When the Gazley ŠKODA Karapoti Classic lines up on Saturday, the fastest two riders in the history of New Zealand’s oldest mountain bike race will go head-to-head.
Established in 1986, the Gazley ŠKODA Karapoti Classic is renowned as the longest running mountain bike race in the Southern Hemisphere, and headlines Anton Cooper and Kyle Ward own the two fastest times around the rugged 50k in Upper Hutt’s Akatarawa Ranges.
The Christchurch-based Cooper hardly needs introduction. The former world junior and under-23 champion and Commonwealth gold and silver medallist won at Karapoti in 2011, 2014 and 2020. His 2014 race record of 2hrs 07min 57sec was expected to stand the test of father time, but in 2018 Australian Kyle Ward came within 38secs of it.
Cooper is the more celebrated rider, but Ward specialises in longer, more adventurous formats and has won Karapoti no less than four times (2017, 19, 21, 22). If Cooper can win he would tie Ward and 1990s Kiwi legend Jon Hume as four time winners at Karapoti. But the 28-year-old Christchurch rider is only just finding form after a summer of illness and could manage only fourth in last week’s national championship in Queenstown. The 31-year-old Ward, however, will have added motivation in his attempt to become the only five-time winner among men.
Another rider looking for a fourth win is Kyle Ward’s wife, Samara Sheppard. The Australian-based Wellingtonian won here in 2017, 2019 and 2022 and while she has a way to go to topple Kathy Lynch’s record of eight wins among women, in 2017 Sheppard set an amazing women’s record of 2hrs 29min 13secs that is seven and a half minutes faster than any other female rider ever.
Sheppard has a long history at Karapoti. She first rode the historic race in 2006 and once held the junior women’s record. And in a twist of fate, the young women who has since toppled that time is now looking to topple the top spot in 2023.
Taupo 22-year-old Sammie Maxwell has an interesting history of her own at Karapoti. In 2020 she broke Sheppard’s 2007 junior record when finishing second to Kate McIlroy. In 2022 she returned and rode almost the exact same time in worse conditions to finish second behind Sheppard. But while their battle is much anticipated, they need to watch for up-and-coming Wellingtonian Laura Bridger, who claimed fifth last year in only her first year in the sport.
More than 400 riders from all ends of New Zealand will line up for the 38th anniversary Gazley ŠKODA Karapoti Classic. And after three years of covid postponements, this year’s event returns to its traditional first weekend of March.
“The last three years haven’t been great for anyone,” says event manager, Michael Jacques. “Even now, we’re allowed to hold events but the post-covid fall-out and then recent cyclones mean we’re only getting two-thirds of our normal turnout.
“But the reason events like Karapoti exist is because people like to challenge themselves. So if they’re up for the challenge, then we’ll organise it for them.”
Indeed, few mountain bike races are as challenging as the Gazley ŠKODA Karapoti Classic. The feature 50k is a savagely scenic tour around the Akatarawa Ranges complete with river crossings, huge hills, knee-deep 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. Local riders Francis Hoen and Marco Renall know this better than most. If they finish both will have ridden the race 33 times.
The 38th Gazley ŠKODA Karapoti Classic gets underway from Karapoti Park in Upper Hutt on Saturday at 10:00am. As well as the feature 50k Classic there is also the 20k Challenge and Kids 5k Klassic. Visit www.karapoti.kiwi.