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Oceania mountain bike championships - CC
Rotorua, New Zealand, March 3-5, 2006
Day 1 - March 3: Four-cross
Kirkcaldie takes title but Barel blows away locals
The venue for the 2006 World Mountain Bike Championship, Rotorua, showed its true colours today holding its first international event on the mountain which will host the world's best in August of this year. There were two titles up for grabs on the day, the most sought after being the Red Bull Oceania 4X Championship whilst the All-comers race which would allow non-Oceania competitors - ie Cedric Gracia (Oakley - Commencal) - to race on the huge track.
While the racing was tight in the Oceania Championships with John Kirkcaldie (Maxxis-Turner) coming out on top, the All-comers event was almost a foregone conclusion with Gracia using each of his runs to get used to the course and his new Commencal bike.
It was a much anticipated event - less for the racing itself than to see how conducive the track was to good racing. The Rotorua 4X track has been the talk of the mountain bike world for quite some time as it has stepped up the scale of speed and size of jumps - whether this would bring out the best racing would be seen during the course of the day's events.
The 4X track was designed by Jeff Carter (of Castlerock fame) and has been in place for over a year now. The course had spectators with jaws wide, boasting a huge drop in elevation (including a start-gate which literally tipped riders into a massive down-ramp) with some massive 8-15m table-tops, a huge compulsory wall ride and a big step-down to the finish. With such a massive course there would be a big disparity between the riders who could hit the jumps and those who would have to roll them. As a result, the course wasn't able to host a women's category but this won't be a problem when the best women in the world arrive in August.
The men's field was jam packed with talent boasting names such as Gracia, Cole, Pattle, Boe, Holland, Strom and Kirkcaldie and a host of up-and-comers who were not afraid to throw down in front of the big boys.
First up was a seeding run to sort out where riders sat in the top 42. With the exception of Kirkcaldie who seeded 12th, the aforementioned riders Gracia to Strom seeded in that order from 42:44 seconds to 44:88. With the top twenty eight riders all posting times under 50 seconds the racing was going to be close when they all lined up elbow-to-elbow.
While Gracia was excluded from competing in the Oceania championship, having to sit out until the All-comers event, the rest of the field was transported to the top of the hill. At the top of the course the wind was ripping through from the west and bringing with it grey clouds interspersed with piercing afternoon sunlight. With Lake Rotorua glistening in the background, piles of volcanic mountains littering the background and a 4X course made for the brave, the scene was set for some great racing.
Competitors watched the heats with great anticipation as the course was put through its first real test - fierce competition. In the heats, the top qualifiers shined as they went head to head. Clearly it was Holland and Kirkcaldie who were the quickest on the course showing explosiveness out of the gate, fearless courage in the top two berms and an great comfort when they were boosting many metres in the air on the big third straight.
These two didn't have it all their own way though with Cole, Boe, Pattle and Geater mixing it up with some lightning-fast starts and some ballsy inside lines in the first two berms.
As the racing narrowed down to a final four it became evident that the race would be won in the first straight, won or lost on the second berm and lost if any of the jumps on the third straight were messed up. The first corner bore witness to some great inside challenges which, when executed, were hard to defend whilst the second corner bore witness to absolute carnage as the outside berm was the easy way around but the sketchy inside line could win the race.
When the rain came down on and off during the latter stages of the heats, the course started to change, with the rain actually giving riders slightly more traction - a great sign for the World Championships in August when the rain is a good chance to make an appearance. With the sun always quickly following periods of rain the spectators stayed put to watch the best riders battle it out for the Oceania title.
As chance had it, Holland and Kirkcaldie found themselves up against each other more than once, trading positions much of the way around the course. Holland would often get the snap on Kirkcaldie out of the gate, but the latter would make it to the front either at the first or second corner.
With Kirkcaldie struggling to get the hole-shot out of the gate, many were wondering whether he could take out the championship but it was his all-round class which got him to the front of the race by the second corner every time without fail. This uncanny ability to find himself in front was what would win him the race eventually. However, up against Holland, Geater and Pattle, it didn't look like a foregone conclusion for Kirkcaldie. Holland threw down but yet again couldn't get passed the seasoned pro - even if he is just coming off his off-season break - while Pattle and Geater rounded out the top four.
