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20th Karapoti Classic with record field

The Karapoti Classic Mountainbike race in New Zealand will celebrates its 20th edition on Saturday, March 5, and more than 1200 mountain bikers from 11 countries and all ends of New Zealand have been announced to converge on the Wellington region in order to compete.

The course of the 50 km Classic revolves around three huge hills, each climbing to almost 600 m. Each climb is split by a series of defining elements, such as a two km descent complete with boulders the size of soccer balls and bike-sized drop-offs; a two km long climb up steps; and an eight km descent down a 4WD road.

For 20 years, the course and the organisation behind it have been the benchmark for New Zealand mountain biking. As well as the oldest New Zealand mountain bike event it is also the most prestigious, with a $30,000 prize pool and a world-class field. Past winners have included former world number ones such as American Susan DeMattei. New Zealand’s legendary Kathy Lynch dominated the event with eight wins in the 1990s and has the current women’s record of 2:49:42. Kiwi Olympian Kashi Leuchs, currently among the world’s top 10, holds the men’s record at 2:20:46. Last year, both the men’s and women’s races were dominated by Australians, with two-time world junior champion Lisa Mathison winning the women’s race and then going on to finish 10th at the Olympics.

Both Aussies were set to defend their titles again in the 20th anniversary event, but Hatton recently broke his wrist while Mathison has suffered illness. This leaves their compatriot and 2004 runner-up, Tim Bennett, as favourite for this weekend’s race. Bennett is among Australia’s top 10 mountain bikers, but he will face several previous winners, including Swiss-based Nelsonian Tim Vincent and Christchurch rider Julian Mitchell.

Mitchell won the race in 2000, while Vincent won in 2003 and 2001 and was also a junior winner. But the form Kiwis right now are Blenheim’s Aaron Tuckerman and Upper Hutt’s own Wayne Hiscock. Sixteen of the country’s top 20 riders this season will be at Karapoti, but Tuckerman and Hiscock have been the most consistent. And Hiscock’s local knowledge could see him take out his first win in his hometown event.

The women’s race is also strong, but expected to be dominated by fast-improver Rosara Joseph. The Cantab-turned-Wellingtonian finished third last year in what was her first pro outing. This summer she has dominated the national scene and should be too good for a field that includes Australian endurance specialist Tory Thomas, Canadian adventure racing specialist Emily Miazga, who was third I the recent Coast to Coast, and former Karapoti junior winner Myra Moller.

Rotorua’s Sonia Foote will return to Karapoti with a point to prove after she gave away a certain top three last year to assist her partner Rod Hill, who crashed heavily while holding a top five in the men’s race. Foote and Rod Hill have shown improving form in recent weeks with a view to peaking specifically for the Karapoti Classic.

Organisers offer a $1000 bonus for course records, but Karapoti is also very much a people’s race. The event has traditionally been limited to 1000 riders, but organisers received a massive 1500 applications for the 20th anniversary event so they have extended the entry limit to 1200 for 2005.

Among the 1236 starters will be 11 of the 49 who started the inaugural 1986 event. This includes the first three placegetters and also Upper Hutt doctor, Alistair Rhodes, who is the only person to have completed all 20 Karapoti Classics. Rhodes was the oldest rider in the inaugural 1986 event, but in a touch of irony the 63-year-old general practitioner will be merely the second oldest starting in the 20th anniversary event.

Also among the starters this year will be Wellington’s Kennett brothers, Paul, Simon and Jonathan, who created the Karapoti Classic and have been among the movers and shakers of New Zealand mountain biking ever since. It was the Kennett brothers who created the famous Karapoti culture, turning what was once a hardcore sport for serious cyclists and adventurer-types into an event where the slowest riders are celebrated every bit as much as the elite few who manage to break the magical three-hour mark. But this will be the first time that all three of them have ridden the race together.

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