Marlborough has many top locations for mountain biking and, unlike many places, you don't have to travel a million miles to reach them. Clay Wilson caught up with a Blenheim father who has more than made the most of this, rediscovering his passion for the sport and proving it is never too late to find that competitive spirit.
In mountain-biking terms, Sarnim Dean is undeniably a late bloomer.
Born and bred in Auckland, but a Blenheim resident since the end of 2012, the affable 39-year-old stay-at-home father didn't take up the sport until he was 23. However, it has taken another 16 years to achieve the highlight of his career, being crowned champion of the masters (over 30) division at the 2014 Oceania Championships in Methven earlier this month.
Sarnim trained hard for the event, and did four lead-up races at the start of this year. But, although he rode away from the field on a very technical course and achieved his goal, he was not getting too carried away just yet.
"I was expecting to come top three, but I was hoping to win.
"I was pretty pleased, but to be honest, there is also a little bit of a feeling I didn't quite do as well as I would have liked, because when you look at my times versus the younger guys, they're a lot faster than me. They're all sponsored riders, and quite well known, so it's still a good achievement, but [my performance] makes me more determined, and leaves a lot of room for improvement next year."
There is no doubt who is largely to thank for Sarnim finding his passion for mountain biking. His father, Victor, took it up in 1997 as a means of getting fit and, being part of "quite a competitive family", it was not long before Sarnim got on a bike to try to better him. It also helped Sarnim give up smoking and, after dabbling in a number of sports, including skateboarding and snowboarding, discover the competitive side of sport.
"Dad did some races, and after he did a couple, I decided I'd go along for one.
"I was just on my old bike with clipless pedals, Chuck Taylors on and no cycling clothes or anything like that, and I think I got third. It was only a club-type race, but I finished, and thought it was pretty cool, and got the racing bug from there."
Over the next six years, he became progressively more serious with his mountain biking. That eventually took its toll, though, and by 2003 he had burnt himself out and decided to give the sport away. It was not until he, wife Katia and 19-month-old son Anson, moved from Auckland to Blenheim to "escape the rat-race" nearly 10 years later that Sarnim decided to get back into it.
"Being in Blenheim, it's so much more accessible than Auckland to train. You can get up to the hills so fast and do much better quality training than you can when you're living in the middle of a city, and you have to battle red lights and millions of cars."
Despite such a long time away from the sport, Sarnim quickly had success racing in Marlborough, and was club champion in 2013 and this year. The most recent result further proved he was not done with mountain biking at a competitive level, although he still believes he has a lot to learn.
"The sport has changed, the equipment has changed a lot, and I think it's become a bit more competitive in New Zealand . . . you've got all these young guys now who are just canning it, it's made the sport younger.
"I'm still kind of learning, which I guess is kind of weird when you're 39."
Along with plenty of hard training and the support of his wife, Sarnim puts his success in mountain biking down to three things. He reckons his love for the sport, enjoyment of its competitive side and a strong work ethic makes for a good combination. As for where that love of mountain biking comes from, as someone who loves nature and the outdoors, he said it was the perfect fit.
"It's so much fun, and you don't have to race for it to be fun . . . plus I love nature as well, and getting out into these normally inaccessible places is so cool."
Following a busy summer training and competing, Sarnim is set to take time off during the winter months to enjoy his other passion in life, photography.
But with plans to defend his Marlborough title, and an eagerness to attend the 2015 Oceania Champs in Australia and better this year's performance, you get the feeling it will not be long before he is itching to jump back on a bike.
- The Marlborough Express