For many local racers, Enduro racing is a great way to spend a day on your bike with friends, test your abilities against others and most importantly, score bragging rights for those post-race beverage yarns! Rotorua's Giant 2W Gravity Enduro has been the perfect testing ground in recent years for New Zealand's prosperous Enduro racing scene. The series is the largest Enduro race on the New Zealand calendar, with rounds selling out weeks before race day and drawing some of the world's biggest enduro stars. In recent years Jared Graves, Richie Rude, Justin Leov, Raewyn Morrison, and Rosara Joseph have competed, used the race as a perfect pre-season warm up and as an opportunity to scout their local competition pre-EWS Rotorua.
This weekend's round saw another 450+ hungry racers lined up, eager for a shot at more than just bragging rights. The single day event was also the 3rd and final opportunity for 6-stage pedal powered racers to gain enough Enduro World Series points to qualify for a spot on the 2017 World Tour stage. This golden ticket was enough to attract hopeful riders from multiple countries to make the trip to ride the famous Rotorua hero dirt. However, the weather had been throwing curve balls all week. Trails started off dry and progressively got more sodden as race day loomed. On the morning of the race some stages got re-routed down the backup wet options as a safety precaution. This helped level the playing field across two stages as riders had been practicing the dry alternatives the day before.
The stakes had never been so high!
Wyn Masters giving Aussie danger man, Paul van der Ploeg, a run through the race format and no doubt talking crap. The Trans-Tasman rivalry was strong between these two, yet it was unclear who would have the upper hand once they buzzed in.
Not only does the race draw some of the nation's biggest talents, it also brings ex-world champs back into a competitive light. Vanessa Quin won Downhill world champs back in 2004, was one of NZ's first Red Bull athletes and is a serious threat in the elite women's field.
Seasoned Pros, Local threats and a man from down-under ready to duel it out high in the hills of Rotorua. The question wasn't really who would make up top the top 5, rather what order they would be arranged on the podium steps.
On the women’s side, event sponsor and Mountain Bike Coach, Annika Smail was looking to keep her winning streak going. Hot on her wheels was a group of local pinners, Vanessa Quin, Katie O'Neill, and EWS hopeful, Cati Pearson. All of these women had been hitting the trails hard and have an equal shot of standing on the top step.
Justin Leov has been a big supporter of the series thus far, As a racer on a factory team, Justin doesn't need to gain qualification points so was out there just enjoying racing his bike.
Aussie danger man, Paul van der Ploeg was the 2013 XCE World Champion, So he was one to keep a close eye on over the pedal courses.
Joe Nation was a late entrant to race, Flying in the night before from Christchurch he had no chance to pre-ride any of the tracks. #DarkHorse
|Joe Nation is a weapon, it's awesome really how he flew in late and dominated the day without any chance to look at or ride any of the stages. He even had to re-race two of the stages due to crashes! - Wyn Masters|
Although for some, Joe Nation's win will come as no surprise. Last weekend he dominated the other EWS Qualifier event in Dunedin - The Emerson's 3 Peaks Enduro. He clearly has found some late season form and let's hope he can carry it through to the bigger racers to start 2017.
Just because you're mid race run, doesn't mean you don't have time to style it!
On your right! Carl Jones with the sneaky overtake.
Now many of us who ride bikes don't have the extra money to be able to gamble, but Keegan Wright was the sure thing coming into the weekend. He won last year's overall series, and dominated the first round this year so would have been a safe bet.
However Keegan didn't have the weekend he was looking for, he had a nasty crash down stage 5 - Taniwha into Whaki and was forced to push back up and start the stage again in order to avoid such time loss.
The Rotorua Classic - Billy T proved to be a few riders undoing, The stage is one which riders can attack, a four minute, fast, flowy trail with many technical features which ends in a large drop-off/roll over. The drop is normally a straightforward obstacle, but with riders experiencing tunnel vision by this point, more than a few riders took large hits!
Jack Fisher stopped mid-stage to practice his bike yoga. The use of his face to stop though was not a smart idea and he scored himself a back board ride out of the forest, but he luckily escaped any major injuries.
James Lamb hucking his meat - Racer Style!
Katie O'Neil is the queen of consistency, As an ex NZ Elite XC racer she knows how to train smarter than the other women and has the legs on the bigger pedals.
For the Women, Annika Smail proved too tough to beat again, with over a 1 minute lead on 2nd place Vanessa Quin. Cati Pearson edged out Katie O'Neill by only 3 seconds to take 3rd. Combined with her results at the 3 Peaks Enduro the previous week, Catie also earned herself an EWS Qualifying spot.
"I was really stoked to get to the bottom and find out I took the win on the Taniwha - Whaki stage as I didn't get the win on any stage last round. The tracks were a bit more slippery this round. It was pretty wild." - Justin Leov
Carl Jones is another XC convert, but is one of NZ's sharpest enduro talents. It's only a matter of time before we see Carl on the top step.
The section that it came unstuck for Keegan Wright, This natural step down was closely followed by a very sneaky 'Enduro' line and he caught something on his way through. The time he spent recovering would have been enough to keep him off the podium. Thankfully the 2W Enduro format means that you can repeat stage or re-clock in as mean times as you please so a push up and restart meant Keegan could avoid the penalty.
Louis Hamilton is a name much better recognised on a Downhill start list, But he's equally as dangerous on an Enduro Rig, Coming 11th Overall
Finn Parsons is only 14, yet he races in under 17 grades to try and get some competition. Look out for this kid in future WC Junior races.
The weather forecast was for the heaviest rain to hit after lunch time, and the weather gods made sure it was on cue.
With 360 Degrees of tree felling at the trig, there was no refuge from the howling winds and fog. Riders had no choice but to drop straight in to avoid getting cold.
Contrast in the wasteland/.
Hurrying towards refugee in the trees.
No wasting any speed for Wyn, tucking and pumping everywhere he could.
As the riders started coming through the finish and the tickets started printing out, it was anyone’s guess who was going to be on top for the day. But with only 1:31 seconds separating the top 10, and only 32 seconds between the podium steps, Joe Nation came out on top with his 2nd EWS Qualifier win of the month.
Womens Overall Podium, 1. Annika Smail, 2. Vanessa Quin, 3. Cati Pearson, 4. Katie O'Neil, 5. Renee Wilson
Mens Overall Podium, 1. Joseph Nation, 2. Keegan Wright, 3. Wyn Masters, 4. Samuel Shaw, 5. Carl Jones
"Yeah, Naaa, I’m pretty surprised! I heard there were a few pedally stages, so I thought I’d go hammer those and hopefully get a bit of advantage, and basically do damage control on the more technical stages…. It paid off! - Joe Nation"
The big surprise of the day was when Keegan Wright was presented with the U23 Local Enduro Scholarship of $25,000 NZD. This was put together by the event organizers and local silent donors to help with the costs of competing overseas and give the recipient the opportunity to race on the world stage. One of these will be given out at each of the remaining rounds of this season.
Keegan very quickly forgot about the slim 2nd place when presented with this!
"I’m in shock at the moment, It’s amazing! Thanks to Neil and Kat (Gellatly) for organizing it, it’s going to make racing the next few seasons so much easier! I’m sure after a few sleeps it will hit me just what has been given to me!" - Keegan Wright
Full results can be found here