Reuben’s rocky rides

Season highlight: Queenstown's Reuben Thompson, right, crosses the finish line in second place during last week's Giro della Valle d'Aosta with teammate, and winner, Lenny Martinez

Queenstown pro cyclist Reuben Thompson’s going from strength to strength during his third European season — though it didn’t get off to the flyer he’d hoped for.

Thompson, who celebrated his 21st birthday on his flight to Italy in February, straight after the New Zealand national champs, this week lines up for the five-day Tour d’Alsace, part of the UCI Europe Tour.

He’s coming in fresh off a season-best second overall in last week’s hugely prestigious Giro della Valle d’Aosta, in which he was joint leader with teammate Lenny Martinez — the overall winner — and secured a win in the brutal stage four, known as the ‘queen stage’, being the hardest of the lot.

‘‘That’s definitely the highlight of my season so far, and something I hope to build on [over] the coming months,’’ he says.

However, it’s been a rough ride to date.

Thompson’s last race before leaving NZ was the road national championships, affected by the tail of Cyclone Dovi, which wreaked havoc on the North Island course.

Despite coming fourth in the under-23 time trial — two spots behind his Groupama FJD Continental teammate, Canterbury’s Laurence Pithie — Thompson says it ‘‘certainly wasn’t the nationals I had hoped for’’.

‘‘As a climber, I was looking forward to, and prepared well for, a big opportunity on a really hilly course, but on the day of the event we woke up to gale force winds which had knocked trees down all over the course, forcing a last-minute course change to one which was dead flat.

‘‘We then had the race shortened halfway through, because the wind made it too dangerous to continue, with several of the TV and support motorbikes crashing.’’

In Europe, Thompson says he started racing ‘‘more classics-style races in a pure support role’’ for his team to try to improve his ability in flat races, short climbs and crosswinds, simultaneously getting in some good racing and training kilometres building toward bigger goals in mountain races as the season progressed.

He played his part in helping the team pick up several wins, and also came second overall in the Circuit des Ardennes stage race after making a select front group in a ‘‘crosswind split’’ and seizing the opportunity.

At the end of May, he was team leader for the first time this year in the Rhone Alpes Isere Tour, riding general classification for the yellow jersey.

He says things were looking ‘‘really good’’ after navigating the first three relatively-flat days neck-and-neck with the other favourites.

The fourth and fifth stages held the mountain tests, which Thompson lives for, where the big plays for the yellow jersey could be made.

‘‘However I made a big mistake in a technical descent on stage four, crashing hard at speed, and my hopes of competing for the overall ended there, which was gutting.’’

At the U23 Giro d’Italia, one of the most prestigious races in the world, Thompson finished fifth overall and while he says he’s happy with that result, given the team went in as favourites there was ‘‘some disappointment’’ not to come away with the win.

Now, though, Thompson’s sights are on this week’s Tour d’Alsace, after which he’ll compete in two one-day races in Italy next month.

His last major race for the year will be October’s Ronde de L’Isard, after which he’ll go into camp to prepare for his first World Tour next year, before coming back to Queenstown.

While he skipped most races over the Kiwi summer to focus more on training, he says he doesn’t feel like that’s reaping dividends just yet, ‘‘but hopefully it really pays off in the races coming up’’.

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