In just a few days’ time, most of New Zealand will be putting their feet up and salivating at the thought of a slice of pavlova on Christmas Day. Spare a thought for Ethan Mitchell who will forgo dessert for a shot at hometown glory as he trains through the festive season to prepare for the Cambridge round of the TISSOT UCI Track World Cup from 18-20 January.

While most of us can’t think of anything worse than having to turn down additional helpings at Christmas lunch, it is part of the sacrifice for Mitchell who assures me it is all worth it.

“I’m incredibly lucky to have a group of amazing friends who understand what I do, and I can’t even explain how supportive my parents and family are. I think for sure there’ll be a pre-Christmas lunch ride in there though just to offset any overindulging!”

Mitchell and his teammates Eddie Dawkins and Sam Webster are focused on performing well in Cambridge, given a mechanical mishap cost them any shot of recording a time they were capable of in Paris, and having just missed the podium in Milton.

“We’re relatively process oriented in our approach now. In saying that, I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were going out to win on our home turf; that’s just a given. I’m sure Eddie and Sam would both back me up on that. We’d really like to lay down a performance that’s right up there in the world in terms of time.”

This world cup presents the trio with an opportunity to pick up valuable qualifying points for the World Championships to be held in Poland in late February, and ultimately, Tokyo 2020.

“We get to stay in our own homes, race at the Avantidrome, where we train, and collect some points, rather than flying to London to try and do that.”

The opportunity to race at home doubles as a chance to share their hometown with riders from other nations, many of whom they now call friends.

“We’re lucky enough to have biked for a long time and have been fortunate to meet some really amazing people who we’ve formed lifelong friendships with. We get along really well with the Canadians and are looking forward to having them out here in early January.”

Friendships aside, Mitchell will be hoping to capitalise on hometown advantage in January, a rare occurrence for him and his teammates.

“When you’re racing all around the world, New Zealand doesn’t get the loudest cheer from the crowd. Even though you normally can’t hear the crowd because the helmets are so tight, you can just feel that the crowd is behind you.”

Mitchell remembers that feeling all too well when he recalls memories of the 2015 UCI Track World Cup in Cambridge. Even though the trio came into the event following a string of impressive performances including their maiden world title and Commonwealth Games gold, they were not quite sure of the reception they would receive.

“I remember walking in for the first day, team sprint day, and the whole place was sold out and I’m thinking, ‘how does little old New Zealand produce something so special?’”

“We raced really well and were silver to the Germans. I just remember the feeling when we hopped off the track and the whole crowd was on their feet cheering and clapping. It was so cool.”

In a sport of marginal gains it’s at odds that targets seem to be constantly shifting as the depth of competition grows in men’s sprint cycling. It’s something that Mitchell knows all too well, after the men’s team sprint recorded a sixth place at this year’s World Championships in the Netherlands. It was the first time they had missed the podium in seven years.

“There’s some really big, strong boys out there now riding big gears and producing fast times. René (Wolff, new national sprint coach), has really challenged us positively on our strength, but also kept a real push for technical execution, which is something we have always prided ourselves on.”

It’s not just internationally that Mitchell, Webster and Dawkins have to look for competition now, stumbling across it in their own backyard thanks to Cycling New Zealand’s investment in a development pathway for young riders through the Subway Performance Hub programme.

Depth is something that in the past New Zealand has been lacking, but to keep up with the rest of the world, you have to have that. While having a target on your back isn’t the nicest feeling, without these younger riders around, we wouldn’t be getting the best out of ourselves.”  

While it might seem like they’ve got a bit of a point to prove to the New Zealand public, they’ve got more to prove to themselves and each other.

“It’s exciting for us to race in front of our home crowd again. It’s an opportunity for us to not only do what we love, but to remind people of how exciting the sport is and to be positive about where the sport is going.”

“Sam, Eddie and I thrive off expectation. We’ve got high expectations of each other and we don’t want to disappoint.”

Come January 18th, he needn’t be worried about disappointing at least one small member of the crowd. Mitchell’s eight month old niece will be there for her first track event, earmuffs and all, to cheer on her uncle as he goes in search of a slice of New Zealand cycling history.

See Mitchell, Dawkins and Webster in action at the Avantidrome this January. Grab your tickets to the TISSOT UCI Track World Cup from Ticketek.

 Photo credit: Guy Swarbrick