Iconic Karapoti Classic mountain bike race turns 25

Leishman to defend in men's race; Leary favored for women's win

A quarter of a century ago, mountain biking was a new fringe sport. There were only a couple of brands of mountain bikes available and most races consisted of getting a few mates together. Then one day late in the summer of 1986, Wellington cycling enthusiast Paul Kennett sent 49 hardy souls into Upper Hutt's Akatarawa Ranges for the first edition of the Karapoti Classic in New Zealand.

On March 6, the Karapoti Classic, the Southern Hemisphere's longest running mountain bike race, turns 25. From humble beginnings, Karapoti became the event that popularised mountain biking in New Zealand. Today, it attracts almost 2,000 entries though the race is limited to 1,000 riders.

Founded by Paul Kennett and his two brothers Simon and Jonathan, the Karapoti concept revolved around an uncompromising 50km of four wheel drive trails, singletrack, wheel-sucking sludge, raging river crossings, wall to wall wilderness and huge hills.

When the event began, it was a cutting-edge challenge, which seemed like a major expedition with many competitors sporting bush shirts and backpacks. Simon Kennett, who finished second in that inaugural race, recalls eventual race winner Tim Galloway offering him an apple as they started up the final hill. Since then icon elements of the course such as "The Rock Garden," "Devil's Staircase," and "Big Ring Boulevard," have become legendary, spoken in hushed tones of nervous anticipation and misty, sometimes bloody, memories. Completing Karapoti is a sort of Down Under mountain bike benchmark.

Between them, the Kennett brothers have ridden every Karapoti Classic. Paul and Simon have both won the race, with Simon being the first to break the magical three-hour mark in 1988. They no longer organise Karapoti, but their names are forever etched into the history of mountain biking with other winners.

This year Rotorua's Mark Leishman will wear number one as the defending champion. Leishman, a former national rep, was a surprise winner in 2009 ahead of national champion Stu Houltham. But these riders will need to keep a keen eye out for Brendon Sharratt and national junior champion Richard Anderson. Everyone, however, will need to watch for the return of Sydney's Peter Hatton, who won the Merida Karapoti Classic in 2004 and 2006.

The women's elite race is also shaping up as a furious battle. National champion Nic Leary is the favourite, but Samara Sheppard and Anika Smail will test her.

The Karapoti podium has been a who's-who of the sport, with trailblazer Jon Hume winning four years in a row (1991-1994) while world top 10 ranked Kashi Leuchs won in 1998 and 2002. Nelson's Tim Vincent won three times (2001, 2003, 2005) prior to taking the 24-hour world title, and in 2007 Rotorua teenager Clinton Avery put himself into mountain biking folklore when he won by 10 minutes in a race record two hours, 14 minutes and one second.

The undisputed Karapoti legend, however, is South Islander Kathy Lynch. In 1994 Lynch set a record (2:49:42) that stood for 13 years. Winners since then, such as Sadie Parker (2000, 2001) and Commonwealth silver medallists Susie Pryde (2002, 2003) and Rosara Joseph (2006) couldn't match Lynch's record or winning streak. Nor could world number two Susan DeMattai of the US (1993) or World Junior Champions Australian Lisa Mathison (2004) and Swiss Nathalie Schneitter (2006). In 2007, American-based Kiwi Jenny Hopkinson finally chipped the record down to two hours, 47 minutes and 35 seconds and in the two years since, Palmerston North super-Mum Fiona Macdermid has come agonisingly close, missing the new record by six seconds in 2008 and 19 seconds in 2009. But it's unlikely that anyone will ever match Kathy Lynch's streak of eight wins.

The full distance race will cover 50km, but a shorter, 20k Penny Farthing Challenge is also an option. Live music, a mountain bike expo and offbeat competitions such as bike tossing and mountain bike trials will also color the weekend.

At age 43 Upper Hutt doctor Alister Rhodes was the oldest competitor in the inaugural 1986 event and has ridden all but two Karapotis since, yet he is no longer the eldest entrant.

The 25th anniversary has attracted entries from eight countries.

For more information, visit www.karapoti.co.nz.

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