New Zealand's longest running race draws 1,300

On Saturday, 1,300 riders from 10 countries will line up for the Southern Hemisphere's longest...

On Saturday, 1,300 riders from 10 countries will line up for the Southern Hemisphere's longest running mountain bike race, the Merida Karapoti Classic. The Wellington race was established in 1986. A full field will take on the rugged course through the heart of the Akatarawa Ranges.

"We had more than 1,500 people apply to race this year," said event manager Michael Jacques. "We'd love to let all of them ride, but Karapoti is a tough challenge in a remote environment and we simply can't cope with more."

Defending champion Stuart Houltham will be wearing number one, but he'll have a hard time holding onto the pole position. "If there is a favourite," said Jacques, "it would be Stu, because he once again races at Karapoti with a week-old national championship title. So he's the form rider."

Houltham, however, won't have things all his own way. A strong Australian contingent from the Flight Centre Merida team is headed by Tim Bennett, Nick Both and Adrian Jackson. Both and Bennett have both runners-up at Karapoti, while Jackson is the reigning mountain bike orienteering champion. Local Wellington riders, Gavin McCarty and Wayne Hiscock will also be in the mix.

The woman's race might prove to be the most interesting. Former Karapoti winners and New Zealand reps Fiona Macdermid and Jenny Hopkinson-Smith will be renewing their rivalry. Macdermid is the defending champion while Hopkinson-Smith the course record holder; a record that Macdermid missed by just six seconds last year. But both will have to be wary of fast-improving Palmerston North rider Nic Leary, and also Aussie triathlete-turned-mountain biker Jo Bennett who will be looking for a husband and wife double with her husband Tim.

Saturday's weather is forecast for rain; conditions that Jacques says should favour the top Kiwi riders. "Karapoti is tough any time," says Jacques, "but when you add rain and mud it becomes a year to remember."

Upper Hutt Doctor Alistair Rhodes is keeping his streak of 22 Karapotis going this year, and Wellington bicycle retailer Francis Hoen will start his 20th edition. Add in the fact that the race's founders, the Kennett brothers - Paul, Simon and Jonathan - will be riding a triple tandem.

Odette Ford-Brierley, 11 years-old, will return for her third crack at Karapoti. She first rode the event as a two-year-old on the handlebars of her father Bill's bike. Then as a seven-year-old, she completed the race with Dad again on a tandem. This year she tackles the event on her own bike for the first time.

At the other end of the scale, 72-year-old Alan Etheridge is the oldest-ever entrant for the race.

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