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The Race of Champions

The Race of Champions

A who’s-who of New Zealand mountain biking will go head to head in Upper Hutt on Saturday as more than 700 riders from eight countries line up for the Scott Karapoti Classic.

Twenty eight years ago 45 hardy souls lined up in Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges for New Zealand’s first annual mountain bike race. Almost 30 years later, more than 700 riders from eight countries and all ends of New Zealand will line up for what has become the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike event.

Established in 1986, the Scott 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 adventurous route has remained unchanged since 1988 and past winners reads like a who’s-who of the sport.

That’s certainly how the start list reads for this year’s 29th Scott Karapoti Classic. The feature attraction is Cantabrian Anton Cooper, who in 2011 became the youngest Karapoti winner at age 16 and went on to win the world junior title.

Cooper is now a full-time professional rider on the World Cup Mountain Bike circuit, but he’ll need to keep his wits about him on the gruelling Akatarawa course. In 2011 he had to out-sprint Rotorua rider Dirk Peters in the final kilometre. Peters came back in 2013 to win Karapoti himself and is lining up again in 2014, as is 2012 Karapoti champion Mat Waghorn from Feilding.

Also lining up in 2014 is Rotorua’s Carl Jones, who is currently ranked fourth in New Zealand and will be looking to grab a podium spot in his first Karapoti out of the junior ranks. Closer to home, Wellington’s Ed Crossling will be looking to improve on his fourth place last year while Upper Hutt’s own Gavin McCarthy is hoping to turn two previous third placing into a home town victory.

Those close to the sport, however, will be interested in the performance of Wellington’s Eden Cruise. The 14 year old staggered onlookers last year by finishing seventh overall. While a win would be too much to expect, he is currently riding faster than Anton Cooper at the same age and could be a dark horse pick for the podium.

Someone who isn’t a dark horse is Upper Hutt’s own Kim Hurst. Four years ago the Welsh-born doctor settled in Upper Hutt and started mountain biking again after a decade away from the sport. She quickly became the top local and twice took second place at Karapoti before a surprise win in 2013 when she beat London Olympian Karen Hanlen to become the first Upper Hutt resident to win their most famous race.

In between Karapoti’s, Hurst has twice finished second at the world 24 hour mountain bike championship. Thus, she lines up as top seed for 2014.

Expected to challenge is current New Zealand number four, Katie O’Neil from Rotorua. But locals are also looking to Wellingtonians Samara Sheppard and Sasha Smith, who finished third and fourth last year. Sheppard is a full-time pro and top-10 placegetter on the World Cup circuit and has been riding Karapoti since she set the junior women’s record way back in 2007.

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 and 2014 will be the 56 year old’s 25th lap of the Akatarawa Ranges. Sixty nine year old Wellingtonian, Peter Schmitz, was a starter in 1986’s inaugural event and will also be starting his 25th Karapoti.

Paraparaumu’s Theo Barsanti is just a month older than Peter Schmitz and therefore the eldest starter this year at age 69. At the other end of the scale Wellington’s nine year old Ben Mitchell could become the youngest ever finisher of New Zealand’s toughest mountain bike event.

Also among starters are twin brothers Jonathan and Simon Kennett, who with brother Paul established the Karapoti Classic in 1986. They don’t organise it anymore, but this year Jonathan and Simon will take another crack at the tandem race record while Paul will ride with his son in the introductory 20k race.

As well as the feature 50k Scott Karapoti Classic, the associated 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. for more info.


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