Nerves were settled today for several winning athletes during the 2012 Elite Cross country races on Signal Hill in Dunedin today. Heavy overnight rain gave way to settled weather and a Signal Hill race course that improved as the day went on, and in the crowd pulling afternoon race start four winners crossed the finish line with the weight of both public and personal expectation lifted.
The Mens Elite race contained all of NZ's best multi lap racers, and two of Australia's top athletes chasing UCI ranking points and form in the lead-up to 2012 Olympic selection for both countries. With the U19 Juniors slotting in behind the Elites on the start line, there was plenty at stake for all competitiors. At the end of the first lap the sight of Trek World Racing's Anton Cooper (Woodend) in his first event flying his new professional team colours at the head of the field may have been surprising given the calibre of the Elite category today, but given Cooper's stunning recent silver medal at the 2011 World Junior Championships not unexpected. Cooper simply rode away from all comers, stretching his outright lead on every lap with a sublime display of technical riding ability on the slippery descent and awesome power on the steep climb. He eventually won the Junior category today by a stunning eight minutes from first year Junior Craig Oliver (Christchurch). Cooper expressed a huge sugh of relief on his win in TWR colours, and felt his first showing for the global team was a fantastic start for him this year.
Whakatane's Carl Jones hung on to Cooper for as long as he could, but his target was always the Elite Mens win which he took fairly comfortably - not really being challenged once he found his rythym behind the flying Cooper. Australian's Chris Jongewaard and Paul van der Ploeg seemed slightly stunned by the severe pace at the front of the field after the first lap, but worked away at the leaders finishing third and fourth respectively. Rotorua's Dirk Peters, like Jones raced in clear air in second position, and had a conmfortable buffer back to Jongewaard of over six minutes by race end. For the Kiwis, this has been a great display of early season form and their first opportunity this summer to really stretch their legs and benchmark fitness and form - Jones and Peters will be happy with how this race panned out for them, with Jones especially relieved to be able to display his 2011 National Champions jersey on the top step of the podium as the Elite winner.
The Womens Elite race contained Swiss visitor Jolanda Neff, who raced to fourth place at the 2011 World Championships as a Junior. Neff is a first year U23 athlete for 2012, and this Dunedin race was her first showing in an Elite field in a UCI categorised event. Neff led the women's field through the first lap, but during the second, Whakatane's Karen Hanlen made a play for the lead, taking Rosara Joseph (Wellington) with her. In an intriguing five lap race, Hanlen maintained and protected her lead right through to the finish, with Joseph and Neff unable to make any inroads, eventually settling for second and third. Hanlen beamed her characteristic smile with her win, which clearly signals her intent to put herself in the mix for Olympic selection. The U19 Junior Women were also on course with the Elites, with Dunedin's Mary Gray, like Jones in the Men's showing her 2011 National Championship title was worthy of the win today, easily outpacing her Dunedin competitors.
Age group racing in the morning's race start was memorable due to a stunning display by Christchurch's Ben Oliver in the U17 Mens category. Oliver ripped the field to shreds, in the process delivering lap times that would have had him circulating easily within the top ten of the afternoon's Elite race.
The NZ MTB Cup continues this coming weekend with another double Downhill/Cross Country event in Christchurch. The Downhill (round three of six) event takes place on Mt.Hutt on Friday and Saturday 20/21st Jan, with the UCI Category Two (round two of four) Cross Country event at Living Springs Farm Park, Governors Bay on Sunday 22nd Jan.
Full Results Dunedin Cross Country