Nelson threw all it could weather wise at the RaboPlus NZ MTB Cup competitors in Nelson this weekend, but it wasn't enough to dampen some extremely close competiton in the South Island MTB Cup Finals.
Forecast 'showers' on Friday morphed into intermittent deluges for Cross Country competitors trying to practice the 7km Nelson race course at the Codgers MTB Trail complex. The already challenging course took on new dimensions for race day, with a greasy and slick surface presenting for the morning race start for age group categories. Lap numbers for the multi-lap races had to adjusted due to the conditions to suit the multi-lap format, and some drying did take place for the 2pm Elite/U23/U19 race with high technical riding prowess rewarded. Attrition played its part, however this also couldn't detract from the high level of competition on display.
The Mens Elite/U23 feature Cross Country event on Saturday had NZ's top Cross Country athletes in action, with the addition of local phenom George Bennett. Bennett spent a NZ winter last year racing on the Road in Europe and used this third round of the NZ MTB Cup to put on a display of brutal front of the field riding for his return to top level mountainbiking. Bennett cleared out from the start of the five lap race and had built up a lead of 40 seconds over current NZ National Champion Stu Houltham (Lower Hutt) after the first lap. Bennett kept the pressure on, and Houltham, Carl Jones (Auckland) and Brendon Sharratt (Wellington) all attempted to reel him in to no avail, Bennett winning by an impressive margin of 2 1/2 minutes over the quality field. For Bennett, this victory represented validation of his potential to dominate in this demanding Olympic format of Cross Country racing, something which has eluded him in NZ for several years.
The U19 Mens Junior race was also on course with the Elites, and Blenheim charger Richard Anderson returned from injury to also dominate his competitors in a wonderfully aggressive display. Anderson mixed it up at the front with the Elites, and circulated the Codgers course during his four lap race posting even quicker lap times than Bennett did.
The Womens Elite/U23 Cross Country race presented an opportunity for Rotorua's Samara Sheppard to pull a win after two Cup defeats by Christchurch's Amy Laird. Sheppard came to Nelson focussed and desparate to stand on the top step of the podium, and like Bennett, kept the pressure on from the start to clear away on the second lap from Laird to win by over three minutes. Sheppard's first real smile of the day came as she crossed the finish line after a well deserved race win, with Laird racing herself to a standstill for a battling second.
Meanwhile, Downhill competitors were dealing with wet and greasy conditions themselves during Saturday's practice day at the famous Kaka Hill. All were hoping for finer and warmer weather for Sunday's race day which Nelson finally delivered, presenting a drying course that came right in time for the afternoon race on Sunday.
Mechanical failures played their part during Downhill racing today, and the technically challenging Kaka Hill course lived up to its reputation for dealing cruel luck to some of the countries best descenders. Seeding for the Men's Elite race gave Levin's Nathan Rankin top spot, only just ahead of local Kieran Bennett, the 2008 Oceania Champion. Current National Champion Justin Leov (Dunedin) ruined his drivetrain during seeding, and was just off the pace all day. Race run at 1pm gave 2007 World Championships Bronze medalist Matt Scoles (Alexandra) his first big win in the Elites, over France's Fabian Pedemanaud posting his best result this NZ summer. 2009 Junior World Champion Brook MacDonald (Napier)completed the podium just ahead of George Brannigan (Hastings) who continues to impress as a second year Junior riding against his older peers. Last man on the hill and top seed Nathan Rankin couldn't improve on his seeding time and faded to fifth, but will be happy to get his 2010 season off to a solid start. Kieran Bennett showed how hard Kaka can be even for someone who knows the course so well, puncturing and peeling his rear tire off the rim towards the bottom of the course and ruining any home track advantage he may have had.
National Champion Harriet Harper returned from injury today in style, posting the fastest seeding time in the Elite Womens field. Harper (Blenheim) showed how revitalised she is after the enforced rest, and nearly took the race ahead of current World Cup Champion Sabrina Jonnier (France). Jonnier was pushed hard, and finished only 3.7 seconds in front - the closest margin any of the NZ challengers have been to the vastly experienced Jonnier this summer.
South Island Cup titles were also decided this weekend after this first three leg segment of the NZ MTB Cup. No real surprises came after those athletes who had dominated their fields in Rounds One and Two completed the SI Cup with overall wins. The Senior Mens Downhill title was one to watch however. PC Cooper (Blenheim) and Richard Leacock (Wellington) were frantically calculating exactly what they needed to do in both seeding and race runs to take the overall title. When the dust had settled, Leacock won by the narrowest of margins - 1/2 a point, with Cooper and his heavily strapped shoulder knowing he had done all he could to take this one out.
The NZ MTB Cup takes a weeks break at this mid point, returning in Feb 5/6th for Round Four of the Downhill in Rotorua, and Round Four of the Cross Country Feb 7th in Tokoroa.