“Today we are visiting a world that would have been forgotten if one day a bike race hadn’t had this crazy idea”
Philippe Bouvet, L’Equipe, 2006 – talking about Paris Roubaix
All photos by Shailie Pidcock
The Spring Classics season is upon us. Races steeped in history are revisited once more. Tenacity chisels out another champion’s chapter in the record books, which catalogue endeavours ground out through generations. It is by far my favourite time of year.
While preparing for the 2015 running of Karapoti Classic, the parallels that exist between the Northern Hemisphere cobbled Classics and the longest running mountain bike race in the Southern Hemisphere struck me as being clearly apparent – start with a crazy idea, create an iconic course that moulds champions out of blood, sweat, tears and honest effort, then repeat for years to come. There are few races that would motivate me to spend seven weeks training in the confines of my garage with my arm in a cast while others honed their tan lines in the warmest, driest summer for decades, but this is one of them.
Back in the not-so-balmy British autumn of 2009, I was about to embark on a new adventure – leaving the motherland and moving much further south. My crash course in Kiwi dirt racing culture, started by Googling “MTB Racing NZ”. Up popped a video showing riders preparing for a Le Mans start. In the middle of a river. “Unusual”, I thought as I watched it over and over again somewhat mesmerised by the craziness of the whole idea.
Back in the summer of 1986, I suspect 48 others were thinking something similar. In February of that year, nearly 50 mountain bike enthusiasts from all around New Zealand and as far afield as Canada converged on Wellington’s rugged Akatawara Ranges for the very first Karapoti Classic. The event was the brainchild of local man and cycling enthusiast, Paul Kennett, and is credited with kick-starting mountain biking Down Under (although I’m sure Australians will find this as controversial as the heritage of pavlova and pineapple lumps).
Karapoti was just the third mountain bike race held on the shores of the Long White Cloud. Christchurch’s Port Hills hosted the very first kiwi mountain bike race when five mates got together for a mid-winter brake burner down the Stock Route. Not to be outdone, the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown, followed suit with six people turning up for a similar event a few months later. Then in February 1986, Karapoti was born.
Forty-five men and three women crossed the finish line of the inaugural event having successfully coerced a variety of bikes that nowadays would be considered horrendously unfit for purpose around the rugged course. And as the great race celebrated its 30th anniversary last weekend, several of those hardy souls can still be found shredding trails on rigs that are more appropriate by modern standards. Not to mention, still racing Karapoti.
They’ve now been joined by a few more friends with nearly 1,000 riders taking to the startline annually since the mid 1990s and almost 20,000 muddy faces welcomed by the Karapoti finishing gantry over the last three decades. A mere 650 of those have learned the secret handshake and achieved times fast enough to gain entry to the coveted “Sub 3 Hour” club.
What I love most about Karapoti is that while life, bicycles and racing equipment have changed over time, the event itself has not. Like the iconic Spring Classics, the Karapoti course remains unmodified aside from subtle annual variations delivered by Mother Nature, providing a perfect platform for riders to pit themselves against champions of a bygone era. Want to know how you’d stack up against Kashi Leuchs, Kathy Lynch or Anton Cooper? You can ride it and find out.
The modern mountain bike racing calendar is a crowded place boasting an array of challenges. Sure there are tougher, longer and also easier races out there than Karapoti. There are also more scenic races. More remote races, and races with more singletrack and technical riding. But there are few races that combine it all into one event like Karapoti does. It’s an old school course that takes in an uncompromising 50 kilometres of 4WD dirt trails, gnarly rocky descents, river crossings and wall to wall wilderness. Riders finish battered, bruised, muddied yet satisfied. In short, it’s the best value for money 50 kilometre race I’ve ever done.
Every year’s edition of Karapoti seems to herald an exciting twist in the saga. I staked my claim in the race’s Hall of Fame becoming the first non-elite category entrant to finish in the top 3 overall in 2011, the 13th woman to join the “Sub 3” club in 2012, the first local winner in 2013 and the women’s course record holder in 2014. While the event is notorious for dishing out cruel twists of fate and bad luck at inopportune times, I’d had a pretty clear run. The mountain biking Gods had looked down favourably upon me. My luck ran out eight weeks prior to the 2015 race when I was brought back to earth with a thud, three fractures in my left hand and two broken ribs. And Colorado based Kiwi, Jenny Smith, was coming to take her record back.
I’m not sure if defiant, determined or just plain stubborn are the most appropriate adjectives. I think all are common traits among members of our racing community. Everyone loves a comeback story, most of all the person dreaming of pulling off the impossible with the only wind in her hair provided by the whirring fan in the corner of her indoor training cave. While I didn’t quite manage the fairytale ending, I put in a sterling effort (how very British) and what struck me most about the day was the culture that Karapoti has created. There are an unthinkable number of races within the race. The first-timer, the guy that wants to set a new personal best, the wife that wants to beat her husband across the line, the bloke who is out there because his workmates dared him, the woman giving it everything to crack a sub 3 finish, not to mention the girl returning from injury. All of those stories are intrinsic parts of what makes “K-Day” special. It is an event that rewards the heroism within each individual effort.
At the pointy end of the field, the 2015 champions provided equal levels of inspiration. The returning 2007 women’s elite champion, Jenny Smith, became the oldest Karapoti champion in history at the age of 42 storming to a ride that was as fast as her effort 8 years prior. While at the other end of the scale, local ripper Eden Cruise disrespected his elders with a crushing victory at the tender age of 15, becoming the youngest overall winner in the process. Honest effort is clearly timeless even if our desire to ride every Karapoti faster than the last is sometimes usurped – Peter Schmitz, one of the original hardy souls of 1986, was disappointed to have slowed down at his 26th Karapoti at the age of 70 this year.
I caught up with the 2015 Karapoti Women’s Champion after the event, since she’d left me at the top of the Gorge some hours earlier. “I love Karapoti!”, she said, “it’s a special race and no others are quite like it”. And she’d be in a position to know with palmares ranging from podiums in Xterra Amazon, Trans Sylvania Bike Race, Cape Epic, Brazil Ride and Trans Andes Stage Race. Chapeau, Jenny. Karapoti forever.