Cross-Country Elite Ready

Brad Groombridge is hot favourite to make it three national cross-country titles in a row this season. Photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com

NEW ZEALAND’S DIRT BIKE ELITE READY TO HEAD ACROSS THE COUNTRY

The New Zealand Cross-country Championships kick off in the Waikato region this weekend and perhaps only one question is being asked?

Who can beat Bay of Plenty’s two-time and current national cross-country No.1 Brad Groombridge (Suzuki) over the four rounds of the series this year?

The 27-year-old Taupo locksmith certainly holds the keys to the trophy cabinet after dominating the sport over the past two seasons and he is clearly top among those favoured to win.

The series kicks off on farmland on Hetherington Road, west of Huntly, on Saturday (February 10), with round two to follow at Ormondville, in Central Hawke’s Bay, on March 18; round three near Taupo on April 8 and finally it all wraps up near Mosgiel on May 12.

Only three of the four rounds are counted towards the championships, with riders to discard their one worst score, but there is a stipulation that riders attend the final round and this ensures the battle will go down to the wire.

With Manawatu’s former United States and New Zealand cross-country champion Paul Whibley (Yamaha) recently sidelined with injury and Howick’s Liam Draper (Husqvarna) currently racing overseas, it takes some of the pressure off Groombridge, although he should still expect riders such as Coatesville’s Sam Greenslade (KTM), Eketahuna’s Charlie Richardson (Husqvarna), Wairoa’s Reece Lister (KTM), Palmerston North’s James Galpin (KTM) and Cambridge pair Seton Head (KTM) and Ashton Grey (Yamaha) to be among those challenging him for the crown. 

There is plenty of depth in the cross-country talent pool, with riders such as Taupo’s Nathan Tesselaar (KTM), Stratford’s Karl Roberts (Yamaha), Hamilton’s Andrew Charleston (Honda), Hamilton’s Phillip Goodwright (Husqvarna), Raglan’s Jason Dickey (KTM), Te Awamutu’s Daniel White (Kawasaki), Glen Murray’s Sam Brown (KTM) and Raglan’s Brandon Given (Kawasaki) also capable of surprising.

South Island enduro exponents Angus, Hamish and Mitchell Macdonald, from Christchurch, should be respected too.

“The course on Saturday features a bit of everything,” said Motorcycling New Zealand cross-country commissioner Chris Smyth, from Dannevirke.

“I believe it is a track we have used before, but that was maybe 10 years ago, so a lot of the current riders won’t be familiar with it.

“It is a good, open and flowing course and more farmland than bush. There are a few creek crossings, but, depending on how the riders attack them, they shouldn’t be too tough.”

The New Zealand cross-country nationals have for long been a good breeding ground for talent, with many Kiwis such as Whibley, Glen Eden’s Chris Birch, Titirangi’s Callan May and Wellington’s Rory Mead, among others, going on to impress in overseas competitions.

 Words and photo by Andy McGechan

WHIBLEY ACCOMPLISHES TWO MISSIONS IN ONE

Paul Whibley put another win under his wheels at the weekend. Photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com

It was two missions in one that former Kiwi international Paul Whibley managed to complete near Raglan at the weekend.

The 39-year-old took his Yamaha YZ450FX to win the popular annual Raglan Rocx four-hour cross-country race on Saturday, riding it solo but crossing the finish line nearly 14 minutes ahead of several two-rider teams, and he also celebrated seeing his young protégé from the United States, Illinois rider Cody Barnes, enjoying success in his first major Kiwi race.

Barnes (Yamaha YZ125) also raced the event solo, finishing sixth overall, just one place behind the ironman class runner-up, Stratford’s Karl Roberts (Yamaha YZ450F).

Raglan pair Jason Dickey and Brandon Given teamed up to finish overall runners-up, with the Andrew Charleston/Phillip Goodright pair, from Hamilton, and the Cambridge duo of Beau Taylor and Mackenzie Wiig crowding the top four positions.

A shotgun blast signalled the start to the dirt bike marathon and Taikorea’s Whibley was quickest to react to the Le Mans, run-to-the-bike format, immediately taking the lead.

Straight away he had Kiwi rising star Liam Draper on his tail, the 21-year-old from Howick keen to taste another win before he shortly heads to the United States to race in the Grand National Cross-country Series (GNCC) there.

The battle for the lead between these two men was fierce.

“The lead was swapped a few times as we continued the cat and mouse game to see who would crack first,” said Whibley.

“Unfortunately for me, I was the first to run into trouble. While leading at about the two-hour mark, I had some fencing wire wrap around my rear brake, foot peg and boot and it dragged my foot into the back wheel.

“The wire tightened and locked my boot to the foot peg and wound its way around the wheel and locked up the rear end.

“Luckily I stopped and didn’t tip over. Liam (Draper) rode past and off into the distance. I managed to inch the bike back and get enough slack to get my boot free, then I was able to unwind the wire from the wheel. After getting back into the race I was a long way behind. Liam was out of sight.

“I pushed hard though and slowly I began to reel him in. Then I caught a glimpse of him and the adrenaline kicked in.

