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Downhill Survival at a Windy Long Gulley
1 Mar, 2010
The third day of the 2010 RaboPlus Mountainbike National Championships was completed today at the Long Gulley Downhill venue at Brooklyn in Wellington. Difficult weather conditions created a huge variable for the 200 Downhill competitors racing for National titles, with hot, dry and vicious gusting winds turning an already challenging race course into a treacherous race for survival. Likewise for the Short Track Cross Country competitors racing at Long Gulley at midday - fierce head and cross winds added to the tactical contest for open men and women.

The Short Track Cross Country event was raced around a dirt criterium style circuit, winding in and out of the Downhill event village. An enthusiastic and vocal crowd urged the Short Track racers on, with the Open Womens field first on course for their 20 minute multi lap sprint. Newly crowned Cross Country National Champion Nic Leary (Rotorua) demonstrated that an attack from the front approach also works in this shorter format of event. Leary pressured the rest of the Womens field from the gun and stretched her competitors, just like yesterday with another brutal display of aggressive riding. The real contest was taking place for the minor podium spots between Fiona McDermid (Palmerston North), Monique Avery (Rotorua) and early on from Sara Taylor (Christchurch). McDermid retained just enough gas to cross the line only seconds in front of Avery.

The Mens Short Track was a tactical duel right through to the last lap of the 28 minute mens race. Brendan Sharratt (Wellington), Mike Northcott (Tokoroa) and Mark Leishman (Rotorua) were locked in a three way battle for much of the race until Sharratt faded. Leishman and Northcott then traded attacks for the remainder of the race, until 2010 National Cross Country Champ Northcott backed up yesterday's success to gap Leishman on the second half of the last lap to take the win. Sharratt discovered new legs after fading mid race and slipping back into the clutches of Patrick Avery and Kyle Wood, to then clear out on his own to claim the third podium spot.

The Downhill race for National Championship titles was under way at 2pm. The morning's seeding session produced a mixed bag of results across the age group categories, with many strong favourites being gathered up in the clutches of the gusting wind to fall off the pace. However, come race time and the summer form book regained its worth - deserved champions crowned across the board. Of note was the performance of George Brannigan (Hastings) who was racing in the Under 19 category for this title after a summer racing in the Elites. Brannigan convincingly won today, in a time that would have placed him 6th in the Elite field. Likewise Local Wellington rider Dan Meilink - like Brannigan Meilink seeded first in Senior Mens and backed that up to win his first Senior Mens Downhill National title.

In the Elite Womens race Harriet Harper (Blenheim) was after back to back National Championship titles in the prestiguous Downhill discipline. And she did this in style, winning over the fast improving Sarah Walker. BMX Olympian Walker was all praise after her foray into downhill racing, recognising first hand just how tough and uncompromising this sport is. Walker may just have enjoyed this experience so much that it won't be the last seen of her on a 26" downhill race bike.

The Elite Mens race was missing New Zealand's two highest ranked racers - Sam Blenkinsop through injury and Justin Leov. However, the quality of field chasing this 2010 National title was extremely high, with all of NZ's other top professionals and several visiting international athletes in the field. Wyn Masters (New Plymouth) seeded first, and the rest of the top ten seeded riders were right on his tail time-wise. But this race was to be Wyn Master's finest moment and he followed through on his top seeding time to take the Elite Mens National Championship title from Wanganui's Glenn Haden. Haden had won at Long Gulley before in similar conditions, and lost out to Master's typically powerful and controlled display by only 0.3 seconds. Levin's Nathan Rankin took third, with Cam Cole (Christchurch) and Four Cross National Champion Matt Walker (Kawerau) 4th and 5th. For Masters this title win seems to have been a long time coming, and for the likeable and charismatic Taranaki streak, totally deserved this year.
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