Karapoti - Champions Return



A who’s-who of New Zealand mountain biking will go head to head next week in Upper Hutt as 700 riders from eight countries line up for the Southern Hemisphere’s longest running mountain bike.

Established in 1986, the Bike Barn Karapoti Classic is the event that kick-started the mountain bike movement in this country. Taking in a rugged 50k tour of Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges near Wellington, the adventurous route has remained unchanged since 1988 and past winners reads like a who’s-who of the sport.

That’s certainly how the start list reads for this year’s 31st Bike Barn Karapoti Classic. The feature attractions are polar opposites, one knocking on 40 while the other is not yet 20.

Two years ago local doctor Kim Hurst (below) broke the women’s record at Karapoti and then went on win the world 24-hour title. Last year a fractured wrist saw her finish second behind American-based Kiwi, Jenny Smith, who had held the record before Hurst broke it.

Smith won’t be defending her Karapoti crown, but Hurst will have to watch for Nelson-based German Ingrid Richter. Like Hurst, Richter came to the top level late in life, with both being in their late thirties. Both are in good form ahead of Karapoti, with Hurst nabbing top-10s in UCI World Cup races in Australia while Richter is leading New Zealand’s national series and won Nelson’s prestigious Coppermine Epic.

With recent weather leaving Karapoti’s gruelling 50k in good condition, both women will also have an eye on Hurst’s race record of 2hrs 45min 29secs.

Among men, defending champion Eden Cruise (Below) will more worried about the competition than the clock. A year ago the 16 year became the youngest ever winner of the Karapoti Classic. But he has struggled for top form since then with a knee injury picked up during his winning ride.

The Porirua school boy will face a mixture of young and not so young challengers. Local riders Gavin McCarthy and Brendon Sharratt have both been podium place getters at Karapoti, with McCarthy twice finishing third while Sharratt will be looking to complete his set after finishing third and second.

The biggest challenge, however is likely to come from national rep Jack Compton (Wgtn), who is lining up for his first serious race at Karapoti. But everyone will also be watching Central Otago’s James Williamson, a former national rep who started as a mountain biker before turning professional on the road to win the 2012 national elite title. Williams has retired as a professional, but has taken to his mountain bike again for wins at the Bannockburn Gutbuster and Hawea Epic.

Few mountain bike races, however, are as epic as the Bike Barn Karapoti Classic. The feature 50k is an uncompromising, some say cruel, 50km through the Akatarawa Ranges complete with river crossings, huge hills, bogs and wall to wall scenery. Key elements such as "The Rock Garden," "Devil's Staircase," and "Big Ring Boulevard," are spoken in hushed tones of nervous anticipation and misty, sometimes bloody, memories.

First and foremost, however, Karapoti is a people's race catering for all ages, abilities, genders and walks of life. As well as the feature 50k Classic, the associated 20k Challenge and 5k Kids’ Klassic provide a perfect intro to the Karapoti culture for off road rookies, supporters, school kids and active families.

Seventy-one-year-old Wellingtonian, Peter Schmitz, has ridden more Karapoti’s than anyone with 26 consecutive finishes. But he’s not the oldest. That honour goes to Palmerston North farmer Noel Pollard who is attempting to be the eldest ever finisher at 74.

The youngest starter this year is a familiar face. Two years ago, at age nine, Wellington’s Ben Mitchell became the youngest ever finisher at Karapoti. Aged 11 now, he is the youngest starter this year and was also the first to enter. Other repeat offenders include Aaron Dalton, who was a starter in 1986’s inaugural Karapoti Classic, and Julian Mitchell, who has finished first and third in the past but this takes on his 20th Karapoti.

Also among starters are brothers Paul and Simon Kennett, who kicked started this race in 1986. They don’t organise it anymore, but continue riding every year; Paul with his son while Simon takes to a tandem this year while his daughter takes on the 5k Kids’ Klassic.

Racing starts on Karapoti Road in Upper Hutt at 10am on Saturday. See www.karapoti.kiwi for more info.