Round Five of the RaboPlus New Zealand MTB Cup was completed over the weekend in Tauranga and Hamilton. Both venues were new to national level racing and both delivered in spades to the high quality competitive fields and spectators alike. Saturday's Downhill at the 2Stage Mountain Bike Park in Welcome Bay, Tauranga, saw an estimated 3000 spectators flood the racecourse to watch stunning action, while Sunday's Cross Country race at the Pukete Mountain Bike Trails also drew a huge number of spectators to watch the intense action on the inner city trail complex.
The new 2Stage racecourse was constructed specifically for this event, and competitors relished the loose, dusty conditions to post close times at the front of all age group categories. Several competitors took their opportunities with both hands, and riders not seen on the podium this summer rose from the ranks to stamp their mark at Tauranga's first downhill event of this calibre. Jay Barrett (Havelock North) continued his winning NZ MTB Cup form in the Under 17 category on the way to posting the 8th fastest time of the day, while Vaughan Woolhouse (Napier, Under 19) and Freddie King (Christchurch, Senior) both won at this new venue, against highly competitive fields. Sarah Atkin (Wellington, Open Women) finally took the top step of the podium after threatening to do so at previous rounds, winning by a huge 12 second margin.
The Elite Men's race was a showdown that wasn't to be missed. The morning's seeding showed that this was anybody's race to win - the slightest mistake or missed line would prove to be the difference between glory or a mid pack result. Round Four winner Glenn Haden (Wanganui) felt the full force of bad luck—Haden punctured in his race run ruining any chance of a repeat this week. USA professional Luke Strobel qualified fastest, but just couldn't replicate that clean run with too many mistakes in his race run fading to 21st. So it was that the race hardened and seasoned riders came to the fore. Cameron Cole (Christchurch) rode a calculated run to take the win this week from Wyn Masters (New Plymouth), with Switzerland's Martin Frei posting his best result this summer with the 3rd. Matt Scoles (Alexandra) and Nathan Rankin (Levin) rounded out the top five by the narrowest of margins.
Sunday's cross- country race at Hamilton's Pukete mountain bike trails wasn't a likely venue for a race of national calibre given the lack of climbing on the only slightly undulating course. However, with high quality athletes attacking the course under race conditions, this perception changed immediately—competitors gave the high intensity race course the thumbs up and spectators were served up a treat of tactical, attacking cross-country racing.
The morning's age group categories gave a taste of what was to come during the afternoon Elite/U23/U19 race start. Waikato locals showed the benefit of local knowledge and a tactical approach to winning here—James Gurney (Master 1) and Josh Parkin (Under 17) demonstrating to perfection the art of a last lap attack for the lead, claiming wins in their categories with ruthless displays of attacking riding.
As with Saturday's Downhill race, the Elite afternoon race was one that wasn't to be missed. Two Elite riders grasped their opportunities today to claim podium top steps. Eloise Fry (Rotorua) with a start to finish victory, heading off constant pressure from Katherine O'Neill (Rotorua) and a fast finishing Monique Avery (Rotorua) in the Elite Womens, and Patrick Avery (Rotorua) in the Elite Mens. Avery diced for the lead during his six lap race with Hamilton rider Scott Thorne, and attacked on the last lap to finally open a slim gap on Thorne who had set the pace for most of the race. For Avery, this race was a watershed— still an Under 23 rider, this was Avery's first big win in the Elite ranks and his confidence will be boosted no end for the NZ MTB Cup final next weekend, and the National and Oceania Championship events which follow. Auckland's Locky McArthur rode an aggressive race in the Under 19 category and was never in danger of relinquishing a lead he steadily built up over Rotorua's Sam Shaw during their five lap race. Likewise for McArthur, this was his first big nationals win and shows his potential to kick on from here. Alexa Peters also rode a strong tactical race to win the Under 19 Womens race.
The RaboPlus NZ MTB Cup continues this weekend with the sixth and final rounds of the Cross Country and Downhill taking place in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest on Saturday and Sunday Feb 20/21.