Motorcross: Battle on to decide who is king
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The stars of motocross will be lining up in Taranaki this weekend (Jan 21-22) to decide who will be the King of the Mountain for 2017.
With major national titles on the line in coming weeks, the annual King of the Mountain is a litmus test to see who has the acid to win when the New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix lights up at Woodville just a week later and when the four-round national championships series kicks off in Timaru seven days after that.
The main contenders in the senior races at Barrett Rd Motorcycle Park, New Plymouth, on Sunday are expected to come from the country's elite MX1 (450cc) class riders.
Racing on this challenging circuit in the shadow of Mt Taranaki is always fierce with some heavyweight hitters entered for the two-day event, juniors on Saturday and seniors on Sunday.
Taupo's Brad Groombridge is a two-time KoM winner, winning in the mud in 2012 and again in 2014, but Queenstown's Scott Columb was the main man in 2015, taking the key trophy ahead of Waitakere's Ethan Martens and Mt Maunganui's Rhys Carter.
Last year national MX1 champion Cody Cooper took the top honours, so it's anybody's guess who will prevail this time, though Cooper would have to be heavily favoured to make it two victories in a row.
He was too powerful for his rivals at the KoM last year, celebrating four wins from four starts, winning the MX1 class outright and the all-important King of the Mountain all-capacities feature race that the event gets its name from.
Fresh from winning the MX1 class at the Waikato Motocross Championships in November, the Auckland Motocross Championships in December and the Honda Summercross in Whakatane just after Christmas, he has momentum on his side.
It was an international line-up for the KoM last year.
The top six finishers in the feature race had all represented New Zealand at the world's biggest motocross, the annual Motocross of Nations.
Cooper, who raced for New Zealand in Italy last September and has been a Kiwi team member on seven other occasions, used all that experience to fend off the attacks by Columb (who raced for New Zealand in England in 2008, in Italy in 2009 and Latvia in 2014), Groombridge (a team NZ rider in the US in 2010), Mangakino's Kayne Lamont (Belgium in 2010, Germany in 2013 and France in 2015), Hawera's Daryl Hurley (Belgium in 2001, Netherlands in 2004 and the US in 2007) and Elsthorpe's Kieran Scheele (France in 2011).
Meanwhile, Inglewood pair Larry Blair and Braeden Christian, Eltham's Nick Hornby, Opunake's Liam Read, Hawera's Kieran Baker and Stratford's Sam Cleland are among local riders with a good chance of featuring on Sunday.
Sam Cleland is expected to be one of the star attractions at the King of the Mountain. Pictures / Andy McGechan
Cleland won the junior King of the Mountain last year.
Cleland, a student at Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth, finished the day third overall in the 14-16 years 250cc class and was runner-up to 450cc rider Brendon Mcaskie in the all-capacities senior MX3 class.
He turned it on in the feature race to take the chequered flag by just a bike length from Dunedin's Grason Veitch.
For the nation's motocross elite, the early weeks of summer can mean only one thing -- lots of hard work.
This is when national title contenders should start to see their weeks of training and testing begin to bear fruit, while, for others, lazy habits over winter may be starting to bite.
Who has prepared best? Who is strongest? Who is fastest? Who will rate among the favourites for a national or international title in 2017?
Perhaps those questions, and others, will be answered when the start gates drop this weekend.