Round Four of the RaboPlus NZ MTB Cup was completed over the weekend in Rotorua and Tauranga in hot and muggy weather conditions. Racing in Saturday's Downhill, held in Rotorua's Whakarerwarewa Forest and Sunday's Cross Country at the Cougar MTB Park in Tokoroa was also hot and extremely close-fought especially in the pinnacle Elite categories.
Whakarewarewa Forest's National Downhill course was in perfect condition for the Friday practice day for downhill competitors, and by the time racing started at 1pm on Saturday the course presented ideal traction conditions to compliment the physically demanding descent. Levin's Nathan Rankin again set the benchmark in the morning seeding run for the Elite field, as he did in the previous NZ Cup round in Nelson. As fastest and last man down the hill Rankin had the ideal opportunity to follow through however his old team mate, Wanganui's Glenn Haden had other ideas. Haden has been absent from national level competiton for over 12 months after injury derailed his 2009 season. His come-back performance at this fourth round showed he has lost none of the fire and determination he has shown through a long career at the top of this sport in NZ and internationally, taking the win by a narrow margin from Tauranga's Hayden Lee and Rotorua's Des Curry - all three riders finishing on the same second and less than half a second apart.
The women's Elite downhill race provided another display of World Cup Champion Sabrina Jonnier's (France) superb power and control - Jonnier winning from NZ National Champ Harriet Harper (Blenheim) by over 12 seconds. It was a disappointing race for local Gabby Molloy, an over the bars crash during race run ending what had been a promising build-up to posting a quick time.
Several other riders turned heads over the weekend with times that would have placed them in the top ten of the Elite field, no mean feat on this race course. Jay Barrett (Havelock North) and Louis Hamilton (Rotorua) were first and second in the Under 17 Mens category, and were also 7th and 8th overall. Richard Leacock (Wellington) won the Senior Mens race, and continued a strong run of form with a 6th fastest overall time from the 156 competitors.
Cross Country competitors faced hot and humid conditions, and an unrelenting and intense race course at Cougar Park, Tokoroa on Sunday. The strongest field seen this summer in the Elite/U23 Mens event was led off the start by local Mike Northcott at a brutal pace. Northcott maintained only a slight gap on the field through the early part of the six lap race, but Rotorua's Carl Jones applied continuous pressure through the race to finally break Northcott's hold at the front, taking the lead during the last lap and on to a popular win. National Champ Stu Houltham worked hard to take the final podium spot and was full of praise for Jones's win - "Carl raced the smartest tactical race I've seen in years" which is praise indeed from the multi time NZ Champion.
The Elite/U23 Womans race was Rotorua's Nic Leary's first NZ MTB Cup race this summer, and Leary took the lead at the end of the start loop, never looking back with a dominant five minute win over Rotorua's Samara Sheppard. Tokoroa's Michelle Bellamy was a further minute back in 3rd place. Early Cup pace setter Amy Laird was out of sorts at Cougar Park, not able to get spinning and clearly tired - Laird faded to 8th and will look to recover fully for the big Championship events coming up at the end of the month.
On course with the Elites were the emerging Under 19 riders. The men's race contained an intriguing front of the field tussle between Richard Anderson (Blenheim) and Sam Shaw (Rotorua). Anderson had a slow 3rd lap, losing a minute to Shaw who sensed and then took his opportunity, attacking for the lead which he carried through to race end for a 29 second win. For Shaw, this win meant a lot after a disappointing 2009 - "the toughest race of my life yet" he commented after crossing the line.
The RaboPlus NZ MTB Cup continues this weekend with the Downhill taking place at Summer Hills MTB Park in Tauranga on Friday and Saturday Feb 12/13, and the Cross Country at the Pukete MTB Park in Hamilton on Sunday Feb 14th.
Full results for NZ MTB Cup Round Four Downhill here
Full results for NZ MTB Cup Round Four Cross Country here