Drawing the year to a close this weekend was the third and final Enduro World Series qualifier event for New Zealand. Race number two of the Giant 2W Gravity Enduro Series was announced as an EWS qualifier event back in June of this year and as enduro race fans we were keen to get along and see just what it took to ride in an event such as this. Expecting big things and a high standard of riding, we weren’t disappointed.
New Zealand seems to be having an unseasonable wet spring season this year and this weekend in the Whakarewarewa Forest was going to be no exception. Our journo, Rachael, took the Interislander ferry over to the North Island late Thursday evening, refuelling and making the trip up to Rotorua early Friday in order to drink in the buzzing atmosphere of the vibrant MTB community on race weekend.
Moody views from the Interislander translated into muddy conditions further north. Sliding around in a spot of pre-race line sighting on Friday for most riders meant the mud tyres were out in force. For, race organiser Neil Gellatly, this meant last minute stage changes from the dry option to the wet one, it was like an F1 pit stop all round. Luckily Neil was well prepared and the riders well informed as both trail variations had been listed on the route map in readiness for this scenario. With 500 entrants and all levels and ages of riders present, this decision was an essential one, not only to make the next day’s racing enjoyable for all but also to preserve those tracks that would fare less with that that amount of traffic. Fear not though, this didn’t mean things got easy, as they say “it’s always harder the faster you go” right?
Saturday morning attempted to rear its head above the mist to no avail. Briefing was a moist and humid affair as just after 10am the non-shuttled riders set off. It was a stacked field including Canyon Factory rider Justin Leov, and a large number of NZ pinners including Keegan Wright, Joe Nation, Wyn Masters and Ben Friel. With either four or six stages in store, riders at the point of entry, could opt to ride in the shuttle bus for four of these stages or do the whole thing under their own steam. All riders hoping to gain points for the EWS series of course had to ride un-shuttled but in each age categories, the fresh legged and the not so were competing directly. As per its tag line, the Giant 2W Gravity Enduro’s employs a ‘cruise up and race down’ agenda, stages can be raced in any order and the climbs taken at any pace as long as you are home by 4:30pm.
Our first stage was predetermined for us as it was the one with the shortest queue at the head of the first climb. Launching straight into one of the tougher trails, beginning with ‘Taniwha’ we took a quick slide into a muddy slither of singletrack, over copious roots and out into the open trail of ‘Whaki’. Out from under the cover of the trees and in an area of recently logged land the ground was sandier and much grippier and it was a fast ride to the next section of wood where the sliding resumed until the finish gate loomed.
Following a couple of locals, we wound our way back to the top of the hill through a labyrinth of singletrack. This is a race where local knowledge certainly serves you well, on the climbs as well as the descents. Time saved on a shortcut we joined the queue (and the only one of the day) atop ‘Billy T’ for well draining and hard packed hoon. This trail is super fun wet or dry, this weekend it took some effort to keep momentum going but had some awesome flow despite the stodge. A shorter liaison took us to ‘Kung Fu Walrus’, and back to the slick, fresher ground under tree cover. With crashes galore from our group of riders we employed our own range of martial arts moves from top to bottom. The grip was ever increasing and the roots decreased in number the further the trail descended, it ended with a greeting from a marshal complete with head to toe plastic poncho, looking less than weatherproof!
The next stage followed suit, with a descent from ‘Frankenfurter’ to ‘Riff Raff’, a stage beginning relatively dry and sandy then descending through the trees where riding blind meant eyes were on stalks on the steepest trail of the day. The last two stage of our day were (unbeknownst to us at the time) demanded the most pedalling of the day. Wiser riders may have opted to do these first with fresh legs and face the music of the mud once half the field had ridden our earlier trails. These two were certainly ones for those with a strength in XC riding, fitness won out here as descents interspersed with climbs favoured those who could hang on whilst blowing hard.
Rolling back across the finish line, 5 hours 30mins after setting out we were greeted by one of, if not the best greetings after a big day in the saddle – hot and tasty sausage rolls, delicious! Checking in with other racers gathering in the busy pit area, we managed to bump into Justin Leov. Arguably the biggest name at the race, he was stoked on some great stage times telling us “I only really ride in Rotorua for these races and am really happy to be near the top of the field in the more technical and downhill orientated stages, there are some fast locals out there, like Keegan and I’m happy to be challenging them”.
Whilst full results can be found here, the winners of the 6 stage races were at follows: the fastest Senior Woman was Cati Pearson, whilst fastest Senior male was taken by Joe Nation, fresh from his win at the Three Peaks Enduro in Dunedin. The Master male and female categories were won by EWS racer Justin Leov and race sponsor Annika Smail respectively. Vanessa Quinn and Mike Metz took the Classic female and male titles and last but not least Mike Spanbrook and Sarah Beadel took the top step in the Legends category. The young talent on MTB’in were out in force too, with a huge number of under 20 entrants. Youth category winners were Jessica Manchester and Connor Johnston and Junior podium paces taken by Kayla Russell and Keegan Wright. Fastest man on the hill went to Joe Nation, in a time of 29:06, 28 seconds ahead of his rivals. He was on absolute fire with stage wins on half of the stages! Fastest female was Annika Smail, with a scorching time of 35:33 that would have sat her safely inside the top 100 men.
With so many categories, prize giving was a big affair with a lot of high value gear to be won. That’s without mentioning the $25,000 cheque, (yup, 25K) going to Keegan Wright as the winner of the Under 23 Local Enduro Scolarship. The scholarship was created by funds donated by members of the local MTB community in order to see that young talent from Rotorua prospers in their sport. That should see him set for a great 2017 and an awesome example of a community recognising passion and talent.
With EWS point to be allocated, there were more than a few riders here that will be hoping they have done enough to secure an early entry into the series next year. The Giant 2W Gravity Enduro has proved itself to be a well worthy event of the qualifier status and one we expect will be chosen for the position in years to come.