Those who weren't paying attention to the 2012 New Zealand Cross Country Mountain Bike Cup might have been wondering who Karen Hanlen was during the elite women's cross country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup on Saturday in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Whakatane's Karen Hanlen raced to a surprising eighth at the first round of the World Cup. Hanlen put herself in a position to not only challenge for the race lead, but to claim a result that will allow her to build on what has already been a form summer.
After winning every national level event in New Zealand this summer, including the National and Oceania Championship titles, Hanlen travelled to South Africa. This first World Cup of 2012 has been her first opportunity since the 2011 world championships to benchmark her rapid progress in the sport against the world's best - and at the end of the first lap Hanlen was not only in the lead group on course, but outright second.
Lining up beside Hanlen on the fourth row of the start grid was Wellington's Rosara Joseph, and with the London Olympics forefront in both athletes' minds also a very clear understanding of the importance of performing well in Pietermaritzburg.
Hanlen's aggressive start rocketed her into contention at the front of the field, and after the second lap and some settling on the very technical race course she solidified a position behind the lead group of eighth, which she protected and held through to the end of the five-lap race. Hanlen had been targeting a breakthrough into the top 12 at this first World Cup, and was delighted to finish inside the top 10 and only 2:17 behind the race winner Maja Wloszczowska of Poland.
Kiwi rival Joseph meanwhile worked steadily away after a slower start, and recovered course position to eventually finish 11th and 3:05 down on the winner.
Hanlen returns to Whakatane on Wednesday to continue preparations for the next mountain bike World Cup event at Houffalize, Belguim on April 14, when she will again line up against Joseph at this World Cup venue - one which both athletes are very familiar with.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in South Africa.