Kirkcaldie was relieved to have taken the win at this end of the season, "The national series race at Nelson recently was a bit of a wake-up call. I feel better now because I've done a bit of training."
"The heats were pretty good, I picked good lines - especially the top berm I stayed high and swooped the riders who went low. It worked out pretty well. The second berm was slippery when it was dry but it firmed up in the wet. When the rain came it actually settled the course down. It is a great passing berm because if you can hold it on around the outside."
"The course is good, they will make it a little bit more technical. The good thing is that it is fast but it also has slow, slippery turns which you can pass on - it's more MTB than BMX. It's great to be able to race it and to race against some fast riders. It is a pity we didn't have more riders but we were able to race it in the dry then in the wet. This course is really about mountain biking."
"I'm really looking forward to the downhill now, that's really my number one focus."
The real motivation for having an All-comers race was really to send Gracia down the hill on a fantastic course against the local lads. While they couldn't really get a sniff of him out of the gate, it was a great opportunity to pit themselves against one of the most stylish and quick riders in the world.
While most were just chuffed to line up next to the charismatic Frenchman, others wanted to see if they could beat him fair and square. Freshly crowned Oceania Champion Kirkcaldie was one such rider not afraid to take it to the big man. "When I was up against Cedric [Gracia] I tried to go up on the inside but I slid out as soon as I made it past him. I was pretty sure I had him because I'd been able to stick a similar move in the earlier rounds. I think the pedal might have hit the ground or something because I was really trying to crank out of the corner to get around him."
That left Gracia to go through to the final without any real challenge to speak of. This didn't stop him stepping up though, really pushing himself on the course in preparation for his world's bid later this year. It was no surprise to see him take the win in every heat, semi and final he entered - it was just great to see a rider of such calibre enjoying the course and giving glowing reports about it at the end of the day. "The UCI came today to check it out and I think they liked it. On my last two runs people tried to pass me on the inside and it is possible to pass on this course. That is the most important thing for good riding."
"The racing was great it was my first run since the world championships last year. I just showed up on a new bike but, like every race, when you are in the gate you want to race right! There are heaps of places to pass and now we now that if it rains the track is still going to be ok right. The dirt is almost better when it's wet. Also, to put a wall-ride into racing is great."
"The world's is going to be a big show, just look at the scenery it's not possible for it to be bad. The people really care here and they are ready to make a big event. Everything is ready: spectators, beers it's all ready to go. All the kids out here are super-cool. There are super-cool kids here. I was riding yesterday down the track with an 11yo. In France 11yo kids in France are playing rugby or football. It's nice to see young kids into mountain biking."
Gracia is making the most of his time here in Rotorua, despite the fact that he "didn't know anything about this country until I saw it in New World Disorder 4 now, I'm here, I went riding the other day in some playground around here amazing. I usually don't ride my bike more than an hour but over there I rode like 2.5 hours - I was like a kid, jumping around. You guys have a great country here."
On the topic of how the women will cope with the course Gracia said, "I think the best women will jump everything but the ones who don't race much and come here it may be hard for them, but the best will jump it no problem. The top-5 are really confident and skilful. It will really make a selection and they will show how good they are."
Speaking of his training, Gracia gave us an insight into a new rider, "I have been at the gym like an idiot. I have to do sprints in my garage - it's not funny you know. It's like 'Hey Cedric, you want to be world champion?' I'm like 'Hell yeah' - 'Well, we need to do some training. You can drink but you can do it, more sprints.' And it works, man already I'm way faster out of the gate."
The Oceania Championships continue on Saturday with the XC championship being fought out with the DH being run on Sunday.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Mikkeli Godfree/Cyclingnews.com
1 John Kirkcaldie (New Zealand) 2 Tom Holland (New Zealand) 3 Craig Pattle (New Zealand) 4 Scott Geater (New Zealand) 5 Cameron Cole (New Zealand) 6 Wyn Masters (New Zealand) 7 Richard Stratford (New Zealand) 8 Reon Boe (New Zealand)