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Karapoti Celebrates Three Decades!

Karapoti Celebrates Three Decades!

Three decades ago mountain biking was a new fringe sport. There were only a couple of bike brands available and any races had been nothing more than a gathering of a few mates. Until one day late in the summer of 1986, when Wellington cycling enthusiast Paul Kennett sent 45 hardy souls into Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges. On March 7th he’ll do it again as guest starter for the 30th anniversary of what is now the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike event.

Based in Wellington's rugged Akatarawa Ranges, 10k north of Upper Hutt, the Karapoti Classic was the race that kick-started mountain biking in New Zealand.

It was just the third mountain bike race held on New Zealand shores. The first had been down the Stock Route on Christchurch’s Port Hills on 1985, with five riders turning up. A few months later six riders turned out for a similar event in Queenstown. Then in April 1986 came Karapoti.

None of the 42 men and three women who started and finished that day actually thought of themselves as “mountain bikers”. Held on Anzac Weekend, the race was advertised as “The New Zealand Off Road Bicycle Race” and Paul Kennett certainly had no idea of the history he was creating.

Life has changed in the 30 years since, and mountain biking even more so. But Kennett and his brothers Simon and Jonathan remember that 1986 day well. Alistair Rhodes, Peter Schmitz and Keith McLeod do too, and all six of them will be among the 1000 riders on the 30th anniversary start line.

The one thing that remains unchanged, however, is the event itself. Karapoti is the only event where every mountain biker can compare themselves against the riders who came before them.

Very much an old-school adventure ride, the challenge revolves around an uncompromising, some might say cruel, 50km of 4WD trails, single track, wheel sucking sludge, river crossings and wall to wall wilderness. Iconic elements of the course are named to tease and entice. The first and steepest climb is cruelly called “The Warm Up.” The second climb is dubbed “Deadwood” because that’s what your legs feel like at the top. The “Rock Garden”, “Devil’s Staircase” and “Big Ring Boulevard” speak for themselves, while the last climb is called “Pram Track” because riders often end up pushing their bikes.

The winners in 1986 were Tim Galloway and Anne Butler. Paul Kennett remembers Butler rode a 10-speed touring bike. Paul’s brother, Simon, finished second just two seconds behind Galloway and recalls racing in a bush shirt and Galloway offering him an apple as they rode up the Pram Track.

The oldest in that 1986 race was 43 year old Upper Hutt Doctor, Alistair Rhodes. Rhodes was 70 when he completed his 25th Karapoti in 2013, but he was no longer the eldest. That year Palmerston North’s 73 year old Denis Turnball became the oldest ever finisher.

Paul Kennett actually won his own race in 1987. But all he remembers is that a guy on a road bike led for a long time and there was no way he could let a roadie win his mountain bike race. Brother Simon won the race in 1988 and became the first to break Karapoti’s magical three hour mark.

By 1989 more than 100 riders were turning out. But by 1995 entries had ballooned to 1000. In less than a decade a fringe fad somewhere between cycle touring, BMX and multisport had become a phenomenon. In 1996 mountain biking made the Olympics and by 2000 the cycle industry reckoned there was a mountain bike in every New Zealand family. Today the sport has half a dozen disciplines and event’s almost every weekend.

Some things, however, never change. Karapoti has remained the sport’s cultural gathering; the race on every mountain biker’s wishlist, with the 1000 rider limit often selling out. The Kennett’s remain among the movers-and-shakers of the sport as prolific book publishers, trail builders and cycling advocates, with their latest projects including the New Zealand Cycle Trail. And for New Zealand’s best mountain bikers, Karapoti is still the race they most want to win.

The Karapoti “Hall of Fame” reads like a who-was-who of mountain bike history with Karapoti often launching international careers. Kathy Lynch (Nelson) and Susan DeMattei (USA) were ranked among the top five in the world when they won the women’s titles, with Lynch winning the women’s race eight times and becoming our first Olympic mountain biker.

Karapoti also paved the way for riders such as Auckland’s Susy Pryde (winner in 2002, 2003) and Wellington’s Rosara Joseph (2005), who both went on to Commonwealth Games silver medals. Nelson’s Tim Vincent won Karapoti three times (2001, 03, 05) before winning the world 24 Hour title. Similarly, Upper Hutt’s own Kim Hurst won Karapoti in 2013 and 2014 before winning the 2014 world 24 Hour title. Not to mention recent Commonwealth Games champion, Anton Cooper, who was Karapoti’s youngest ever winner in 2011 at age 16 and returned earlier this year to set a new Karapoti race record (2hrs 07min 57secs) before taking gold in Glasgow.

First and foremost, however, Karapoti has been a people's race for riders of all age and ability. “Karapoti has something for everyone,” says the event organiser Michael Jacques, who took over from the Kennett brothers in 2002.

“There are tougher races and longer races. There are easier races and other races with river crossings and mud and wonderful scenery and single track. But there aren’t many races that combine it all into one event. Karapoti does!”

Catering for everyone from elite to also-rans to mountain biking’s off-beat fads, Karapoti celebrates all aspects of the sport. As well as the feature 50k, there’s a 20k introductory race and a 5k kids’ event. And while the pro’s race for cash, there are amateur age grades and special categories for corporates, families, tandems and even uni-cycles, the best fancy dress and the worst luck. This year even sees something for mountain biking’s latest fad – fat bikes!

“Every year riders finish battered, bruised and muddied, swearing they will never return,” says Jacques. “But most of them do!”

Eight hardy souls – Wellingtonians Alistair Rhodes, Peter Schmitz, Francis Hoen, Mark Renall, Trevor Woodward, Jason McCarty, Jonny Waghorn and Lindsay Horton – have ridden Karapoti 20 times or more and will be on the start line again in 2015.

So will 1986 originals such as the Kennett brothers and Christchurch mountain bike legend Keith McLeod, who organised New Zealand’s first race in 1985 and is thought to have been the first Kiwi to own a mountain bike when he returned home from the USA in 1983.

Prior to race day all this Karapoti culture and more will be on show at a special anniversary exhibition at Upper Hutt’s Expressions Gallery during February.

Then on Saturday March 7th another 1000 mountain bikers from all ends of New Zealand and up to a dozen countries will make history of their own as riders in the 30th edition of the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike race.

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