Right click for higher resolution. Photos: Brett Kennedy
New Zealand mountain biking's extended family came together for one of the yearly highlights over the Waitangi long weekend. Despite attracting a high-calibre field, there was a feeling that the racing was even less of a focus than in previous years. The recent passing of Kelly McGarry gave the event extra meaning as riders honoured the memory of two exceptional people. It was a much needed chance to support each other through a difficult time, and to celebrate the joys of riding bikes and life in general.
Nelson's fine run of weather continued on practice day. Riders unleashed on the hill found that conditions were loose and fast across all trails. The race runs got a thrashing, but many chose to use practice to explore the bounty of the park instead. For those who are less competitive it's the best day of the weekend, as it's a free pass to explore the endless singletrack paradise without any pressure.
It was already scorching when everyone gathered for the briefing on race day. Gabby Molloy (Dodzy's partner in crime) couldn't be at the event, but penned a poignant and emotional letter that was read out in place of the usual yarns. There was suddenly a lot of dust in people's eyes as a lot of things were put into perspective.
Stage one was the shortest of the day and had a natural, raked in feel as it descended through pristine native forest. Trail condition changed dramatically over the two days. By race runs, there were plenty of potholes in the loam highway. The track chosen was a route not often ridden by those lucky enough to have visited the Wairoa before, and meant that first timers weren't at a disadvantage. Any good rider able to read trail well and make good line choices was richly rewarded.
Stage two found plenty of rock. It started with a gnadgery traverse that was tricky to pedal without toes meeting stone. There were ways to find a smooth line through the chunder and hold good speed though, and some racers made up a lot of time on this section. Things started dropping more steeply about a third of the way in, with a series of loose rocky chutes and shingly dropping turns making for exciting times for the front wheel. Just when the hands were ready to give out, the trail became smooth and flowing with a series of spine-crushing G-outs.
The final stage of the day was a monster and showcased the very best of what the Wairoa has to offer. It was a rough and technical start which battered weary riders and punished bikes. After that, riders got to slap some of the best turns in New Zealand down through the pines. The final section of the fourteen minute plus run was down the open face at the bottom as usual. Plenty of vocal spectators lined the roadside where there were great views of racers finishing their runs.
Sam Blenkinsop managed to defend his title, taking the win in 28 minutes 12 seconds. Matt Walker was 14 seconds back, just edging out Wyn Masters who was 2 seconds slower. Justin Leov and Bernard Kerr filled the rest of the podium. In the women's, Anja Mcdonald grabbed the top step in 34 minutes 41 seconds. Harriet Harper claimed second and Sasha Smith slotted into third, followed by Anka Martin and Phoebe Coers.
The real racing (and best banter) was found in the new and highly coveted hardtail category. Riders were desperate to get hold of the Engorged Gorge trophy, an elegant and potentially practical creation that is the perfect addition to any poolroom or mantlepiece. Jake Boylett proved the man most capable of controlling a rigid rear end, tackling the brutal course in 33 minutes 12 seconds. Tom Winwood and Richie Harding rounded out the top three. All of the reckless riders in this depraved category earned plenty of man-cards as the course was physically demanding on the plushest fullys; racing it on a hardtail was nothing short of madness.
The team at the Wairoa Gorge put in countless hours to make sure the DME is a top-tier event that runs silky smooth. Nick Crocker is the man at the heart of it all. He's done an unbelievable job to make the event what it is in the past four years. Nick's time working at the Wairoa is coming to an end, although we all hope he is back next year to help out with the race. Nick deserves a massive thanks for all the work he puts into the event, and gives to NZ mountain biking in general. Hardtail bandit Ash Millar acknowledged Nick by racing in a beautiful hand-made cape which said "For Crocker and glory".
The DME highlights exactly what's good about being a mountain biker in New Zealand. It's a fantastic weekend of sharing memories and stories, of celebrating life and of riding our bikes together. New Zealand's mountain biking community is so strong. It's a powerful thing to be part of. It brings a huge range of people together to share a passion that runs deep. Dodzy's passion for the sport ran deep as well, and he would have been stoked on the event. The DME is the perfect way to respect his memory.