NZXC cross-country series: NZSC finale will be a nail biter
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The NZXC cross-country series will go down to the wire again this season.
The fledgling series created by former United States and New Zealand cross-country champion Paul Whibley has soared in popularity since its inaugural running last year and the recent fifth round of six has set up the 2016 edition for a nail-biting finale near Pahiatua this weekend.
With just one point to separate friends and rivals Sam Greenslade and Callan May at the start of round five in the Riverhead Forest just over a week ago -- and still just one point between them at the end of that day -- the battle for senior honours could not be much tighter.
But there was no stopping Auckland's Liam Draper at Riverhead, the 20-year-old apprentice plumber from Howick romping to a four-minute win ahead of series promoter and organiser Whibley.
However, neither Howick's Draper nor Manawatu's Whibley is in a position to wrap up the series win overall and so most eyes at Riverhead were focused on the battle for third place between main title contenders Greenslade and May.
Coatesville's Greenslade (KTM 250 SXF) eventually won his battle-within-a-battle with Titirangi's May (Yamaha YZ250FX) to claim third overall at Riverhead, forcing May to accept fourth for the day.
"I got an excellent start and then just put the hammer down to try and open up a gap over the riders behind me," Draper said.
The former moto trials exponent and now enduro and cross-country convert simply tore his way through the damp forest and had stretched out an incredible four-minute gap by the halfway stage of the race.
Draper's four-minute "breathing space was more than enough to get the job done" and he backed off to ensure he finished safely, maintaining the margin at the front.
Behind Draper, Whibley, Greenslade and May came Helensville's Tom Buxton, Waimauku's Jake Wightman and Rotorua's Bradley Lauder, who respectively finished fifth, sixth and seventh overall, with just these seven riders able to complete six laps in the allotted time for the race.
Taikorea's Paul Whibley, far left with his 3-year-old son Colton. Pictures / Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
In terms of the series, Greenslade had started the day one point adrift of May (after the two riders had discarded their one worst score), but the result of their battle at Riverhead saw those positions switch around and now Greenslade leads May by one point, meaning it will be a winner-takes-all final round near Pahiatua on Sunday.
"I've been out injured for a month and was actually quite surprised that I managed as well as I did at Riverhead," said May.
"But when I caught up to Sam [Greenslade] in the forest, I knew I had a chance to beat him.
"I had a terrible start and had a bit of work to do to get through traffic. I caught up to Sam and we were having a great battle.
"I was leading him when we came up to a bog. The shorter line was to go straight through the mud. I gambled and I crashed and that was that, with Sam scooting around the outside and ahead of me."
The final round will be another showdown between May and Greenslade, with Draper and Whibley virtually out of contention for overall honours.
Draper had crashed out of round one in June and didn't ride round three in August, while Whibley simply has no intention of winning his own series.
Yamaha ace Whibley (Yamaha YZ450F) had "accidentally won" the inaugural NZXC series last year despite deliberately handicapping himself by not riding most of the rounds.
He was not going to allow that to happen this year so Sunday's outing at Riverhead was just his second of the five rounds thus far and, despite finishing first and second in the two events he has raced, he finds himself "safely" down in eighth place overall.