The UCI Oceania Mountain Bike Championships are on for this weekend in Dunedin, New Zealand. A strong contingent of Australian and French Polynesian athletes will be in Dunedin, along with the New Zealanders, trying to take six Oceania titles home.
This Continental Championship event is the only international level mountain bike event on New Zealand's calendar this year. In the flagship cross country, downhill and four cross disciplines, the added incentive for the Oceania athletes is an automatically qualified extra spot at the 2010 World Championships in Canada for the winners of the elite categories. All of New Zealand's top athletes will also be competing in hill climb, dual slalom and short track, disciplines - vying for these titles as well as valuable UCI ranking points.
The racing begins on Thursday, March 18 with the hill climb and dual slalom. The four cross will be contested on Friday, the cross country on Saturday, and both the short track and the downhill wrap up the competition on the final day of the Championships, Sunday.
Australia's travelling contingent of cross country racers will stretch New Zealand's best multi-lap athletes for sure this weekend. Exceptionally strong in the elite and under 23 categories, the Australians will not settle for anything less than front of the field finishes.
Coming off the finale of the Australian National Series, Lachlan Norris, Ben Henderson, Adrian Jackson and Rowena Fry are leading the elite charge, while Cal Britten, Paul van der Ploeg, Rebecca Henderson and Therese Rhodes are doing the same for the under 23s. Nine Australian under 19 athletes are also competing, but face a dominant and hungry group of New Zealand juniors led by Blenheim's recently crowned National Champion Richard Anderson.
New Zealand national elite champions Mike Northcott and Nic Leary will not back down during their Saturday afternoon race, and will draw on every advantage gained from racing at this venue previously during the national series round.
Last year, Daniel McConnell and Rowena Fry won the cross country competition.
Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA) is sending a downhill development squad to Oceanias this year together with the National Downhill Coach, Chris Clarke, and other support staff. 19-year-old Rhys Willemse, a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, will lead the team. He is one of many athletes at this event who rides for a professional team in Europe during the World Cup season. Willemse has raced in New Zealand before, and his entertaining riding style and outright pace fits well with his cross-Tasman peers.
17-year-old Troy Brosnan is making his first racing visit to New Zealand for Oceanias, and is touted as one of the most promising Australian juniors emerging at the moment. However, both Willemse and Brosnan will be up against world class racers, and a field of race hardened Kiwis who will not want to let any title be taken back to Australia after this event.
In the elites Justin Leov and National Champions Wyn Masters and junior George Brannigan have been racing with finesse this summer, and must be considered favourites for the men's downhill title.
Among the women, Harriet Harper will have some strong Australian competition in the form of Sarsha Huntington, but Harper is race fit and ready to compete this weekend.
French Polynesia is also sending its National Champions to Dunedin for this event, and they could well be darkhorses come race day - not a lot is known about their pace in a world class field, and they could surprise when the dust settles.
Claire Whiteman and Jared Graves claimed the 2009 Oceania downhill titles.
Also mixing up the entry lists are seven Australians entered in Friday night's four cross event. The new Signal Hill four cross course is rated as one of the steepest courses put together for this type of event. Promising to be fast and exciting, the knock-out style four man heats under the four cross format always pulls the crowds, with action fast and furious.
Ex-Kiwi James Pritchard, now living in Perth, is returning to New Zealand for this event, and will also bring his characteristic loose and huge air jumping style to the four cross race. However, he can expect a tough time from his former New Zealand riding mates.
Jared Graves and Caroline Buchanan won last year's Oceania four cross championships.