1300 riders from 10 countries line up on Saturday for the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike race, the Merida Karapoti Classic.
Established in 1986, Wellington’s Merida Karapoti Classic has been the race that every mountain bikers aspires to. A full field of will take on the rugged course through the heart of the Akatarawa Ranges, which for safety reasons is limited to 1300 starters.
“We had more than 1500 people apply to race this year,” says event manager Michael Jacques. “We’d love to let all of them ride, but Karapoti is a tough challenge in a remote environment and we simply can’t cope with more.”
Attracting competitors from nine countries, the Merida Karapoti Classic once again features a world-class field racing for a $30,000 prize pool. Defending champion Stuart Houltham will once again be wearing number one, but he’ll have a hard time holding onto the pole position.
“If there is a favourite,” says Jacques, “it would be Stu, because he once again races at Karapoti with a week old national title. So he’s the form rider.”
Houltham, however, won’t have things all his own way. A strong Australian contingent from the Flight Centre Merida team is headed by Tim Bennett, Nick Both and Adrian Jackson. Both and Bennett have both runners-up at Karapoti, while Jackson is the reigning mountain bike orienteering champion. But local Wellington riders, Gavin McCarty and Wayne Hiscock will also be in the mix.
The woman’s race might prove to be the most interesting. Former Karapoti winners and New Zealand reps, Fiona Macdermid and Jenny Hopkinson-Smith will be renewing their rivalry. Macdermid is the defending champion while Hopkinson-Smith the course record holder; a record that Macdermid missed by just six seconds last year. But both will have to be wary of fast-improving Palmerston North rider Nic Leary, and also Aussie triathlete-turned-mountain biker, Jo Bennett, who will be looking for a husband and wife double with her husband Tim.
Saturday’s weather is forecast for rain; conditions that Jacques says should favour the top Kiwi riders. “Karapoti is ough t any time,” says Jacques. “But when you add rain and mud it becomes a year to remember.”
Of interest are several human-interest angles. Upper Hutt Doctor, Alistair Rhodes is keeping his streak of 22 Karapoti’s. Wellington bicycle retailer Francis Hoen is starting his 20th Merida Karapoti Classic. And the Merida Karapoti Classic founders, the Kennett brothers – Paul, Simon and Jonathan – will be riding a triple tandem.
A popular finisher will 11 year old Odette Ford-Brierley, who is back for her third crack at Karapoti. She first rode the event as a two year old on the handlebars of her father Bill’s bike. Then as a seven year old she completed the race with Dad again on a tandem. This year she tackles the event on her own bike for the first time.
The youngest entrant in 2009 is seven-year-old Finn Sherlock, who will ride a tandem with his father Mark. The youngest solo competitor is the Classic 50k event is nine-year-old Eden Cruise who will ride alongside his father in a bid to be the youngest o ver finish the 50k.
At the other end of the scale, 72 year old Alan Etheridge is the oldest ever entrant for the Merida Karapoti Classic