The GreenEdge women organized a lead-out for Gillow, but she could not get past Italian sprinter Monia Baccaille who took second on the stage. Gillow finished third. Stevens, meanwhile, finished fourth directly behind Gillow. Stevens took her first stage race victory of the season by one second over Shara Gillow. Taryn Heather of Jayco finished third overall at 13 seconds.
Stevens, who has been working with a new coach over the off-season, has not been known for her finishing speed. It's an intriguing development in her career as a rider to see her placing well in head-to-head sprints. Of course, it's early days yet in this season, and the women's field is split between the race in New Zealand and the European openers. In any case, Stevens must surely be happy to come home from New Zealand with a win and the cache of UCI points that come with it.