Hamish Harwood (top) and Cody Cooper (above and left) in the MXoN in France last season.Pictures / Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
Kiwis are planning an "Italian job" of their own this weekend, a hit-and-run raid north of Milan.
Every year, the Motocross of Nations (MXoN) lives up to its billing as the biggest and best dirt bike spectacle on the planet. This weekend the hills of northern Italy will host this famous teams' racing event.
Widely referred to as "the Olympic Games of Motocross", this one-weekend affair brings together the word's elite for an event where the racers put aside the past season's bitter rivalries and unite instead along different battle lines, with three-rider teams flying the flags of their respective homelands.
A talented trio of riders will represent New Zealand at this season's 70th annual edition of the MXoN at Maggiora, north-west of Milan. Mt Maunganui's Cody Cooper (Honda, pictured below), Takaka's Hamish Harwood (KTM) and Hamilton's Josiah Natzke (KTM) will fly the Kiwi flag, while Taupo businessman Bevan Weal will be managing the campaigns.
The Kiwi riders know it won't be easy facing the world's elite on such a massive stage, but each is determined to put on another good showing.
The teams includes some of the biggest names in the sport including top riders from the United States national championships and the predominantly European-based World Motocross Championships.
From rookie first-timers in 1984 to top-10 regulars just over 10 years later, Kiwi motocross riders have boxed well above their weight and often rate among the best in the world.
Members of Team New Zealand have finished among the top 10 a creditable 14 times in 26 appearances since 1984.
New Zealand has been on the MXoN podium three times and though unlikely, another podium finish is not out of the question.
Cooper, 32, in particular should feel right at home in Italy this weekend as the Honda rider has been an integral part of seven past MXoN campaigns.
His wealth of experience could be the difference between the team earning a top 10 result or failing to reach the final top-20 stages of the competition on Sunday.
In 2006, when the MXoN was staged near Winchester, in southern England, Cooper raced with Taupo's Ben Townley and Motueka's Josh Coppins as his team-mates and they finished third overall.
Cody Cooper (left) and Hamish Harwood (right)
But the past 10 years have been lean for the Kiwis.
New Zealand has finished among the top 10 just three times since 2006 -- eighth in England in 2008, eighth in the United States in 2010 and eighth in France last year -- but two of last year's squad, Townley and Mangakino's Kayne Lamont, are unavailable because of injuries.
Cooper, the New Zealand MX1 champion, knows the task in Italy is daunting but he has faith that Harwood and Natzke will bring great strength to the squad.
National MX2 (250cc) motocross champion Harwood has just completed a solid season of racing in Australia, the 21-year-old finishing seventh overall in the MX2 class.
The youngster of the squad, 17-year-old two-time former New Zealand senior 125cc champion Natzke, has been racing the European 250cc Motocross Championships this season and finishing as high as runner-up among young riders likely to be future Grand Prix stars.
With generous support for this year's campaign coming from the sport's governing body here, Motorcycling New Zealand, and from Auckland company Workshop Graphics, along with extensive fundraising by the Taupo Motorcycle Club with its Battle of the Clubs motocross event in June adding to the coffers, the Kiwi contingent left for Italy in a confident mood.