You have to be good enough to win the Ford Tour of Samoa. Not only that, you also need some luck. One more ingredient, and an important one at that, it is helpful to have a few friends in the Peloton to vouch for your cause when you need it.
From the outside, a group of riders on the Tour of Samoa looks like an idyllic and beautifully motioned movement of people and machines along the route. Invisible to the naked eye, is the scheming and manipulating manoeuvring that goes on in the peloton from Day 1 to the final racing Day on Day 4. It is no different to any Cycle tour, like the Tour de France or Tour Downunder. The Tour of Samoa is no exception.
Local knowledge is an advantage defending champion Christian Wengler brought with him this year. He wanted to win the Tour for the third time. He arrived early with partner Rebecca Marley who won the Women’s Tour last year to acclimatise. In tow with them was good mate and another top rider in Andrew Price. Other riders that will feature in this story includes Brent Thomas and Mike McKay of Wellington, Dave Chaplin of Tasmania, Dave Gorrie and Grant Wengler – Christian’s older brother – of Christchurch and Tim Robertson of Melbourne Victoria. Mark Lerwill of USO was in there too.
The Tour started easy enough with a neutralised 25km from Apia to Falefa on Day 1. This is to take in the road conditions and more importantly, to ease riders into the tour. Then the brakes were released at Falefa and the serious contenders were off.
Any thoughts of a close race up front quickly evaporated on that first climb. Wengler streaked ahead and easily collected the first two mountain climbs at Le Mafa Pass and Afulilo. At the end of Stage 1 at Lalomanu, Wengler had five minutes on the second Tour rider and eventual winner Robertson.
Second stage to Maninoa, Siumu was a measured one for the early Tour leader. With five minutes up his sleeve and the mercury registering in the high 30s, there was absolutely no breeze to counter the heat of the day, Wengler took it easy and crossed the line in the end of day on with his advantage intact. More importantly for Wengler, he could now see who was in the wolf pack that would challenge his championship.
Robertson, who finished fourth last year was a different rider. He was equal to the heat and he stayed with the untouchable Wengler to the end of Stage 2. Price was next to finish followed by Mike McKay, another rider well known to Wengler from his Wellington days.
Day 2 was a telling day. The younger Wengler again took off early on Stage 1 and put distance on the rest of the group on the 10km climb at Lefaga. He wanted to be first up that hill and he was. The descend down to Leulumoega and the coastal road was fast and furious. The finish of this stage at Sheraton Resort was not far away. Wengler had a smile on his face thinking he had put a good distance between him and the chasing pack. Just past Faleolo airport and going like the wind he turned around to just to check. To his absolute horror, the pack was not behind. The peloton was approaching fast and collectively they had better movement than the sole rider. He hurried along and crossed the finish at Sheraton only a few minutes ahead, instead of a lot he thought he had. He was still the race leader, but his invincibility was being challenged not by one rider, but by a few. There is stage 2 Salelologa to Manase to come on Day 2.
That stage was fairly even. On balance, Christian’s overall lead was now being challenged. The 37km Time Trial the next day, from Manase to Vaimoana Resort in Asau is another race.
Riders will be riding individually and cannot draft in a peloton. He was still very much ahead, but he is a smart rider who now wants to ensure he takes advantage of his superior individuality on Day 3. And after Day 3, is the 100km Challenge and final race stage. His nearest rival was Tim Robertson. Chappie (Chaplin) would be up there too but for the three punctures he had taking a lot of time off his total. Wengler had the measure of Price and McKay but threat of Tim Robertson was very much present.
Wengler was the last to start the time trial. With two minutes between riders he had some time to make up. Robertson went before him, Price and McKay were four and six minutes further ahead.
Chappie, Gorrie and Lerwill a further six minutes ahead. They were the target.
The Time Trial course had its own agenda. The first 20kms to Aopo village is easy enough. There is a sharp jut at Aopo to end the 12km gradual hill from sea level. Then there is the downslope to Asau village at the end of the stage. That is a treacherous piece of road. The winding downhill slope is full of danger and hazards. Riders were briefed more than once to slow down here and not race. It is one of two danger spots on tour. The other is the fast downward slope to Leulumoega on Upolu. On approaching Asau the champion was catching them one by one. He caught a few more on the fast slope at Asau, including Andrew Price. Earlier, and much earlier, Wengler had overtaken a tiring Timmy Robertson a few kilometres from Aopo.
He relayed that information to Pricey as he went past him in a flash, “Timmy is struggling. He’s way back!” Pricey got the message and got excited in return.
A little ahead, the ever cautious Brent Thomas was not happy with Pricey and Wengler’s speed, and waved them to slow down. They went past him too. At the bottom of the hill the unfortunate happened. A car with hazard lights flashing decided to turn right in front of the fast approaching Wengler, who thought the car was slowing to stationary. He smashed into it at 65kms per hour. His tour was over, but with adrenalin pumping and bravery to match, he picked himself up and rode the last 2kms to finish the stage. He was third in the time trial, four minutes behind Chappie and Lightning Lerwill. Amazing really, considering there was a good five minutes spent at the crash site talking to the driver, witnesses and taking pictures of the accident for the insurance company and the police report to follow. He was a mess though. The reality of what happened was dawning on him. His tour was over. It could have been worse.
With the champion out of the Tour, Robertson was now the new race leader. The race though was anyone to take. His lead was marginal. The 100km stage to Amoa Resort from Vaimoana Resort was a matter of tactical manoeuvres for everyone now.
Chappie was the superior rider there but he was riding on his own up front. The “Tassie devil” prefers it that way. The chasing peloton had Price, McKay, Lerwill, Thomas, Gorrie and Robertson n tow. It was working well in the chase. The new race leader did a lot of work up front in the pack, but when he punctured at Gataivai-uta with half the race to go all hell broke loose.
Pricey saw his chance and took off while Robertson attempted to repair his punctured chances. There are protocols in such situations, even in competitive racing – that you do not attack the race leader in a flat tyre situation. Pricey may have known about that unwritten rule, but the race was within his grasp and he is an excitable fellow. Now was his chance. He took off.
The pack would not have a bar of that. The chase was on to rein in the Wellingtonian. By this time Tour mechanic Dylan Harpour was on the scene and quickly started the repair process of the Victorian’s tube. The elder Wengler also happened on the unfortunate Tim and saw what happened. The switch was made, Grant handed over his bike to Tim and he waited for the puncture to be repaired. Tim was on his replacement saddle to rein back first the peloton and second the runaway Andrew Price.
Meanwhile the Peloton quickly caught up to Pricey, and kept him up at the front to take the head wind for the pack. They kept him there for a while. Tomasi – Thomas’ new race name – firmly and quickly shut down Pricey’s advance, with the help of the rest of the peloton. That slowed up the Peloton enough for Tim to catch up. Pricey was working hard up front, and next thing Tim was alongside the pack. He had caught up.
Tim Robertson crossed the finish line one second behind Chappie and Lerwill in the end. His lead was intact, even with the imposed penalty of 90 seconds for the tyre change. His first championship in Samoa was achieved with a bit of luck, some backroom manouvering by his mates, as well as great riding on his part to be race leader going into the final stage. There was some great racing witnessed on this year’s Tour.