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Top-ranked international-level riders Anton Cooper and Jolanda Neff are among 1000 starters lining up for this year's Merida Karapoti Classic on March 3-4.
In 2011, Christchurch's Cooper created a slice of Kiwi mountain bike history when at age 16 he became the youngest winner of New Zealand's oldest mountain bike event, the Karapoti Classic. Cooper, who recently signed for Trek World Racing, returns to Wellington for the challenging 50km race in 2012, but so too does a Swiss rider who has been even more dominant than the Kiwi.
Following the 2011 Karapoti Classic, the Christchurch school boy took the mountain bike world by storm, winning rounds of the prestigious World Cup Series in Italy and the Czech Republic and placing second in the world championships to finish the season as the number one ranked junior mountain biker in the world.
As dominant as Cooper was, however, his female contemporary, Switzerland's Jolanda Neff, was even more so, winning her Swiss championship, the European championship and three rounds of the World Cup circuit. Illness at the world championship meant she finished fourth, but like Cooper she ended the season ranked number one among juniors worldwide.
Cooper and Neff are the favourites to win overall honours when they line up for the slog around Upper Hutt's rugged Akatarawa Ranges.
Neff is currently in Christchurch training through the New Zealand summer. She will tackle Karapoti for the first time, following in the footsteps of compatriot Nathalie Schneitter, who won the world junior title in 2004 and the Karapoti Classic in 2006.
However, only New Zealand's Cooper and Australian Lisa Mathison, who was also a world junior champion, have won Karapoti while still juniors. Cooper, of course, won Karapoti in 2011 and Mathison won Karapoti in 2004, after winning the world junior title in 2003, and would actually finish second at Karapoti to Schneitter in 2006.
So Neff could become just the third teenager to take out the Southern Hemisphere's longest running mountain bike event. But she'll face tough competition from the likes of defending champion Elina Ussher, 2009 and 2010 winner Fiona MacDermid and rising star Kim Hamer-Hurst, who could become the first Upper Hutt resident to win the race.
While Cooper will be firm favourite among men, he will be pushed hard by the 2010 winner and runner-up, Tim Wilding and Brendon Sharratt, both of Wellington. Other contenders will include Upper Hutt's own Gavin McCarthy, who was third in 2006, and multi-sport world champion Richard Ussher, who was fifth in 2011.
Race director Michael Jacques said Karapoti's iconic course could also turn the form book upside down. "The summer that never happened has left parts of the course very rough this year," said Jacques. "So I think the winners will be the rider who paces themselves and pay attention to tyre selection and tactics to avoid punctures and crashes."
Established in 1986, the Karapoti Classic is limited to 1000 riders and typically sells out. Race director Jacques said entries have been slower to fill in 2012. "Normally we’d be sold out by now and starting a waiting list. But Christchurch's earthquake woes and the continuing recession are impacting events all over the country." He still expects the event to fill to its limit prior to race day.
The 2012 Karapoti Classic features the usual 50km Classic, the 20km Challenge and the Kids 5km Klassic. This year, the event will also feature a novelty event, the Perverse Reverse, which will race the feature 50km course in reverse the day after the main event.