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