1200 riders from 12 countries line up on Saturday for the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike race, the Merida Karapoti Classic.
Established in 1986, Upper Hutt’s Merida Karapoti Classic has been the race that every mountain bikers aspires to. Taking in a rugged adventure ride around Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges, the field is limited to 1400 riders and normally sells out with several hundred people on a waiting list. But in the ongoing fallout from recent natural disasters even a mountain bike event several hundred kilometres away is affected.
“Normally Karapoti sells out and we have a waiting list,” says event organiser Michael Jacques. “But in the last week I’ve been watching earthquake coverage on the TV screen while I watched withdrawals from earthquake sufferers coming through on the computer screen!”
Entries from Christchurch were already down after the September earthquake, which was expected, but now they are really down. On top of that the event has experienced a downturn in international entrants due to the recession, and then last month the event had a run of Australian withdrawals following their mass floods.
But Jacques is quick to put the Karapoti Classic woes in perspective, saying, “There are still 1200 people turning up to ride, and some of them are still from Christchurch and Australia, so we’ll just be dipping our helmets in homage to them and having a great event.”
Attracting competitors from Australia, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Finland, England, Japan, Scotland, Singapore, Ireland, Germany and all ends of New Zealand, the Merida Karapoti Classic once again features a world-class field racing for a $30,000 prize pool. Defending champion Tim Wilding (Wgtn) will be wearing number one, but he’ll have a hard time holding onto the pole position among a field that includes several former winners and a couple of dangerous dark horses.
“If there is a favourite,” says Jacques, “it would be Tim. Last year he illustrated that when he is on song there are very few riders in New Zealand who can touch him. He just rode away and left the others to argue over the minor podium placings.”
Wilding, however, will need his best form against 2009 winner Mark Leishman (Roto) and 2008 winner Stu Houltham (Wgtn).
Houltham, who won Karapoti and the national championship in one week during 2008, was a below par ninth in last week’s national championship in Dunedin, and will be hoping to atone at Karapoti.
Mark Leishman was a close fourth at the nationals, but is renowned as being in his element over the more gruelling Karapoti course.
In Dunedin both these guys played second fiddle to rising stars Carl Jones (Whakatane) and Dirk Peters (Rotorua), with second places Peters being a late entry and co-favourite for Karapoti.
Other contenders include local Upper Hutt riders Wayne Hiscock and Gavin McCarthy, who have both been minor podium placegetters in their home town race. But all these contenders will be wary of strong challenges from a Canadian pro, a multisport world champion and a 16 year old kid who has been riding faster than the adults lately.
The Canadian challenger is Victorian Thomas Skinner, a full time pro who was sixth at last week’s New Zealand championship despite jet lag and facing New Zealand’s best during his off-season.
The gruelling nature of Karapoti’s huge kills, bogs and technical riding has humbled many a world class rider. But they are unlikely to humble four-time Speight’s Coast to Coast champion Richard Ussher (Nelson), who is crossing over to take on the sport’s best mountain bikers in the country’s premier mountain bike event.
But the rider everyone is watching with interest is 16 year old Christchurch wonder kid, Anton Cooper. In 2010 the then only 15 year old placed an impressive fourth overall at Karapoti. Last week in Dunedin he shrugged off earthquake woes to win the junior national title by a country-mile, but in doing so rode every one of his laps faster than the senior title winner, Carl Jones. The interest now is whether Cooper can become the youngest ever winner of New Zealand’s premier mountain bike race.
The women’s race is shaping up in similar fashion as a star of yester-year returns to take on the rising talent.
In Dunedin last weekend Whakatane’s Karen Hanlen announced her arrival as one to watch for the future when she gave Commonwealth Games silver medallist Rosara Joseph a scare before being forced to settle for second. Hanlen will be favourite for Karapoti, with Dunedin’s Erin Greene and Australian Connie Silvestri expected to push her hard. But interest in the mountain bike scene is on 41 year old Sadie Parker.
A decade ago Parker won the Merida Karapoti Classic on two consecutive occasions. Last week she dominated the masters category at the national championships and looked capable of being competitive with her younger peers. Karapoti is a course where experience and endurance count more than speed, so Parker might surprise to become the oldest ever winner of New Zealand’s premier mountain bike race.
Saturday’s weather is forecast for showers, butwith good weather forecast for Friday and Sunday Michael Jacques is hopefully that race day will fall on dry skies.
As well the feature Merida 50k Classic, 275 people will contest the Penny Farthing Cycles 20k Challenge and 100 kids will take on the 5k Kids Klassic.
Of interest are several human-interest angles. Upper Hutt Doctor, Alistair Rhodes is keeping alive his streak of 23 Karapoti’s, while Wellington bicycle retailer Francis Hoen is starting his 21st Merida Karapoti Classic.
A popular finisher will 12 year old Odette Ford-Brierley from Wellington, who is back for her fourth crack at Karapoti. She first rode the event as a two year old on the handlebars of her father Bill’s bike. Then as a seven year old she completed the race with Dad again on a tandem. Last she tackles the event on her own bike for the first time and just like the 1200 others from 11 countries, she’s back again for 2011.