The New Zealand Mountainbike Team completed its competition schedule in Italy today at the final round of the UCI World Cup, in the beautiful northern Italian Val di Sole. Temperatures again rose to 40 degrees plus for the days racing, with competition to match the heat.
The Junior Mens Cross Country race started at 9.30 this morning, anticipation rising as fast as the temperature. A huge field of 102 men took the line, with the Junior Womens race on course at the same time. Christchurch's Anton Cooper proudly started the race with the number 1 plate on his bike, and in prime attack position in the middle of the front line on the start grid. The Christchurch flier jumped out into clear air at the gun and went into the first lap (of four) in a small lead group of four riders, which quickly reduced to three on the first pinch climb. Cooper had some issues first lap with a dropped chain, but stuck to his race plan of attacking the field in the second lap and from there never looked back, charging to a one minute win. In consecutive weekends at these last two World Cups, Cooper has now accounted for all of Europes best Junior Cross Country athletes who seem to have no answer for his stunning turn of power and balanced approach to claiming line honours. Cooper moves into final preparations for the World Championships in two weeks with confidence high for delivering a breakthrough result for his country.
Cooper's win is also a momentous and unprecedented achievement for a New Zealand Cross Country athlete. Not quite 17 years old yet, Copper took the top step of the podium today at a World Cup for a second time, never before achieved by a New Zealander at World Cup level in any discipline, let alone in the absolutely demanding Cross Country format in the stronghold of the sport amongst Europe's best.
Typically humble, Cooper summed up his morning “the race went pretty well for me today – a few issues with the dropped chain and a couple of small dramas riding through the back of the Junior Womens field but all good. I'm rapt to be lapping at a pace comparable to the fastest Under23 Men and am in a great space for the World Champs in Champery”
Other New Zealanders in the Junior race also had a good day on the bike – Wellington's Tom Bradshaw charging to a 22nd place finish after getting out to a good start. Mathew Waghorn (Palmerston North) in 28thand slightly down on his own expectations, with Rotorua's Nigel McDowell 71st.
The Downhill competiton got under way at 2pm for the men, with New Zealand's seven qualifiers all eager to improve in their drive for the podium. Nelson's Reuben Olorenshaw was first away – the only Kiwi Junior to make the top 80 cut. Olorenshaw raced hard and fast and on a par with his qualfication time, ending 50th and 4th Junior. Olorenshaw was all praise for his NZ designed and built Zerode downhill bike, “I loved this World Cup course – it was so epically long and rough, and the Zerode simply ate it all up, I'm really happy with the way I raced today”.
George Brannigan (Hawkes Bay) unfortunately had a bad crash at the end of this mornings practice session, damaging ligaments in his knee and unable to start the final. Sam Blenkinsop (Wanganui) was next away and looked to be uncomfortable on his run, not able to get into his characteristic attack mode for a dissappointing 25th finish.
Justin Leov (Dunedin) showed he could turn around his own fortunes after a heavy first day practice crash and subsequent hospital visit for a 12th place. Brook MacDonald (Napier) was targetting a podium today at the very least, after developing a refined taste for standing on the coveted steps this year at World Cup level.
MacDonald's run took him to the leaders hot seat with only 11 riders still to come, eventually finishing 7th. Cam Cole (Christchurch) then bumped his good friend out of the hotseat to hold a lead that looked like it had the legs to go all the way – Cole surviving an incredibly sketchy moment mid course that looked like it would ruin his day, only to ride it out and deliver a storming time.
Matthew Scoles was last Kiwi away, and looked to be on a wild ride that just didn't translate into podium potential, but still good enough for 10th. The last four starters one by one chipped away at Cole's lead, leaving the Lapierre International professional with a well deserved podium fifth.
It also completes a very successful World Cup series for the New Zealanders, with MacDonald 6th in the overall standings, Cole 7th, Leov 9th and Scoles 16th.