Twenty eight years ago 45 hardy souls lined up in Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges for New Zealand’s first annual mountain bike race. More than a quarter of a century later, almost 800 riders from 10 countries will line up for what has become the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike event.
Established in 1986, the Merida Karapoti Classic is the event that kick-started the mountain bike movement in this country. Taking in a rugged 50k tour of Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges near Wellington, the course has remained unchanged since 1988 and past winners reads like a who’s-who of the sport.
American cycling magazine, VeloNews, once listed Karapoti as one of the 25 best mountain bike races in the world and the New Zealand book, Muddy Olympians (Kennett Brothers, 2012) dedicated an entire chapter to Karapoti as a barometer for the sport’s development.
As the first mountain bike event to attract 100 riders, the first to attract 1000 riders, the first to attract international riders and the first to attract mainstream media attention, Karapoti is accustomed to setting the standard. Although in 2012 they set a standard they’d rather have avoided when the unseasonal southerly storm that swept up the country forced organisers to postpone the event by two weeks.
“That was certainly a first,” says event organiser Michael Jacques. “But there was no way we would cancel Karapoti. There’s too much tradition to just skip a year.”
That’s exactly what Upper Hutt doctor Kim Hurst is thinking. The 34 year old is hoping to become the first Upper Hutt person to win their own race.
The Kiwi-based Brit is a former junior star who since settling in New Zealand has re-discovered her love for cycle sports. In her first out at Karapoti, in 2011, she finished second to multisport standout Elina Ussher. Despite riding faster in 2012 she was second again, this time to three-time winner Fiona Macdermid from Palmerston North.
Neither Macdermid nor Ussher is entered this year. But Hurst faces an even tougher race against London Olympian and recently crowned national champion, Karen Hanlen. The Whakatane rider has never raced Karapoti, but as a dabbler in multisport and running she isn’t expected to have any problems with iconic Karapoti elements such as Devil’s Staircase, a 3k long bike-carry up a hill so steep that steps are cut into the track.
Wellington’s Samara Sheppard will also be a factor. The national under-23 rep tasted victory on the prestigious World Cup circuit last year and like Hanlen she has a running background that lends well to the rough and tumble of Karapoti. Unlike Hanlen, however, Sheppard has several Karapoti’s to her credit, including a third place and the junior record.
The men’s race this year is wide open. Manawatu rider Mathew Waghorn will be looking to defend his surprise 2012 win, but he’ll need to watch a trio of former Karapoti runner-ups in Dirk Peters (Rotorua), Brendon Sharratt (Wgtn) and Gavin McCarthy (Upper Hutt).
Australian Karl Bull is also expected to challenge, but McCarthy has twice been third at Karapoti and like Hurst is keen to become the first Upper Hutt winner. Brendon Sharratt has been second at Karapoti and the national championship, but returns to mountain biking after a three year break. Indeed, the rider everyone will be watching is national rep Dirk Peters.
In 2011 Peters was outsprinted at Karapoti by teenage sensation Anton Cooper (Chch), who at 16 became the youngest ever winner of New Zealand’s premier mountain bike race. The Rotorua rider was outsprinted by Cooper again recently at the national championship, but Cooper is now overseas with his international trade team so the 21 year old Peters has the best chance he’ll ever have of winning Karapoti.
Karapoti, however, is more than just a race. The stature as the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike event and the spectacularly savage Akatarawa course combines to create a unique atmosphere that has become mountain biking’s unofficial annual gathering.
The ride is an uncompromising, some say cruel, 50km of 4WD trails, gnarly single track, wheel sucking sludge, raging river crossings, wall to wall wilderness, huge uphills and big-grin downhills. Key elements such as "The Rock Garden," "Devil's Staircase," and "Big Ring Boulevard," are spoken in hushed tones of nervous anticipation and misty, sometimes bloody, memories.
Fittingly the Life Flight air ambulance service is the official charity partner.
First and foremost, however, Karapoti is a people's race catering for all ages, abilities, genders and walks of life. Wellington bicycle retailer, Francis Hoen, has ridden more consecutive Karapoti’s than anyone, with 2013 being his 24th lap of the Akatarawa Ranges. Also among starters are brothers Jonathan and Simon Kennett, who with brother Paul established the Karapoti Classic in 1986. They don’t organise it anymore, but most years they race the gruelling 50k and this year they taking a tandem around.
As well as the feature 50k Classic, the 20k Challenge and 5k Kids’ Klassic provide a perfect intro to the Karapoti culture for off road rookies, supporters, school kids and active families. Racing starts on Karapoti Road in Upper Hutt at 10am on Saturday. See www.karapoti.co.nz for more info.