There are many more than just two riders contesting this year’s New Zealand Cross-country Championships, but for the first half of the season the focus has been almost exclusively on the battle between Paul Whibley and Adrian Smith.
Whibley recently returned to settle in New Zealand after a successful 12-year stint racing motorcycles off-road in Europe and the US and he immediately went to work to try to re-establish his position at the top of the sport here.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the 36-year-old.
He was hammered into submission by friend and rival Smith at the first of four rounds of the series near Onga Onga, in Central Hawke’s Bay, in February.
That the defending champion and four-time former national champion should beat Whibley in the three-hour race should not have come as too much of a surprise, but the emphatic three-minute winning margin raised a few eyebrows.
However, round two near Mosgiel last month belonged to Whibley.
Whibley (Yamaha YZ450F) and Smith (Yamaha YZ250FX) were never far apart throughout the three-hour senior race until, with just over a lap to go, Smith launched his bike into a bog and he was thrown over the handlebars.
The time he lost recovering himself and his bike was about all that came between the pair at the finish, with Whibley eventually taking the chequered flag by just over two minutes from Smith.
Andrew Charleston (Honda CRF250) finished third, with Ethan Bruce (KTM250) and Scott Birch (Honda CRF450) rounding out the top five.
Smith was philosophical about the outcome.
“I had led until the last two laps but maybe I pushed a bit too hard. My last lap was completed with bent handlebars.
“It was a pity. I think I’d have had the advantage on the final lap, because I’d taken on fuel a lap earlier and Paul hadn’t.
“He’d have had to stop to refuel and I’d then have a gap on him.”
The reversal of fortunes for Whibley and Smith means the two men now head to round three near Nelson this weekend level on points.
With only three of the four rounds to be counted and riders discarding their worst result, the championship won’t be decided until the final round near Pahiatua on May 17.
In the battle for junior honours, Reece Lister (KTM) has won both times so far.