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Cooper and Ragot among favorites for cross country, downhill
It's been seven years since New Zealand hosted the mountain bike world championships, but this coming weekend will be another big one in Rotorua. It includes the final part of a 10-day Bike Festival and the New Zealand Mountain Bike National Championships.
"This is probably the biggest weekend of cycling the city has experienced since we hosted the UCI Mountain Bike and Trials World Championships in 2006," says Martin Croft, from Rotorua Events & Venues.
The 2013 nationals begin on Saturday with the cross country races. 2012 junior world champion Anton Cooper will be among the favorites at the start line. The 18-year-old won the world title in Austria last September and is the first New Zealand mountain biker to win a rainbow jersey in the Olympic discipline of cross country.
"It is a huge honour to have a rainbow jersey to my name and something I am very proud of," said Cooper. "It feels great to bring it home, and I look forward to racing the national champs with a world title to my name."
Cooper is about to embark on a big year of racing the UCI World Cup series as a full-time professional with his new team Cannondale Factory Racing.
"I've only ever done two races in Rotorua, and they were just small ones," said Cooper with his trademark grin. "I think the flowy nature of the trails is a lot different to the places I normally race on, which is good for variety - and the amount of trails, here, is endless!"
Cooper won't have an easy ride. Locals, like Dirk Peters and Carl Jones, know the Whakarewarewa trails like their own hands.
In the elite women's cross country, London Olympian Karen Hanlen will start favourite after a dominant win at last weekend's national series round at Hunua.
Two-time elite women's downhill world champion Emmeline Ragot will also take on the Taniwha in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest on Sunday. Being a French woman, she won't be eligible for the 2013 New Zealand title. However, she will be part of a star-studded line up on a fearsome and dramatic course.
"I know the Taniwha track from four years ago, and and I really like this course," said Ragot. The French pro is also looking forward to sampling the world-famous trails in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest.
"I'll be in Rotorua all week, and I've already tried a couple of trails on my cross country bike," said Ragot. "It's good to ride here, there are all the tracks that we need - Rotorua trails are awesome."
She is in New Zealand racing alongside La Pierre teammate, Sam Blenkinsop. The Kiwi pro is looking to continue his domination of the New Zealand summer season at the national championships. He's taken out three rounds of the national series, but won't have it all his own way in Rotorua.
The cream of the country's downhill talent - including former junior downhill world champions, Brook MacDonald and Cam Cole, and local favourite, Louis Hamilton - will also be racing.
Enduro racing will make its debut in Rotorua on Sunday. The Giant 2W Gravity Enduro is a multi-stage race that will highlight the fast, undulating trails the Whakarewarewa Network is renowned for.
Enduro combines the endurance of a cross country athlete and the technical skills of an experienced mountain biker.
Rosara Joseph is one of New Zealand's top cross country riders of the last decade and will be on the start line. She represented New Zealand in cross country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, UCI World Cups and world championships and won silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne
She's a fan of the new Enduro format. "It combines fitness and strength with fast, technical riding. It's mentally and physically challenging - and a whole lot of fun," she said.
Joseph has fond memories of riding the Rotorua trails. "There's such variety in such a small space - jumps tracks, smooth swooping tracks, steep and rooty tracks - it's all around fabulous," she continues."
Joseph has raced in Rotorua previously at rounds of the National Series, Oceania Championships and the World Championships in 2006. "My favourite racing memory from Rotorua would be those World Champs in 2006," she said with a grin. "It was early in my racing career, and I absolutely loved racing at home, on a great track and with a supportive and raucous crowd."
The weather has been perfect for the festival so far and the forecast is for fine, hot weather through till Sunday.
"The Festival has gone really well up till now," says Martin Croft. "If you're a Kiwi bike fan and not in Rotorua already, you probably should be."
For more information, visit www.rotoruabikefestival.com.