Cooper beats conditions and his elders to win at Karapoti

Toughest conditions ever for classic, 26-year-old mountain bike race

Heavy rain, strong winds, high rivers and lots of mud made this year's Merida Karapoti Classic the toughest ever seen in the 26-year history of the Southern Hemisphere's longest running mountain bike event. But of 1,100 riders from 12 countries who lined up for the 50km classic through Upper Hutt's gruelling Akatarawa Ranges, it was a tiny teenager from Christchurch who handled it better than anyone.

Christchurch's Anton Cooper shrugged off testing conditions and the country's best mountain bikers, not to mention his earthquake-torn hometown, to become the youngest ever winner of New Zealand's premier mountain bike race.

Cooper came into the race expected to push a stacked field that included the past three winners, Tim Wilding, Mark Leishman and Stu Houltham, the national championship runner up Dirk Peters, top Canadian Thomas Skinner and multi-sport world champion Richard Ussher.

Extreme conditions on the famous Rock Garden and Devil's Staircase split the race wide open and by halfway it was a four way battle between Cooper, Peters, Houltham and Wilding. But on the final climb up the 500m high Doper's Hill the young Christchurch rider went to work.

"Anton just started shredding and I was like, 'That's just ridiculous'," said Houltham in disbelief after finishing a solid third place.

Only Rotorua's Peters could match Cooper's pace, and the two riders were still locked together coming into the final kilometre. "I knew I had to be in front at the last river crossing," said the 16-year-old. "I tried stay in front, but Dirk kept coming past. So I waited until the last minute and just sprinted at the last river crossing and up that last little hill."

In the end, just three seconds separated the two riders, with Cooper stopping the clock at two hours, 26 minutes and 32 seconds. Houltham followed just 35 seconds later in third, ahead of Wilding, while multi-sporter Richard Ussher impressed onlookers to claim fifth place.

For once, however, Ussher wasn't the most impressive athlete in his household. He and wife Elina, also a former multi-sport world champion and Finnish cross country skiing rep, were considered nothing more than dark horses. But in the women's race the Nelson-based Finn outclassed the specialist mountain bikers to win New Zealand most important mountain bike race.

Ussher was aggressive from the gun, leading the elite women's field in Karapoti's famous LeMans start across the Akatarawa River.

"I wanted to get a good start and ride at my own pace," she said after winning in three hours, four minutes and 59 seconds. But Ussher's "own pace" resulted in a winning margin of 10 minutes over runner up Erin Greene.

Although in one of the most impressive rides of the day, local amateur rider Kim Hamer-Hurst claimed second fastest female time in winning her 30-39 age group just five minutes behind Ussher in three hours, 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

Also impressive was third place Eloise Fry, who sacrificed a possible second place to assist fellow Nelsonian Meggie Bichard, who crashed heavily in the brutal conditions before recovering to finish fourth ahead of Auckland's Sasha Smith and Australian Connie Silvestri.

Silvestri was the best performing of almost 100 international riders who struggled in what event organiser Michael Jacques called "the toughest Karapoti ever". Canadian Thomas Skinner is one his country's best mountain bikers, but could manage only 11th at Karapoti and crossed the finish line shaking his head and muttering, "That was crazy, it was unreal, I've never raced anything like it."

Others, however, revelled in the gruelling race. Sixty-nine-year-old Upper Hutt doctor Alastair Woodfield finished his 23rd Merida Karapoti Classic, while 33-year-old Napier rider Rox Price became the first woman to finish New Zealand's premier mountain bike race on a uni-cycle.

Full Results

Elite women
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResult
1Elina Ussher (Fin)3:04:59 
2Erin Greene (NZl)0:10:34 
3Eloise Fry (NZl)0:15:15 
4meggie bichard (NZl)0:16:38 
5Sasha Smith (NZl)0:35:21 
6connie silvestri (Aus)0:38:46 
7Megan Dimozantos (NZl)0:43:11 
8erica bota (NZl)0:54:39 
Elite men
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResult
1Anton Cooper (NZl)2:26:32 
2Dirk Peters (NZl)0:00:03 
3Stuart Houltham (NZl)0:00:35 
4Tim Wilding (NZl)0:01:57 
5Richard Ussher (NZl)0:04:48 
6Dave Sharpe (NZl)0:06:07 
7Mark Leishman (NZl)0:06:27 
8Alexander Revell (NZl)0:10:49 
9Stephen Butler (NZl)0:12:47 
10Edwin Crossling (NZl)0:13:08 
11Thomas Skinner (Can)0:14:43 
12Ben Murphy (NZl)0:19:31 
13Maurice Ebbett (NZl)0:22:06 
14Chris Kendall (NZl)0:22:24 
15Ben Earnshaw (NZl)0:22:39 
16Gavin McCarthy (NZl)0:23:43 
17Calum Chamberlain (NZl)0:23:54 
18Simon Kennett (NZl)0:25:35 
19Wayne Hiscock (NZl)0:27:33 
20Karl Strode-Penny (NZl)0:28:19 
21david drake (NZl)0:29:07 
22kurt lancaster (NZl)0:31:29 
23Josh Page (NZl)0:35:14 
24James Hufflett (NZl)0:37:03 
25Ben Somerton (NZl)0:39:51 
26Scott Green (NZl)0:42:24 
27Miles Davies (NZl)0:44:17 
28Oliver Whalley (NZl)0:45:25 
29Alistair Crossling (NZl)0:47:19 
30Steve Pedley (NZl)0:47:30 
31Paul Deuritz (NZl)0:48:34 
32Nick Rudzki (NZl)0:57:27 
33Joe Mullan (NZl)1:20:52 
34jonty ritchie (NZl)1:21:47 

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