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Biking With Champions

Posted

February 11, 2020

Lorelle Puklowski

I got a call on 16th Jan from Cameron Jones, a local lad who rides alongside Talley’s sponsored athlete (Ethan Woods). Cameron was looking for a way to get to the South Island MTB champs in Timaru that weekend and had extinguished all other possibilities. Being a university student, saving on costs was paramount. Cameron was in luck; we had a truck heading south on Friday night arriving in Christchurch at 3am- A total life saver!

Arriving at 3am, Cameron managed a short sleep before hitching to Timaru to squeeze in a practise lap of the racecourse before the big day on Sunday.

Race day arrives and Ethan Woods is up first. At age 14 he’s one of the youngest racing in the under 17 grade. Being the South Island champs there was some fierce competition down from the North Island. Starting from the back, Ethan had us all biting our nails as he made his way through the pack and into second place behind an older rider from Taupo. Ethan held this position until the end but as this was the SI champs, the Taupo racer is registered to race in the NI champs, so Ethan took the title as the fastest U17 entrant! At only 14 years old, he’s going to be hard to beat next year!

Next up was Cameron. Racing at age 19 and in the under 23 grade where they also put the open elites in. This really increases the intensity of the competition. The riders are up against the likes of Tim Rush and Ben Oliver, two well decorated athletes in this sport. Cam did well, pushing them to their limits and although he led for much of the race, he came in second to Ben Oliver (NZ’s international MTB athlete). Ben is over the age of 23 so Cameron takes the win for his category and second overall!

Talley’s Pure Mussel is a team name I came up with 3 years ago when racing the Pioneer (a 6 day MTB stage race), this team name has stuck and we’ve gained a following along with a few amazing bike riders, Ethan Woods is the first to actually gain sponsorship from Talley’s as a young up and coming rider and after winning the School Nationals last year.

A short five days later was the Oceania Champs in Dunedin. This is the best of NZ vs the best of AUS, a battle not to be missed so off I went. Now, if you’re traveling all the way to Dunedin to support your mates in a MTB race and love riding yourself then there’s only one thing to do; enter!

Here I am driving to the biggest MTB event in NZ with my good riding buddy Mel Hansen and to be honest I was extremely nervous as I’d crashed out of my last two races and my fragile body, artificial joints and all simply can’t afford to crash anymore……maybe I shouldn’t be attempting to race at this level?

Practice day, time to check out the track. It starts off with a climb so steep you can hardly ride it with fresh legs, then onto a rock garden that consists of steep scarp and loose rocks wanting to buck you off with any small lapse in concentration. Onto more climbing before going down to the feed station marking the half lap point. The next climb is more suited to me, with a gradual cycleway climb which soon drops into a downhill filled with roots and ruts pushing you into trees. Its a hard ride to survive at ride pace, how am I going to survive this at race pace? The nerves intensify!

Race day arrives and Ethan is up first with 3 laps to complete. Mel & I stand at the first climb which has a good view of the start line thinking that Ethan should do well as he’s superfast at starts. ‘Bang’ and they’re off! Oh no a crash on the start line and Ethan’s caught up in it. The pack goes passed, and now he’s got traffic to contend with! As he climbs passed us, he makes up one, two, then three places and then as he goes out of sight, four and five places, this boy is unstoppable! As he comes back passed, he’s in a solid second place, but 30 seconds down on first. Not knowing it at the time, the guy sitting in first was an Australian guy two years older than Ethan and simply too fast (Ethan at age 14, two years is a lot). Ethan pushed harder than he’s ever pushed before and to his credit he closed the gap, but only to learn a valuable lesson that the body cannot withstand this type of treatment for long! The third and final lap Ethan’s body blew out, this is a term we use for when your body’s lactic acid gets to a point where you simply drown your muscles in it and there’s nothing you can do, you want your legs to go faster but they simply don’t, all you can do is slow down and let your body process the acid out of your system. Unfortunately, this takes at least 30 minutes, which way too long in a race of this pace. Ethan had a gut-wrenching last lap, ending his race in fourth place.

Mel and I are next up in the high-profile league and they announce each rider as they enter the start box. I’m on the start line, look to my left and see elite race horses with calves bigger than my waist! On my right, oh that’s only the fastest man on earth, immediately I’m thinking this might be the first race that I’m going to come last in, oh well I guess someone must! Mel was in a different head space, he was super excited as he got called up second, immediately after the two times world champion in his age category. Mel won the Nationals last year but with not enough training this year he knew he would have his work cut out for a repeat!

