New Zealand mountain bike series heads to Nelson

Tougher cross country, downhill competition for South Island final

The RaboPlus 2010 New Zealand Mountain Bike Cup continues this weekend in Nelson with the final South Island stop. Nelson continues its strong and enduring pedigree of hosting national-level mountain bike events. The Brook and Maitai Valley race courses are tried and tested, having previously being used for National and Oceania Championship contests over recent years.

In the elite cross country races on Saturday, two athletes are going for three-peats in the South Island portion of the series. Brendon Sharratt and Amy Laird have won their respective races at the first two New Zealand Cup rounds, but may face some stiffer competiton this weekend.

Sharratt will race current New Zealand Champion Stu Houltham in his first national outing this summer, as well as two Under 23s with the potential to push hard at the front of the field: Carl Jones and Alex McGregor. McGregor has recently returned to mountain bike racing after several years racing on the road, but he had some mechanical issues in his Dunedin race start that took him out of contention.

Laird continues to impress in the elite women's cross country field, having switched disciplines from downhill to cross country last year. Under 23 National Champion Katherine O'Neill joins the New Zealand Cup this weekend to bolster the combined elite and under 23 women's race. She will have been following Laird's impressive wins with interest.

Sunday's downhill race continues what has been a high energy and exciting start to the New Zealand Mountain Bike Cup at previous rounds in Christchurch and Dunedin. The elite men's field is one of the strongest seen this early in the season, with Trek World Racing professional Justin Leov having the measure on his rivals, but only just!

Several racers have been only fractions of a second from upsetting the form card and besting Leov - in this sport only the slightest mistake or missed line can be the difference between the top step of the podium and finishing back in the field. X-Fusion athlete and Nelson local (on his preferred home track) Kieran Bennett knows this only too well, and Bennett will fall back on his 2007 Oceania Championship winning form on this same track to draw inspiration for Sunday's race run. Seasoned pro rider Nathan Rankin also joins the New Zealand Cup in Nelson for the first time this year and like other athletes entering the series at this stage, will be very aware of the form and pace he is up against.

2009 World Cup Champion Sabrina Jonnier will race her last New Zealand event in Nelson before returning to France to continue preparations for the 2010 World Cup season. Jonnier has shown a clean set of heels to her women's elite rivals, with a demonstration of the power and control required to beat the best in the world at this demanding sport. The Kiwi challenge will be led by Rotorua's Gabby Molloy, herself no slouch and gaining on Jonnier at each outing.

South Island Cup champions in several age group categories will be decided in Nelson, with the senior men's downhill category providing a level of competition that rivals anything else on offer. PC Cooper has been away from this level of racing for several years, and was one of New Zealand's most promising juniors back in 2006-2007. Cooper is back in 2010, and has traded wins at the first two rounds with current New Zealand representative Richard Leacock. It will be a winner-takes-all race between these two riders on Sunday and neither will give an inch - their contrasting racing styles, Cooper relaxed and loose and Leacock focussed and driven only serving to heighten the suspense.

Cross country racing happens at Codgers MTB Trails on Saturday, and the downhill finals will take place at Kaka Hill, Sharlands Creek on Sunday.

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