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NZ’s Original Mtn Bike Race Celebrates Three Decades!

NZ’s Original Mtn Bike Race Celebrates Three Decades!

Thirty years 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 Anzac weekend in 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 for the 30thedition 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 came Karapoti.

Life has changed in the 30 years since, and mountain biking even more so. The one thing that remains unchanged, however, is the event itself. The Karapoti Classic is the only race 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 2012, 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 in 1995 entries doubled to almost 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 races almost every weekend.

Held on the first Saturday in March, Karapoti has remained the sport’s cultural gathering. The race on every mountain biker’s wishlist, with the 1000 rider limit often selling out. 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.

In 2015 the women’s race will take centre stage with 2007 winner Jenny Smith (West Coast SI) returning home from the USA to take on Upper Hutt’s own Kim Hurst. In 2013 Hurst became the first Upper Hut resident to win their own race. In 2014 she won again and broke Smith’s record. Hurst then went on to win the 24 hour world title in Scotland, but her form coming into Karapoti is an unknown following a fractured wrist in a training accident six weeks ago. Both women will have to watch for Wellington’s Samara Sheppard and Palmerston North’s Marg Leyland, who have both finished third before.

Palmerston North might also take the top spot among men, with 2012 winner Matt Waghorn favoured to repeat. Waghorn actually broke the record in 2014, but found himself well beaten by future Commonwealth Games champion Anton Cooper. With Cooper away overseas, Waghorn takes top billing but he’ll need to watch for 16 year national junior champion Eden Cruise (Porirua) who was fourth last year and is riding faster at the same age than Anton Cooper. Consistent performers Ed Crossling (Wgtn), Gavin McCarthy (UH) and Steve Bale (Wgtn) - who finished sixth, seventh and eighth last year – will also be waiting in the wings for the favourites to falter.

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.

Schmitz is starting his 26th consecutive Karapoti, which at age 70 is a Karapoti will be a Karapoti Classic record.

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, is also returning. McLeod rode the inaugural 1986 Karapoti, as did Tauranga’s Ash Rawson, and both are returning in 2015.

The 30th Karapoti Classic starts at 10:00am on Saturday 7th March at Karapoti Park in the Akatarawa Ranges. Visit

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