Kiwi girl power is arguably at its strongest for this weekend’s UCI Mountain Bike Cross-country World Championships in Austria.
The 10-strong BikeNZ team has five riders ranked in the top-16 across four divisions. Competition starts on Saturday (NZ time) with number eight ranked Samara Sheppard in the women’s under-23 ranks, Dirk Peters (Rotorua) and Tom Bradshaw (Wellington) ranked 12th and 24th respectively in the U23 men along with Dunedin’s Mary Gray in the junior women.
The second race day will see Christchurch’s Anton Cooper, ranked second in the world, compete in the junior men’s division. He is joined by compatriots Nigel McDowell (Rotorua), Tom Filmer (Nelson), and Sam Gaze (Cambridge) with Mary Gray (Dunedin) in the junior women.
The elite women’s race carries New Zealand hopes with Olympians Rosara Joseph and Karen Hanlen.
Sheppard is a strong prospect following a full season based in Europe where she has ridden for the Swiss-based Wheelers IXS team.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed four top-six finishes on the world cup circuit, highlighted with a breakthrough victory at Mont Sainte Anne in Canada.
The Rotorua-based rider, who grew up in Wellington, finished fourth overall in world cup with podiums in Canada and La Bresse in france.
Sheppard has worked hard with her Belgium-based coach to regroup and build-up again for this weekend on a course she believes will suit her.
“I’ve spent the morning dialling in to the track. I like it,” Sheppard said today. “It’s been a long day but I have all my race preparations compete and I am really looking forward to it.
Sheppard has a new-found confidence after her European adventure.
“It’s been an amazing experience these past five months since I left home, always learning so much about racing, training, preparing and learning about myself, what I want and how to get it.
“I’ve worked so hard now for the biggest race of the year. I’ll be fighting for a podium placing. My father and some of some of the lads are over to make some noise too which will be super to have.”
Hanlen and Joseph will line-up in the elite women’s elite race Sunday night (NZ time).
Whakatane’s Hanlen has remained in Europe following her Olympic experience in London where she was disappointed with her 18th placing, which was hardly helped by a costly puncture mid-race.
She has not raced since but confident she is in good shape.
“I am feeling good and training has been on track,” Hanlen said.”Being part of the atmosphere at the Olympics was very exciting. The Games gives you a lot of knowledge on how to prepare for a big event. With the help of BikeNZ, I learned lots of things on preparation which will help me for this weekend. Plus just having that confidence is a big thing.”
“There’s a lot of open uphill climbs which I really do like. I think riding smart is a good thing – make sure I work to my strengths.”
In her first full year on the world cup circuit, Hanlen has risen to 18th in the world and will start on the second row which will provide excellent opportunity for a fast start.
Beijing Olympian Joseph has recovered from a broken wrist that ended her London hopes, with the Rabobank professional winning a lead-up race in the USA last week. She has a top-10 finish at both the world championships and Beijing in what is expected to be her final world championship race.
New Zealand competitors include:
Elite women: Karen Hanlen, Rosara Joseph; U23 Men: Dirk Peters, Tom Bradshaw; U23 women: Samara Sheppard; Junior men: Anton Cooper, Nigel McDowell, Tom Filmer, Sam Gaze; Junior women: Mary Gray.