On March 3 this year 1000 mountain bikers from 12 countries will line up for the 27th running of New Zealand’s premier mountain bike event, the Merida Karapoti Classic. But all eyes will be on one person.
Established in 1986, Karapoti is the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike event. As the event that kick-started the mountain bike movement in this country, the Wellington race is the event on every mountain biker’s wish list. Taking in a rugged 50k tour of Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges, the field is limited to 1000 riders and typically sells out.
Race director Michael Jacques says Karapoti entries have been slower to fill in 2012, but still expects to sell out, saying, “Normally we’d be sold out in January and have a waiting list. But Christchurch’s earthquake woes are still impacting entries, plus the recession has been impacting events nationwide in the last couple of years. But I think we’ll still sell out before race day on March 3.”
One Christchurch rider who hasn’t been fazed by his city’s earthquake woes is Anton Cooper. A year ago, at age 16, the Christchurch school boy became the youngest ever winner of New Zealand’s premier mountain bike event. He then held that form right through 2011, eventually finishing second at the world junior championship and finishing the year ranked number one among juniors worldwide.
Cooper is returning to Karapoti in 2012, but rather than simply the win, he’ll be looking at the legendary race record set by another talented teen. In 2007 Rotorua’s Clinton Avery took advantage of perfect weather and course conditions to ride four minutes faster than anyone else in Karapoti history, clocking in at exactly 2hrs 14min.
Since then Avery has turned to the European road cycling circuit. But in 2007 he was just 19 and his record-breaking win was all the more impressive because he rode solo to win by 10 minutes. Cooper’s win last year came in a sprint finish with national senior champion Dirk Peters, and he will still be just 17 this year, so the record may be a few years off yet. But the Christchurch kid has made a habit of surprising even himself, and the $2000 on offer for winning Karapoti with a record could be the motivation he needs.
Attracting competitors from Australia, USA, Hong Kong, , France, Switzerland, Finland, England, Scotland, Japan, Singapore, Ireland, and all ends of New Zealand, the Merida Karapoti Classic once again features a world-class field racing for a $30,000 prize pool. Cooper will be wearing the coveted “number one”, but he’ll need to watch former Karapoti winner Tim Wilding (2010), and that year’s runner-up, Bredon Sharratt, as well local Upper Hutt contenders Gavin McCarthy and Wayne Hiscock.
In 27 years Karapoti has never been won by a local Upper Hutt rider. Hiscock has been runner-up on no less than three occasions (2003, 2005 and 2006) and in 2008 Gavin McCarthy was also third. But the rider with the biggest chance of becoming the first local to win their own race is Upper Hutt doctor Kim Hamer-Hurst.
The Kiwi-based Brit is a former junior star who since settling in New Zealand has re-discovered her love for cycle sports. Among Upper Hutt women, Mary Grigson has come the closest to winning Karapoti, with a second (1992) and two third placings (1993 and 1995) so Hamer-Hurst, who was one of the first to enter the 2012 event, is keen to go one better.
At Karapoti last year Hamer-Hurst was second to surprise women’s winner Elina Ussher, a Finnish multisport specialist living in Nelson. Ussher is married to Kiwi multisport world champion Richard Ussher, who was fifth in Karapoti last year, and both are returning in 2012. But Mrs Ussher will need to be in top form against other outstanding women, such as Commonwealth Games silver medallist Rosara Joseph, who won Karapoti in 2005, and two-time Karapoti winner Fiona Macdermid (2008, 2009). Of these women, Hamer-Hurst is the only riders who hasn’t won Karapoti.
Karapoti, however, is more than just a race. As well as the feature 50k Classic, the 20k Challenge and Kids 5k Klassic are great introductions to the Karapoti culture. Upper Hutt Doctor, Alister Rhodes, will be trying at age 70 to retain his hold on the most Karapoti finishes, with 2012 being his 25th. Snapping at his heels are Wellingtonians Peter Schmitz, Francis Hoen and Marco Renali, who will be starting their 23rd, 23rd and 22nd Karapoti's respectively.
The 2012 Merida Karapoti Classic will also be special for the return of the Karapoti Perverse Reverse. Raced previously only in the year 2000, the Perverse Reverse is exactly what it says: Karapoti in reverse direction, which this year will be held the day after on March 4. Entries for all events at the 2012 Merida Karapoti Classic are still available at www.karapoti.co.nz.