Top New Zealand mountain bikers racing in Rotorua at Labour Weekend

Sam Gaze © Alan Ofsoski

Sam Gaze © Alan Ofsoski It’s one of the most challenging and demanding races on the mountain bike calendar.

This Saturday’s Nzo Whaka 100 is an epic, 100 kilometre endurance race on the world-class mountain bike trail network in the Whakarewarewa Forest, south of Rotorua.

For two of New Zealand’s top riders, Commonwealth Games silver medallist Sam Gaze and Olympian Karen Hanlen, it will be the start of a busy summer season.

“To me, the Whaka 100 is the pinnacle of racing in Rotorua,” said Gaze, the young rider from Te Awamutu who has risen rapidly through the rankings in the last two years. “It mixes really well with my training and the build up to the domestic and international season, so there is no reason not to love this race.”

Like a lot of mountain bikers from outside the city, Rotorua is a second home for Gaze.

“It’s great to train and race here and the trails are just awesome,” he added. “The Whaka 100 course really uses what they have on offer and the organisers always do a great job setting up and running the event.”

Gaze has good memories of the last time he raced in Rotorua.

In February, he won the National Mountain Bike Cross-Country championships at the Rotorua Bike Festival. He took the title in a dramatic photo finish ahead of fellow Kiwi representative and 2012 UCI Junior World Champion Anton Cooper, from Christchurch.

Cooper returned the favour at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July, winning gold with Gaze in second place.

It was another tight finish in a rivalry that is sure to run and run, with both talented young riders looking ahead to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The two will meet head-to-head in the New Zealand National Series early in 2015, then at the National Championships in Rotorua on Saturday February 14.

“They’re the major goal for the domestic season,” Gaze continued. “I’ll do my best to have a relaxed and enjoyable summer of racing in New Zealand. It’s a long season for the group of us that race in Europe, so the more often the pressure is off, the better.”

Late in February, Gaze will head to Toowoomba, in Queensland for the Oceania Mountain Bike Championships.His plans for the 2015 UCI World Cup season are still under wraps.

“I can’t say much about next year, but I can tell you it's really exciting times ahead,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making an announcement in the next six weeks.”

Gaze is currently an ambassador for Specialized New Zealand.

He’s also had great support from Rotorua bike shop, Cyclezone. He’ll be in store during registration for the Whaka 100 to show off his silver medal and talk to fellow racers.

“The team at Cyclezone have done an outstanding job and I’m looking forward to carrying on the momentum with them to bigger things.”

Karen Hanlen © Alan Ofsoski web

Whakatane’s Karen Hanlen is taking on the Whaka 100 for the first time.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to get in some long miles while enjoying the amazing trails and representing my wonderful sponsors, Specialized New Zealand,” she said.

“The Rotorua trails flow so well and test all levels of ability. I really need to get across more often than I do.”

Her plans for summer start with spending time camping with her family and getting outdoors on her bike whenever she has a chance, before the serious business of the race season begins. “My goal next year is to race our New Zealand summer series and the National Championships in Rotorua,” she added. “It's great to have them so close to home.”

While Hanlen and Gaze will start as favourites for the Whaka 100, a big field of riders will keep them honest.

As the event enters its seventh year, it's never been healthier. This year’s race is close to a sellout. Over 200 riders are entered in the 100-kilometre category. Another 200 are entered for shorter course categories, including a 15-kilometre loop for novices.

“All our races have had big increases in entry numbers this year, from elite riders to beginners just wanting to have a go,” said Whaka 100 race director, Tim Farmer from Nduro Events. “It’s another sign of how fast the sport is growing and what a mountain bike utopia Rotorua really is.”