As the start gun goes off, I settled for last place on the climb and didn’t really panic as the start is always a mad dash, we often go a little too hard and end up blowing out as Ethan did. My slow start paid off immediately as I clawed back a place and sat comfortably on the wheel of another. This gave me a bit of confidence, thinking I can beat some of these guys, even though the lead pack of three had long gone and winning was well out of the question.

Into the rock garden, I see someone that couldn’t ride it and had to take the C line, and I moved up a place. The next corner I came across a crash which gained me another placing. I said to myself “ok settle into it Greg, don’t fall off, ride to survive and you won’t come last”. This was all that was going through my head.

Game plan terminated and I came in 5th.

Mel was in a much different situation, being much fitter than me he went passed before I even finished my first lap (and he also started 2 minutes after my race started). Mel races in the 50+ category and I’m in the 40-50’s. After winning the national champs last year Mel had a target on his head, four very fast guys wanted dearly to beat him and when he came passed me, he was sitting fifth. Unfortunately, I was racing at the same time, so I didn’t get to see any more of his race. I can say that he managed to chase down the leaders but got held up in traffic as they lapped the slower competitors, thus ending his battel for second and placing third for the day. Being the Oceania Champs, and having the best of NZ and AUS racing, a podium finish is a massive achievement! Well done Mel, I’m super proud to rub shoulders with such a legend.

Cameron Jones in the U23 division is the last race of the day - a case of saving the best till last. Cameron trained hard for this race and on race day it showed that hard work does pay off!

As the race started Cameron blasted up the first climb, taking on the Elite open class with the likes of Anton Cooper and Sam Gaze. Amazingly, Cameron was out front leading the pack! Anton Cooper is our international legend that races full time overseas (currently sitting 22nd in the world ranking, down from 8th last year due to illness) wasn’t going to sit back and let this 19-year-old show him up! Anton’s skill and strength showed as he rode away from the field and easily taking the win. The real race was on for the U23 with 6 racing to win, 4 Kiwis and 2 Aussies. The Aussies took to the front and set the pace while Cameron looking strong took a fall and found himself out on his own in sixth place. One lap later and he’s back in business, advancing passed 2 riders and into fourth. On the next lap he’s moved into 3rd and with that the pace increased as they rode away from the rest of the field. 2 laps to go and the only Aussie left in the group had no answer as Cameron and his teammate put the pressure on, and now it’s down to the two of them. Josh Burnett is good friends with Cameron and their teammates in 4EverRacing NZ, but they show no mercy when racing each other and today was the best performance you could wish for. On the last lap and I guessed Cameron would make a move before the big downhill and that he did, taking of passed Josh. Josh however had other plans and took the lead back. Cameron dug a little deeper, regained the lead and went into the downhill first. Cam came out of the trees to massive raw from the crowd, as we had quite a support crew there to cheer our local Motueka rider on! Cameron held his ground for the final climb and came home first in U23 Oceania champs, his best ever win and by far the most exciting race I’ve seen.

A mere two days after Oceania champs was the National Champs. With little to no time to recover as we had to do it again, and at the same level of intensity!

Ethan was up first and he remembered his mistakes made on Friday well, he’s not one to make the same mistake twice. ‘Bang’ the gun goes off, and Ethan’s clip in his peddle blows out. By the time he has it back in he’s at the back of the pack. Keeping his cool he pulled in and got passed most of the field. He was by far the strongest rider for the second half of the race but unfortunately the race finished before he could take on the leading three and came home a close fourth.

My race went better than Oceania, Mel didn’t overtake me for two laps, I ended up seventh, but again not last and I’m happy with how the race went.

Mel came in fourth after his chain came off putting him too far back to take on the leaders.

The highlight of the day was again Cameron’s race and not just the exciting close racing he has with teammate Josh, it was more to the fact that he asked me to be his water boy handing him water during his race. This might sound silly but it’s actually quite daunting. You feel like you’re standing in front of a charging bull when he’s racing at you at 30kph, before the water bottle is swiftly taken from your hand.

I got to hang out with Anton Coopers mum and shoot the breeze with Sam Gaze’s support team. I also got some tips from Anton’s mechanic, really cool if you’re a MTB nut! After dropping a chain Cameron simply couldn’t get back onto Josh’s wheel and he had to settle for second, but again it was a superb race from all.

With the racing done it’s off to Craigieburn Forest park for some fun riding on our trip home. The perfect way to top off a great weekend!

As I write this, Ethan is at the NI Champs and after another unfortunate start he fought back into second place but got a flat tyre on the last 2km. He ran with his bike to finish fourth. True grit Ethan, I know you will be back next year to right the wrongs and chase that gold harder than ever!

-Greg Buckett.

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