Samara Sheppard was a black and silver Cross Country mountain bike machine today at the Mont Sainte Anne World Championships in Quebec. Sheppard (Rotorua) was the sole New Zealand representative in the 35 strong Under 23 Women's race, run over 4 ½ laps of a brutal race course. From a mid pack start position, Sheppard found her racing zone within seconds of the start gun and worked her way immediately into top ten contention, holding her composure and intense focus to ride her race through to an 11th place finish. The first sign of any emotion came on Sheppard’s last feed zone pass, where a huge smile lit her face with the knowledge she would be delivering a breakthrough result for both herself and her country. Sheppard was ecstatic with 11th and communicating the news to her family back home became an absolute priority. Her years of hard work and development as a junior, with a solid European campaign this year in her World Champs build-up paid off in spades for the now Rotorua-based Wellingtonian. Sheppard can’t wait for more and is already thinking forward to how she will approach 2011 given the massive gains she has made this year. Up front, Annie Last (Great Britain) made a valiant attempt to break the traditional European dominance in this event, leading through the middle of the race. However Last couldn’t hold off the fast finishing Swedish rider Alexandra Engen, who took the lead on the 3rd lap and wasn’t challenged again.
Downhill qualifying took place during the afternoon as temperatures again started climbing into the low 30 degree range. With little at stake in the unique World Champs qualifying format, riders made the most of the opportunity to ride against the clock, but tactical plans were put in place for the majority, with few riders hitting absolute race pace. Sam Blenkinsop (Wanganui) hit a 5th in Elite Men, and has plenty of gas in the tank to improve on that time in Sunday’s final. Likewise George Brannigan (Hawkes Bay) in the Junior Men; Brannigan taking a 4th place into Sunday’s final but with the potential for massive improvement. Sarah Atkin (Wellington) recovered from a nasty crash on Wednesday to qualify 4th in the Junior Women’s field, and smiles came easily for Atkin in her first major international event.
Four Cross qualifying was run at 6pm. Daniel Franks (Christchurch) was comfortable with his dark horse status in the Elite Men's field; viewed by vastly more experienced racers as an unknown, Franks knew going to the gate for his qualifying run that this status was about to change. Franks produced a smooth and deceptively fast run to qualify 11th, which gives him a draw for Friday’s nights knock-out four man World Championship race in the preferred side of the field. Franks was happy: “It was a good run for me. The BMX diet I’ve been on for six months has been hugely beneficial for my Four Cross, and it was good to put together a run like this first up.” More fancied riders didn’t do so well. Current World Champion Jared Graves (Australia) continued a run of practice punctures in his qualifying run, scraping through qualifying for the 32 rider knock-out heats in 29th.
Friday's programme is a busy one for the New Zealand Team. The Junior (Under 19) Men's race starts at 11am, with Bradley Hudson Christchurch), Mathew Waghorn (Palmerston North) and Locky McArthur (Auckland) in action. The Under 23 Men's race is underway at 2pm, with Dirk Peters and Carl Jones (both from Rotorua) carrying New Zealand pride. Daniel Franks also races under lights in the Four Cross World Championships at 9pm.