In Upper Hutt, New Zealand, just about as far away from the traditional European home of cyclo-cross as you can get, the first national champions of a new season were crowned on Sunday. Former mountain running world champion and Olympian Kate McIlroy took a second women’s title while it was a newcomer to the sport, Josh Burnett, who blazed across the line first on a borrowed bike to sweep up both the men’s U23 and elite honours.
It’s the third-time New Zealand has officially crowned national cyclo-cross champions, with the first race for titles held in 2012 and then, after a hiatus, in 2019 the competition for the silver fern jersey in cyclo-cross was revived. The National Championships however didn't go ahead in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic but it was a strong return in 2021, with a big jump in numbers across the categories.
The National Championships was held as part of the Aotearoa Cross Fest, run by the Huttcross club at the Te Marua Speedway, with the mud strewn course setting the scene for a powerful performance from McIlroy, with the 39 year old ultimately carving out a gap of a couple of minutes on national mountain bike champion Sammie Maxwell, who in second place was also the lead under 23 rider.
“It was pretty tough,” said McIlroy, who came 10th in the triathlon at the London Olympics. “Obviously the first few laps with Sammie right there I knew it was going to be a battle with her, and Myra Moller was there for the first lap which was awesome. I just knew I had to play to my strengths when I could, which was the big long straights, and then take my time in the technical sections to make sure I didn’t have any crashes or mechanicals.”
“I’m stoked to get it again, it was quite unexpected to be honest and I just loved being out there today so I am really happy.”
In the men’s race, which also combined the elite and U23 categories, the contest came down to the 2019 national champion Brendon Sharratt, Rotorua mountain biker Sam Shaw and newcomer to cross racing Josh Burnett, who was the 2019 and 2020 U23 national mountain bike cross country champion.
Sharratt fell out of the leading trio on the final lap and then it came down to the final stages to see whether or not Burnett could walk away with both the U23 and elite title, after having done just two cyclo-cross races. The young rider went out early in the dash to the line.
“I’m not the best sprinter so I thought I had to go from as far as I can so I just tried to go full gas up the fly-over and then ride the corner as fast as I could,” said Burnett as he was still breathing heavily to try and recover from the effort, though he did later find some more energy to help with the course pack up.
Burnett took the win two seconds ahead of Shaw, with Sharratt a further 14 seconds back.
Coen Nicol took the under-19 title in the men while it was 15-year-old Seana Gray who claimed the first ever women’s under-19 honours, with the category only being recognised by the UCI this year.
Despite the disruption last year, the championship in the nation, which is a relative newcomer to cyclo-cross, drew 80 percent more riders than 2019, with 160 riders across the categories. The event may be the first on the UCI calendar for this season but, being located in the southern hemisphere, it comes near the end of the traditional winter months of racing for New Zealand and nearby Australia.
Australia was due to hold its Cyclo-cross National Championships on August 21 but lockdowns, and state border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to its rescheduling until October 17 which will take the event and the highly-disrupted season well into spring. The Australian national titles also weren’t awarded in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the National Championships.
The next races on the UCI calendar now start to stray into more traditional cross territory, with Rapencross in Belgium on September 11.
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