A quarter of a century ago mountain biking was a new fringe sport. There were only a couple of brands of mountain bike available and what races there had been were just a few mates getting together. Until one day late in the summer of 1986, when Wellington cycling enthusiast Paul Kennett sent 49 hardy souls into Upper Hutt's Akatarawa Ranges.
On March 6, 2010 the Southern Hemisphere's longest running mountain bike race – the Merida Karapoti Classic – turns 25. From humble beginnings in 1986, Karapoti became the event that popularised mountain biking in New Zealand. Today it attracts almost 2000 entries for the 1000 rider limit.
Founded by Paul Kennett and his two brothers Simon and Jonathan, the Karapoti concept revolved around an uncompromising 50km of 4wd trails, gnarly single track, wheel sucking sludge, raging river crossings, wall to wall wilderness and huge hills that have you grinding a granny ring up but grinning like a goon on the way down.
Back in 1986 it was a cutting edge challenge. The event seemed like a major expedition with many competitors sporting bush shirts and backpacks. Simon Kennett, who finished second in that inaugural race, recalls eventual race winner Tim Galloway offering him an apple as they started up the final hill. Since then icon elements of the course such as "The Rock Garden," "Devil's Staircase," and "Big Ring Boulevard," have become legendary, spoken in hushed tones of nervous anticipation and misty, sometimes bloody, memories.
Completing Karapoti has become the mountain bike benchmark Down Under, with voices of the sport such as the famous American magazine Velonews naming it among the best 25 mountain bike races in the world, and Australian Mountain Biker magazine calling it, "the best organised mountain bike race I have seen."
Between them, the Kennett brothers have ridden every Karapoti Classic. Paul and Simon have both won the race, with Simon being the first to break the magical three-hour mark in 1988. They no longer organise Karapoti but their names are forever etched into the history of mountain biking with other Karapoti winners.
This year Rotorua's Mark Leishman wears number one as the defending champion. Leishman, a former national rep, was a surprise winner in 2009 ahead of national champion Stu Houltham (Palm Nth). But these riders will need to keep a keen eye out for Christchurch's Brendon Sharratt and national junior champion Richard Anderson from Blenheim. Everyone, however, will need to watch for the return of Sydney's Peter Hatton, who won the Merida Karapoti Classic in 2004 and 2006.
The women's elite race is also shaping up as a furious battle. National champion Nic Leary (Rotorua) is favourite, but Wellington's Samara Sheppard and Auckland's Anika Smail will test her.
The Karapoti podium has been a who's-who of the sport, with trailblazer Jon Hume winning four years in a row (1991-94) while world top 10 Kashi Leuchs won in 1998 and 2002. Nelson's Tim Vincent won three times (2001, 03, 05) prior to taking the 24 hour world title, and in 2007 Rotorua teenager Clinton Avery put himself into mountain biking folklore when he won by 10min in a race record 2hrs 14min 01secs.
The undisputed Karapoti legend, however, is South Islander Kathy Lynch. In 1994 Lynch set a record (2:49.42) that stood for 13 years. Winners since then, such as Sadie Parker (2000, 2001) and Commonwealth silver medallists Susie Pryde (2002, 2003) and Rosara Joseph (2006) couldn't match Lynch's record or winning streak. Nor could world number two Susan DeMattai (USA, 1993) or world junior champions Lisa Mathison (Australia, 2004) and Nathalie Schneitter (Switz, 2006). In 2007 American-based Kiwi Jenny Hopkinson finally chipped the record down to 2hrs 47min 35secs and in the two years since Palmerston North super-Mum Fiona Macdermid has come agonisingly close, missing the new record by six seconds in 2008 and 19secs in 2009. But it's unlikely that anyone will ever match Kathy Lynch's streak of eight wins (Lance only won seven!).
Karapoti, however, is more than just the race of champions. Every year riders from all over New Zealand and the world gather to take on the holy grail of New Zealand mountain biking. This popularity lies in the history and challenge of Karapoti, but also with the organisations ability to provide something for everyone. If the full 50km Merida Classic sounds a bit daunting the 20k Penny Farthing Challenge is scenic but less savage, and a shorter ride caters for kids. The post-race scene with thousand's of people lounging under the late-summer sun is reason enough to enter, with live music, a big mountain biking expo and offbeat competitions such as bike tossing and mountain bike trials.
It's this unique atmosphere that keeps people coming back year after year. At age 43 Upper Hutt doctor Alister Rhodes was the oldest competitor in the inaugural 1986 event and has ridden all but two Karapoti's since, but ironically is no longer the eldest entrant.
The 25th anniversary has attracted entries from eight countries.
2010's 25th anniversary race Merida Karapoti Classic is scheduled for Saturday March 6. For details visit: www.karapoti.co.nz