The 2012 edition of the southern hemisphere's most important mountain bike race is all set to go this weekend, in the Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua. The RaboDirect Oceania Mountain Bike Championships, presented by Nature Valley returns to New Zealand every second year, and its status continues to grow as the highest level domestic mountain bike event for all of the Oceania countries represented.
Rotorua is no stanger to hosting high level international mountain bike events - last hosting the Oceanias as a lead-in event to the 2006 world championships. Many of the same organising crew are involved for local hosts the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club, and a great deal of pride is taken with ensuring the event is up to scratch and worthy of the support of Oceania's best mountain bike athletes. Tremendous local support has kicked in behind the club this year, with major backing also coming from the Rotorua District Council - always on board for anything mountain bike-related in this riding destination.
Action begins in earnest on Friday, with the super D event taking place during the afternoon and early evening. Best described as a downhill endurance event, super D commonly draws the best cross country and downhill exponents together on a course that evens out the playing field for both. This is only the second time super D has been run at a national level in New Zealand - trialled recently and successfully at the national championships in Nelson at the end of January.
The Oceania super D has also drawn Taupo's John Kirkcaldie out of retirement - Kirkcaldie was a trailblazing downhill racer in the late 90s and early part of this century, retiring from competition at the conclusion of the Rotorua world championships. A multi-time NORBA champion, the lure of Rotorua and competition couldn't be resisted, and the racing community will welcome back one of its own this Friday.
Saturday is cross country race day, with plenty at stake for Oceanias U19, U23 and elite athletes after age group categories have raced in the morning. The Oceania ranking points on offer at this event always give the athletes a big boost going into the World Cup season, and several of Australia's top multi-lap exponents have travelled to Rotorua to try to wrest those ranking points away from New Zealand's best on their home turf.
Being deep into Olympic qualification for both countries adds another dimension to the competition, and especially in the elite women's race, where the head to head rivalry between National Champion Karen Hanlen and Beijing Olympian Rosara Joseph will be front and centre again. Australia's Chris Jongewaard and Paul van der Ploeg return to New Zealand this summer, having raced at the first New Zealand MTB Cup event in Dunedin mid-January, but bring with them Lachlan Norris, Sid Taberlay and Daniel McConnell - creating a formidable challenge for Mike Northcott, Carl Jones and the rest of New Zealand's top elite men. Guam's Derek Horton may be the dark horse in this field, and some brutal racing will sure to be on offer. Also worth following will be the Under 23 men's event - National Champion Dirk Peters leads New Zealand's charge, with a number of quality athletes also making the trip from Australia.
Sunday is downhill race day and a strong field will have had a day and a half's practice under their belts before racing against the clock at 2:00 pm. George Brannigan and Matt Scoles will lead the New Zealand challenge, Brannigan fresh off a win at the final round of the New Zealand MTB Cup. While several of New Zealand and Australia's top World Cup athletes are not in Rotorua, already off shore prepping for next weekend's first World Cup event, the quality of Oceanias downhill competition is still very high. Several athletes who have been making podiums throughout the New Zealand MTB Cup this summer are racing, and the likes of Kieran Bennett, Reuben Olorenshaw, and Wyn Masters should provide more than enough pace at the top of the elite field to provide a block against the Australian racers. Sarah Atkin will be aiming to keep her stunning unbeaten record intact this weekend in the elite women's race, and the Under 19s will provide major excitement with several top Australian and New Caledonian athletes aiming to upset the New Zealanders in the Whaka Forest.
Running during the lunch break of downhill competition is the cross country eliminator event. Four riders head to head around a 650m long cross country style course, in a knock-out style format is all action. Like the super D, this event was trialled at the recent national championships and Rotorua has a challenging course ready for action on Sunday. Just as with Kirkcaldie's return in the super D, the eliminator has drawn another top athlete out of mountain bike retirement - this time 2004 World Champion Vanessa Quin, who has been dabbling with track racing in between raising a family for the last few years. Quin has been missed around the mountain bike circuit since her retirement from the sport, and will be unreservedly welcomed back in Rotorua.
For more information, visit www.mtbnz.org.