New Zealand's best mountain bike racers dealt with a Napier heatwave and world class fields at the Eskdale Mountainbike Park over the weekend. Both Downhill and Cross-Country races at the second round of the RaboDirect NZ MTB Cup were contested in extreme conditions on World Cup worthy race courses - winners in all categories were those who dealt with not only the competition but also the changing and challenging trail conditions the best.
The Waipunga Road Downhill course was set to provide a broad technical challenge in Napier on Saturday, on a 160m vertical drop course. As practice progressed on Friday and into race day Saturday, the dry race course kept throwing changing lines and unwelcome surprises to competitors trying to put down a perfect run against the clock.
In the Elite Men's race, Napier's 2009 Junior World Champion Brook MacDonald (MS-Evil) drew on local knowledge to crush the strong field, claiming his win by more than two seconds from World #4 Sam Blenkinsop (Whanganui, Lapierre International). As the NZ MTB Cup builds, more elite athletes are joining the road show, and Matt Scoles (Alexandra, Cingolani-Protone) and Kieran Bennett (Nelson, Zerode) were two to get right on the pace at their first Cup outing this summer. Like MacDonald, current New Zealand National Champion Wyn Masters (New Plymouth, Wide Open) put a less than ideal Round 1 behind him to claim a podium 4th in Napier.
The Elite Women's Downhill race was taken out in style by visiting Swiss Scott 11 professional Emilie Siegenthaler, over current New Zealand National Champion Harriet Harper (Nelson, Santa Cruz).
The Under 19 Men's category continued to be one of the most exciting NZ MTB Cup races to watch at Napier. Dual BMX and MTB National representative Daniel Franks (Christchurch, Yeti NZ) joined the Cup in Napier, and recovered from a heavy fall in seeding to claim a solid win over last weekend's podium top step Rueben Olorenshaw (Nelson) - both riders impressing with top ten Elite times.
Sunday's Cross Country race day again began with age group competition in the morning race start. By 2pm and the Elite/U23 and Under 19 race, the temperature had climbed into the mid 30's and the pressure was on with high quality fields ready to chase valuable UCI Olympic ranking points on a brutal Napier race course which provided not a single meter of respite.
Dirk Peters (Rotorua, Santa Cruz) cleared out from an aggressive race start to lead at the end of his first lap of six - Peters wasn't content to simply protect his lead and he proceeded to demolish the Men's field with a calculated display of power riding. Peters kept the pressure on, extending his lead every lap to win by two minutes from Tokoroa's Mike Northcott. The pressure Peters applied from the gun reflected the experience the Rotorua U23 flier has been gaining over the last two northern hemisphere race seasons, where he has learnt to fight for every small gain on offer. The rest of the Elite Men's field crossed the line one after the other, absolutely shattered and knowing in no uncertain terms that Peters had raised the bar on expectations for the rest of the New Zealand competitive racing season.
The Women's Elite race provided a different contrast, with last weekend's winner Karen Hanlen (Whanganui) facing stiffer competition in Napier. The experienced Fiona MacDermid matched Hanlen wheel for wheel over their five lap race - their front of the field tustle clearing them away from the chasing field. MacDermid was patient and made her move on lap three, but had to conjure up some brilliance to hold off the charging Hanlen right to the line with a mere four seconds her margin after 101 minutes of fierce competition.
The Under 19 Men's race provided the perfect platform for Rotorua's Nigel McDowell to demonstrate he is on song in his first year as a Junior at this level, McDowell racing within the Elite top ten for his five lap race, and winning by a comfortable margin over Northland rider Harley Going.
The RaboDirect NZ MTB Cup continues this weekend in Rotorua for Downhill racers, at the Whakarewarewa Forest. Two more World ranked top 15 New Zealand athletes join the show this weekend - Justin Leov (Dunedin, Trek World racing) and Cam Cole (Christchurch, Lapierre International) will both be racing to provide what will be a stacked Elite Men's field. And in the Women's Elite category, USA Transition/Red Bull professional Jill Kintner will be making a surprise raid from her Australian base to race in Rotorua. Jill Kintner is one of the most dominant female cyclists in the world. With every title in 4X Mountain biking, and BMX; including a Bronze medal from the 2008 Olympic Games, three consecutive 4X World titles, and a 2010 National Championship and US PRO GRT Series overall in her first year of Downhill racing, she has prevailed across three different cycling disciplines. Kintner is focussing on Downhill racing in 2011, and will be warmly welcomed by New Zealand athletes for her short visit.