The 25th anniversary of the Southern Hemisphere's longest standing mountain bike race threw up surprise winners yesterday as Taupo's Tim Wilding and Rotorua's Annika Smail dominated the Merida Karapoti Classic.
More than 1300 riders from eight countries assembled for the event that kick-started New Zealand's mountain bike movements 25 years ago. The 50k ride around Upper Hutt's rugged and remote Akatarawa Ranges is renowned for testing both body and bike and while the forecasted rain and winds never quite arrived, storming rides from two unexpected winners were the talking point of the day.
The name of Tim Wilding didn't feature once during pre-race build up for this year's Merida Karapoti Classic. The Taupo mountain bike and off road triathlon specialist has been thereabouts on the national scene for several years, even winning a couple of national title, but a string of punctures and crashes have ruined any chance of success in New Zealand's premier mountain bike event, to the point where even Wilding himself was surprised to find himself alone at the front of the race after only 15k.
When the race got underway with Karapoti's famed LeMan's style start across the Akatarawa River, all eyes were on defending champion Mark Leishman (Rotorua), 2008 winner Stu Houltham (Wellington) and current New Zealand number two Brendon Sharratt (Christchurch). No one mentioned Tim Wilding, and thus no one reacted when the 26 year old when straight to the front.
"I felt pretty good right from the start, so I decided to puish it and see if anyone wanted to come along," said Wilding after the race.
No one did. Or not for long anyway. Houltham and Sharratt stayed close in the first 15k through Karapoti Gorge and the undulated approach to Deadwood Ridge, the first of Karapoti's famed climbs. But once the route headed uphill Wilding went solo.
This wasn't unexpected; Wilding is a former national hill climb champion. But with his record of disappointing Karapoti showings Houltham wasn't unduly worried so early in the race. Sharratt, meanwhile, was focusing on Houltham, whose record on the gruelling course included a win and three other podium placings.
This was a sound tactic because Houltham did indeed start closing on the surprise leader as they approached the infamous Rock Garden, a 3k long downhill over soccer-ball-sized rocks and waist high drop-off's. But no sooner said and Houltham experienced his own string of bad luck as a series of punctures suddenly saw him out of contention.
This left Sharratt stranded in no-man's land. Well ahead of anyone else but not close enough to launch an attack on an inspired Tim Wilding, who led over the gruelling Devil's Staircase bike carry section with close to two minutes in hand. That opened up to three minutes as he started the last long climb of the day up the Pram Track to the top of Doper's Hill, but even Wilding himself still wasn't convinced that this could be his day.
"When I was still leading over the Staircase I started thinking this might be the day," said Wilding later. "But up Dopers I was really hurting. I was right on the limit and really worried someone might be coming up behind me."
Wilding was right to worry for while Sharratt wasn't making any inroads into the lead, behind him defending champion Mark Leishman and 15 year old Christchurch phenomenon Anton Cooper were catching both of them. However, 25 years of Karapoti history shows that the leader over the top of Doper's Hill is usually the winner and Tim Wilding knew it.
"I almost couldn't believe it when I was still in the lead at the top of Dopers he said. "It's mostly downhill and flat after that to the finish and I was pretty sure I could hold on."
And hold on he did, stopping the clock after 2hrs 21min 29secs to become the fifth fastest winner in Karapoti history. This year's 25th anniversary also doubled as the New Zealand mountain bike marathon championship
"I can't believe it really," said Houltham on the finish line, a big grin braking out behind a face covered in Karapoti mud. I've never had much luck in this race and even when I was still leading I was expecting guys like Stu and Cabin (Mark Leishman) to come through on the final climb."
Leishman did indeed come through, but it was too little too late. Behind Wilding, Sharratt held on by the skin of his teeth to claim second in 2hrs 24min 10secs, just nine seconds ahead of the defending champion. In fourth place Anton Cooper claimed the junior title just 11secs ahead of Stu Houltham, who shrugged off punctures to ride back to fifth place.
The women's race at this year's 25th anniversary Merida Karapoti Classic followed much the same pattern as the men. Pre-race favourite was Rotorua's Nic Leary, but it was another Rotorua rider who stole the day as Annika Smail shrugged of past Karapoti nightmares to claim the country's premier mountain bike race.
The pre-race hype surrounded Leary, who in just two years in the sport claimed her first national title just a week prior to Karapoti. Locals hoped 19 year old Samara Sheppard might shine, and the three time Karapoti junior winner claimed a solid third place. But it was Smail who shone brightest.
The three were close together through the early kilometres, but bike problems saw Leary lose sight of Smail approaching halfway. The lead seemed to give new life to Smail's legs and she romped away to claim the national marathon title eight minutes ahead of Leary.
"It was good to finally have a good ride at Karapoti," laughed Smail, who stopped the clock at 2hrs 52min 13secs to become the fourth fastest female in the event's 25th years.
Further back in the field, the 25th anniversary Merida Karapoti Classic was celebrated record performances of another kind. Tokoroa rider Alden Etheridge became the eldest ever Karapoti finisher at age 73, while Hamilton's 63 year old Issy Kennedy became the eldest female finisher. Other highlights included Upper Hutt's own Alastair Rhodes finishing his 23rd Karapoti.