National mountainbike champs draw top field
Two world champions are lining up at the national mountainbiking championships in Rotorua this weekend.
Headlining the elite women's downhill is two-time world champion Emmeline Ragot of France, who is in red hot form following her recent domination of the final round of the Mountain Bike Cup series in Auckland.
She will be joined by New Zealand's own junior world cross-country champion Anton Cooper from Woodend, north of Christchurch.
Unfortunately for Ragot and the other visiting international riders, the New Zealand title must be won by a Kiwi. This leaves the door open for talented young riders like Alannah Columb from Queenstown and Christchurch's Sophie Tyas to have a crack at the silverware.
Ragot has been a regular down under in the European off-season, competing here two years ago, with her passion for the famed Rotorua trails going back to when the city hosted the 2006 world championships when the Frenchwoman finished fifth.
She won the junior world title in 2002 and 2003 and the elite world honours in 2009 and 2011, as well as being runner-up last year.
The men's downhill competition is shaping up to be a humdinger between the New Zealand-based professionals with Hawke's Bay boys Brook MacDonald and George Brannigan (both Trek World Racing), as well as Christchurch-based riders Cam Cole (Yeti-Fox Shox) and Sam Blenkinsop (Lapierre International ) all vying for the rights to wear the national jersey in Europe this year.
McDonald was the leading Kiwi in 2012, finishing the year ranked sixth in the world, Brannigan was ninth in his first full season at top level, Cole 15th and Blenkinsop 20th. All four riders race professionally overseas but have made the effort to be in New Zealand for this annual event.
Cooper headlines the men's cross-country event alongside Dirk Peters (Rotorua) in what should largely be a two-horse race. The pair are both still under-23, but with the class being run with elites, they are favoured to also fight out for the overall honours.
Cooper, 18, has recently signed with Cannondale Factory Racing and is widely regarded as an emerging star in world mountain biking. Peters, 21, is a two-time age-group national champion and has enjoyed a great start to 2013 with wins in the Bluff and Wellington rounds of the Mountain Bike Cup series.
The women's cross-country race looks to be an all-Kiwi affair between London 2012 Olympian Karen Hanlen (Whakatane) and 22-year-old Samara Sheppard (Wellington), who has recently signed with Belgium-based UCI trade team Toka Print Mountain Bike so would love to head to Europe with the New Zealand title.
Despite not being eligible for the title, this event has attracted a number of international riders, including entries from France, UK, Japan, Canada, Germany and Australia.