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A third Tour of Southland victory is tantalisingly close for Cantabrian Michael Vink.
The 29-year-old, who rode away from his rivals on the first open road stage on Monday to set the tone for the week, holds a 1min 52sec lead over his closest rival heading into the final two legs of New Zealand’s most prestigious bike race.
Ahead of him is a 13km individual time trial at Winton, a stage he has won multiple times before, and the final nervous 77km stage from Winton to Invercargill.
"It’s really nice to know that my favourite stage is coming up," Vink said of the time trial.
"I’d love to finish it off with a stage win on the last day of the tour, but it’s just about getting through and ticking boxes and bringing the jersey home.”
After twice finishing runner-up, Vink finally broke through to win his Southland crowns in 2018 and 2019.
He also lost the jersey to Aaron Gate on the final stage last year after starting the last leg with a 1sec lead.
The prospect of joining an illustrious group of riders who have won three or more Tours of Southland — which includes Tino Tabak, Brian Fowler and Hayden Roulston — was something Vink has been trying not to get too caught up in.
"It’s hard not to, to be honest, but I’m certainly not going to start counting my chickens," he said.
"I know better than most people that anything can happen in this tour and it’s never over until you are in Gala St."
The peloton again threw everything it had at Vink and his Transport Engineering Southland-Talley’s team-mates on the 151km sixth stage from Invercargill to Gore yesterday.
A strong selection including James Fouche (Bolton Equities Black Spoke Pro Cycling), George Jackson (Creation Signs-MitoQ), Matt Zenovich (Share the Road-Macaulay Ford), Guy Yarrell (Oxford Edge) and Cameron Jones (Onya Bike) finally managed to stay away after a series of surges.
They built a lead of over 2min before Fouche broke up the party on the Glendhu climb, taking his chance at a stage win.
"It was a pretty fast day out," Fouche said.
"We had a fast start and we were trying to chuck a few boys in the breakaway and try to light it up towards the end, but it ended up that the breakaway stayed away, which was good for me and good for the boys.
"We had a good strong bunch of blokes up the road with me. I whacked them with about 20km to go and was able to just hold them off so it was a good day out."
Fouche has held both the king of the mountain and sprint ace jerseys at the same time this week, and is eager to retain the former.
Toppling Vink on the final day is also on the radar of the Bolton squad.
"Our main goal was to win the overall, obviously, and whatever we can get as well as that is a bonus."
Ollie Jones (PowerNet) trails Vink by 1min 52sec, with Luke Mudgway (Bolton) at 2min 21sec and leading under-23 rider Bailey O’Donnell at 2min 35sec.
O’Donnell is protecting a 25sec lead in the pink jersey over noted time trialler Logan Currie, making for some fascinating racing on the final day.
Glenn Haden (Team Couplands) has a 3min lead in the over-35 classification, with Jackson in the sprint ace jersey and Fouche in the king of the mountain shirt and only one climb remaining.
Bolton leads the teams classification.