“I pushed pretty hard and closed in, then quickly made a pass. I kept my pace going and soon had opened a gap. I had enough of a lead going into the last lap that I couldn’t see Liam. I rode the (tenth and) final lap at a safe pace, taking the win.”

Unfortunately for Draper, he had suffered a flat tyre and eventually dropped back to finish 13th overall, fifth in the ironman class.

Whibley was a two-time outright winner of the GNCC series in the United States (in 2009 and 2012) and a record six-time winner of the parallel Off-Road Motorcycle and ATV (OMA) series as well, before returning home to New Zealand at the end of his 2014 season in the US to immediately win the New Zealand cross-country champion in 2015.

It is the skills Whibley honed over the years to achieve those successes that have brought Barnes halfway around the world in a bid to enhance his chances of winning a GNCC title later this year.

Words and photo by Andy McGechan

MATTHIAS WALKNER WINS DAKAR 2018

KTM MAKES IT 17 DAKAR WINS IN A ROW WITH MATTHIAS WALKNER TAKING THE 40TH EDITION OF THE ICONIC RACE

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Matthias Walkner entered the final timed special stage of the 2018 Dakar Rally with a healthy 22-minute lead over his nearest competitor. Holding his nerve and completing the “short” 120km loop around the Argentinian city of Córdoba, the KTM 450 Rally mounted rider did exactly what he needed to do to win the 2018 Dakar Rally. Walkner’s victory, the first for an Austrian rider in the motorcycle class, is an astonishing 17th in a row for KTM, who have won each and every edition of the Dakar since the rally moved to South America in 2009.

Walkner unquestionably put in a champion’s performance at this year’s event. The former FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion rode intelligently from the very first stage, finding the right balance between out-and-out speed and error-free navigation. Stage 10 was again a game-changer in the rally with Walkner ending the day with an almost 30-minute advantage over his nearest competitors.

Reaching the finish of the final stage in eighth position, Matthias was finally able to relax and celebrate a well-deserved overall win and let his historic achievement sink in.

“It’s unbelievable – I can’t describe how it feels, Walkner said. This year’s Dakar has been so difficult, easily the toughest rally of my career. Navigation has been tricky pretty much every day. At the beginning of the race, all the top guys were so close with not much time between us. I just tried to keep on doing well each day without making any mistakes. Things were so tight right up to my stage victory. After that I aimed to finish each day safely and get to the end of the rally without losing my advantage. Luckily the tactics worked out and I’m here at the end now as the winner and it feels unreal. Thank you to my team and everyone that has supported me – we did it!”

Last year’s winner, Sam Sunderland, withdrew from the Dakar after a crash left him with two crushed disks in his spin and no feeling in his legs. He is recovering well at home in Bournemouth with family.

AMERICAN RIDER HERE TO LEARN FROM KIWI LEGEND

Visiting US rider Cody Barnes gets advice from former Kiwi international Paul Whibley during a ‘boot camp’ training session in New Zealand. Photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com

To be the best, you need to learn from the best and that’s the theory that young American cross-country rider Cody Barnes hopes will work for him.

A rising star on the Grand National Cross-Country (GNCC) racing scene in the United States, Barnes this month accepted an invitation from Manawatu’s former Kiwi international Paul Whibley and his partner April Mainland to attend a “boot camp” in New Zealand, a particularly welcome offer since the opportunity for him to train at home is limited at the moment, with sub-zero temperatures blasting the east coast of the US.

The 18-year-old Barnes will be in New Zealand for three weeks, the Illinois racer here to train under the watchful gaze of two-time former GNCC champion Whibley and fellow dirt bike racer Mainland.

“We’ve created this boot camp experience to be in line with what I underwent when I was preparing in New Zealand for my American campaigns,” said Yamaha ace Whibley.

“My intention is to show Cody (Barnes), and other US riders in the future too, what I did to train when I was at the top of my game. It also helps to keep me motivated for my own racing here at home.”

In addition to winning two GNCC crowns (in 2009 and 2012), the now 39-year-old Whibley is a record six-time winner of the parallel Off-Road Motorcycle and ATV (OMA) in the US and, on resettlement back home at the end of his  final season in America in 2014, he quickly took his Yamaha YZ450F to become 2015 New Zealand cross-country champion.

The skills, drive, determination, strength and stamina that took Whibley to the top of cross-country racing scene internationally will be passed on to Barnes and, when he returns to the US next month, Barnes will be well-prepared to turn those lessons into results.

“It has been perfect so far for me,” said Barnes. “Training at Paul’s place (at Taikorea) was great too because the sand there is exactly like what I’ll face when the GNCC series hits Florida and it was perfect training for muscle endurance too.

“Coming here was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane and, obviously, my first time in New Zealand, but I’m loving it. Paul took me up a mountain the other day and, so far, he’s been kicking my arse. The training has been a real effort but that’s what I need.

“Paul’s still a legend in the US and it’s great to come here and see what he did to make it to the top.”

Barnes says he will most likely be racing a Yamaha YZ125 in the XC3 class at the 2018 GNCC series, which kicks off in South Carolina on February 25.

Words and photo by Andy McGechan

Acerbis 4 Hour 2017

Check out a rad little edit from the Acerbis 4 Hour Cross Country race near Taupo from Snowman Films.