After being inspired by Sam Gaze’s effort in the criterium on Friday night I was ready to go Saturday morning for the 2016 Huka XL. I had never done this race before, however I knew the trails and was aiming for a top 8 after seeing the super stacked entry list. I found myself warming up at 7:30 AM on a crisp morning in Taupo for a 4 hour bike race. Just another day at the office. 8:00 AM ticked over and as it did the Elite Mountainbike field rolled out. After a sluggish start off of the start line at Whaka 100 a month prior I was not ready for Henry Jaine’s attack right from the start. Edwin Crossling and I worked to close it down over the first few kilometres but eventually we found ourselves on the wrong side of the race tape and had to slow down to cross back onto the race course. I was relatively confident I knew the riders that were going to be battling for the top 7 places. Around about 10km into the 85km race Henry Jaine, Edwin Crossling and Sam Shaw had slipped away from the chase pack. The chase pack composed of Neil Martin, Gareth Cannon and myself. The 3 of us had no interest in catching the big hitters in the front positions but we were more concerned about riders catching us from behind. After working together along the river trails past the Huka Falls and the Prawn Farm we found ourselves being caught by the third group. Fortunately, Gareth was onto it. I flicked up a few gears, took a few risky lines and found that the two of us had skipped away and were now battling for fourth and fifth. I was focused on conserving energy and watching for Gareth’s strengths and weaknesses. We both knew that there was no point riding solo with 40 kilometres to go, so although we attacked each other we were sure stay together. Gareth and I continued to blast around the Craters of the Moon MTB forest with Neil hot on our heels, only 30 to 60 seconds behind us. I was lucky enough to have Joe Sutton out on course handing me bottles and giving me information around time splits. After Gareth and I shook Neil at around 60km we found ourselves at the bottom of the dreaded grinder trail. Meanwhile five minutes ahead Sam Shaw was still chasing down Henry and Edwin and couldn’t quite bridge the gap. As Gareth and I started on the dreaded climb we wound our way around a few corners, before discovering a washout bank. I was on Gareth’s wheel at this point. He hit the washout and his bike went down the bank without him. I came around the corner and locked up the breaks to avoid the carnage, but ended up going over the bars and landed upside down dangling down the bank. Once I had realised what had happened and climbed back up the bank Gareth had gone. I jumped on my bike and set off after him. I worked out he had a 10 second gap which grew to nearly 20 by the time I had adjusted my shifter back into the correct position. I knew he was the stronger climber and would continue to pull the gap out, even up to a minute. If I didn’t do anything this could be the last I see of him. However, on the other hand if I wasted too much energy now trying to chase down his attack on the steepest climb in the forest I would surely blow up later and suffer all the way to the finish line. I decided to work on closing the gap but not entirely. By the time we reached the top of the hill I had pulled it back to 10 seconds and soon closed it right up over the next few decents and pinches. Within 20 minutes I found myself receiving another bottle from Joe and noticed that Gareth had issues receiving his bottle. I saw this as an opportunity to attack and repay the favour to Gareth when he attacked after our crash a little earlier. I stood up and began the onslaught of the climb. However it was a common hill for XCO races and Gareth being an XCO rider knew the fastest lines up. After missing the first rock garden on accident and taking the B line I found Gareth had pulled a 20 second gap back to zero. I sat up, had something to eat and drink and planned where I was going to make my next move. I knew we still had around an hour of racing to go and I figured that if it came to a sprint Gareth would clean me up. I found myself leading the him through the trail ‘State Highway Fun’ which is a bumpy trail but still pretty high speed. After 5 minutes of resting I attacked once again. This time Gareth was unable to get the power through the pedals with the rough terrain. I continued to push from there through the rest of the ‘Craters of the Moon’ park, getting glimpses of Gareth as the trail would zig zag around the pine trees. Edwin and Henry were still locked together in a dual around 10 minutes ahead and Sam Shaw in third was still slogging on around 5 minutes ahead. I continued to open a gap over Gareth and when I hit the trail leading back towards Taupo in the last 10km my determination and adrenaline took over. I pushed on as I was worried about getting caught. Edwin crossed the line in first with Henry right on his wheel with a time of 3:49:08. Seven minutes later Sam finished with a time of 3:56:06. I rolled over the line at 4:00:52 having pulled 5 minutes over Gareth, which was unexpected. I was absolutely stoked with my result of 4th place with some big names in the race. The next major race is the Rotorua 8. Until then I will be trying my luck at Nduro Events Summer Cup in Palmerston North, Tokoroa, and Rotorua.

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