Motocross champs field wide open
Six different riders have won lead-up events, writes Andy McGechan
The trash talking stops when the start gate drops in Taranaki this weekend. New Zealand's elite motocross riders have travelled the country in recent months to flex their muscles and prove they are contenders for a national crown.
But all those hours of training, sweat in the gym, kilometres of travel, cramped motel rooms, entry fees and exhausting days of high-speed and high-risk racing perhaps counts for little.
It is only the racing that happens over the next few weeks that really matters to most of them.
The first of four rounds in this year's JT Racing-sponsored New Zealand Motocross Championships is set for the Barrett Road Motorcycle Park facility, on the outskirts of New Plymouth, this Sunday and riders will arrive from all parts of the country, and from overseas, too, to battle on the steep and unforgiving circuit.
So many different riders have dominated at the many major events staged around New Zealand since before Christmas and any of them could be expected to feature on Sunday.
In the 450cc MX1 class, it was Taupo's Brad Groombridge (Suzuki) who won the MX Fest at Taupo in October and then again at the Auckland Motocross Championships in early December.
His Suzuki team-mate, Mt Maunganui's Rhys Carter, celebrated his return to action following an injury lay-off to win the MX1 class at the annual Whakatane Summercross just after Christmas, but Waitakere's Ethan Martens (Yamaha) was top dog in the MX1 class at the Valley Championships at Patetonga just a couple of weekends later.
Queenstown's Scott Columb (Yamaha) won the feature race at the King of the Mountain motocross in Taranaki just seven days later, edging out Martens, Carter and Rotorua's John Phillips (Honda) in the process.
But, significantly, the most recent winners have been defending national MX1 champion Cody Cooper, who won all three races in the MX1 class at the big annual New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix at Woodville just over a week ago, and Australian KTM rider Kirk Gibbs, who won the feature race at Woodville.
That's six different individuals and four different bike brands that have featured on the top of the podium over the past few months and any one of these riders could expect to be leading the points standings when the dust clears in Taranaki on Sunday.
The same could almost be said of the MX2 (250cc) class contenders, with defending national champion Kayne Lamont (Yamaha), of Mangakino, looking solid after his recent injury scare, while fellow Kiwi international Josiah Natzke (KTM), who will defend his national 125cc title as well as taking on Lamont in the MX2 class, has been in awesome form lately, as has called-out-of-retirement rider Mike Phillips (Honda).
Riders such as Taupo's Cam Dillon (Honda), Rotorua's Scotty Canham (Kawasaki), Atiamuri's Hadleigh Knight (Husqvarna), Australian visitor Jay Wilson (Yamaha), Otorohanga's Hayden Kanters (Yamaha), Te Puke's Logan Blackburn (Suzuki) and Dunedin pair Campbell King (Suzuki) and Joel Meikle (Honda), among others, could also spring a surprise in the MX2 grade.
The smallest engine capacity bike category, the national 125cc class, probably still belongs to Natzke, although he can expect fierce opposition from riders such as Ngatea's Ben Broad (KTM), Taupo brothers Cohen and Wyatt Chase (both Yamaha), Nelson's Reece Walker (Yamaha) and Pukekohe's Kurtis Lilly (Husqvarna).
The slopes of Taranaki have been a graveyard for many campaigns in the past, a moment's inattention or a slice of bad luck costing vital points, so a positive result on Sunday could equally be a springboard to success.
After racing in Taranaki, the series heads to Pleasant Point, Timaru, for round two on February 22, with rounds three and four set for Rotorua and Pukekohe, on March 8 and March 15.