A head to head battle between New Zealand’s top mountain bikers that may run till the Rio Olympics will be a feature of the 3rd Rotorua Bike Festival in February.
At the 2014 New Zealand National Mountain Bike cross-country championships, Te Awamutu’s Sam Gaze just edged 2012 Junior World Champion Anton Cooper from Christchurch. It was an epic race as the two tracked each other on a challenging course in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest, on a very hot summer’s day.
Fast-forward a few months to a different hemisphere and a different climate. It was almost a mirror image finish as Cooper took out the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, with Gaze taking the silver. To cap the double the pair out-paced another world-ranked rider, Australian Dan McConnell.
Round 3 will be on Saturday February 14 on the first weekend of the 10-day Bike Festival, as 2015 New Zealand titles go on the line, again.
Cooper has raced for Cannondale the last couple of years and Gaze also signed for an international professional team, Specialized, in late 2014.
It's a big year for both young riders. “My season will be kicking off in Rotorua,” said Cooper. “Then the Oceania Championships in Australia, racing in the USA and then back to Europe.” UCI World Cup rounds and the World Championships are an important part of Cooper’s programme. “But Olympic selection is the number one priority,” he continued.
Cooper and Gaze won’t have it all their own way in February. The rise in popularity in mountain biking is reflected in the depth at the sporting level. Local riders, like Carl Jones and Dirk Peters from NZXC Racing, will be on home trails and will keep the pair honest.
Reigning women’s National Champion, Kate Fluker from NZXC Racing, will be back to defend her title. Last year, she won ahead of fellow Commonwealth Games representative Karen Hanlen from Whakatane.
Fluker finished with a big relaxed smile on her face, looking like she’d been on a Sunday cruise, not a tough multi-lap race in demanding conditions.
“My goals in 2015 start with trying to keep my New Zealand title, for sure,” said the Queenstown-based rider. “Then, I want to raise funds to get to Europe, USA and Canada to race at UCI World Cups through the 2015 season.”
Like Cooper and Gaze, Fluker has an eye on 2016 and Rio. “To get one women’s spot for New Zealand at the Olympics, we need to win the Oceania Championships or get UCI points in World Cups,” she continued. “It would be amazing to go to Rio.”
Fluker loves riding on the Whakarewarewa Forest trails.
“It's completely different to Queenstown and, while I’d never give up riding there, it's always nice to change things up a bit,” she said with characteristic enthusiasm. “There is something for everyone and that allows people to progress to more technical riding progressively and in their own time.”
Fluker also enjoys the Rotorua cross-country racecourses. “The team up there always seem to create a great, challenging track,” she added.
The National Championship women’s race will be very competitive. Hanlen, who represented New Zealand at the London Olympics and rides for Specialized New Zealand, and local riders like Katie O’Neill and Amber Johnston from NZXC Racing, will all be in the mix.
“Diary race day, this will be one to come and watch,” said Martin Croft from the Bike Festival team. “The race course is just a short bike ride or walk into the Forest and, like almost all the festival events, it’s free to spectate.”
Entries are open for the cross-country and the downhill on Sunday, February 15.