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Champions Return to the Akatarawa’s

Champions Return to the Akatarawa’s

A who’s-who of New Zealand mountain biking will go head to head next week in Upper Hutt as more than 600 riders from eight countries line up for the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike race.

Established in 1986, the Cactus 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 32nd Cactus Karapoti Classic. Although the feature attractions are polar opposites; one knocking on 40 while the other is not yet 21.

In 2016, Upper Hutt’s own Kim Hurst won her third Karapoti title and broke her own race record. But the 38-year-old remains as motivated as ever, saying her goal is to win five times and claim Karapoti life membership.

Never again paying to race the country’s toughest mountain bike race might have some attraction, but the Upper Hutt GP must first win her fourth title against one of the strongest female line ups ever seen at Karapoti. Last year’s runner up, Nelson-based German Ingrid Richter, is back again. As are previous top-five placegetters Kath Kelly (Roxburgh) and Marg Leyland (Porirua). But Hurst will be watching for in-form Wellingtonian-turned-Aussie Samara Sheppard.

Sheppard was once ranked among the top-10 in the world and still holds the junior women’s record at Karapoti from 2007. Despite twice finishing third, the 26-year-old has never quite ridden to form on the tough 50k lap of Upper Hutt’s rugged Akatarawa Ranges. Her willingness to hop the ditch from her new home indicates a willingness to make 2017 her year.

Conditions for Saturday’s race are expected to be fine. But the summer-that-never-happened has left a more rugged route than Hurst’s record ride last year, when she stopped the clock in 2hrs 42min 12secs. Commonwealth Games champion Anton Cooper (Cant) holds the men’s record of 2hrs 07min 57secs, set on another fast year in 2014. But event manager Michael Jacques thinks those times are safe for 2017.

“The course is in OK shape,” he says. “But nothing like last year. The weather this summer has left the track a bit softer and rougher. We’ve had lot of tree falls and rock falls, parts of the track have been washed away here and there, epic sections like the Rock Garden are rougher than ever, and the river crossing are all running high. But we’d love to be proved wrong.”

Among men, defending champion Jack Compton will be more worried about the competition than the clock. A year ago the 19-year clocked the second fastest time ever at 2hrs 10min 25secs to win as he liked. But this year the Porirua rider faces several in-form riders from home and away.

Australian Kyle Ward, who finished third in the Australian mountain bike marathon champs, is expected to push him closest. Local Upper Hutt rider, Gavin McCarthy, will be looking to improve on two third placings, while Auckland’s Jared Scolley was the find of 2016 with third place in the New Zealand and Oceania Champs.

Dark horses include former professional road rider, Jesse Sergent, having a play on the muddy side. And the entry of national champion mountain runner and marathoner, Dougal Thorburn, has raised eye-brows because the Wellington doctor is noted also as a strong cyclist.

Locals in the know, however, are exchanging nods in the direction of Ed Crossling, who was second to Compton in Rotorua’s Whaka 100 last October and followed up with a win in November’s Huka XL in Taupo. With five top-10 placings in the last six years, Crossling has been consistent but never quite cracked Karapoti. But like Samara Sheppard in the women’s race, he’ll be hoping 2017 is his year.

Few mountain bike races, though, are crueller than the Cactus Karapoti, Classic. The feature 50k is an uncompromising, some say cruel, 50km through the Akatarawa Ranges complete with river crossings, huge hills, bogs and wall to wall scenery. 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.

Wellington’s Peter Schmitz knows this better than most. With 27 consecutive finishes, the 72-year-old has more Karapoti’s to his name than any other rider and is the eldest starter in 2017.

The youngest starters this year are looking to re-write the record books. At just 11 years old, if Wellingtonians Lucy Jurke and Emily Hannah can conquer the feature 50k course they’ll be the youngest ever to finish what is the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike race.

Also among starters are brothers Paul and Simon Kennett, who kicked started this race in 1986. They don’t organise it anymore, but continue riding every year. Paul willing be riding the 20k Challenge with his son Adam. Simon is fittingly favourite to take out the 50k retro category for bikes from yester-year, while his daughter Miro takes on the 5k Kids’ Klassic with 100 other under-11’s.

Racing starts on Karapoti Road in Upper Hutt at 10am on Saturday. See for more info.

© Scoop Media

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