NZ motorcross squad ready for 'Battle of Britain'
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A talented three-man Kiwi motocross squad is fired up to race in the UK this weekend, determined to again challenge the best riders in the world.
Every year, the Motocross of Nations (MXoN) lives up to its billing as the biggest, best dirt bike spectacle, and this weekend rolling farmland in southwestern England will host this massive racing event.
The MXoN is a one-weekend affair that brings together the word's elite for an event where racers put aside the season's rivalries and unite in three-rider national teams. The talented trio who raced for New Zealand at this event in Italy last year again line up in Kiwi colours at this season's event, at the Matterley Basin GP circuit, outside Winchester.
Mt Maunganui's Cody Cooper (Honda), Takaka's Hamish Harwood (KTM) and Tauranga's Josiah Natzke (KTM) will fly the Kiwi flag on the track, while Taupo businessman Bevan Weal will manage the campaign.
The riders have done this all before and know it won't be easy facing the world's elite on such a massive stage, but they are determined to put on another good showing, hopefully improving on their 17th overall placing last September.
The line-up of biggest names in the sport, from more than 35 countries includes riders from both the United States national championships scene 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 rated among some of the best in the world.
Team New Zealand has finished among the top 10 a creditable 14 times in 26 appearances at the event since 1984.
New Zealand has been on the MXoN podium on three memorable occasions in recent times -- at Foxhills, in England, in 1998; at Namur, in Belgium, in 2001, and at Matterley Basin in 2006 -- and, though unlikely, another podium finish is not out of the question.
Cooper in particular should feel right at home in the UK this weekend, the Honda rider having been an integral part of eight MXoN campaigns.
His wealth of experience could be the difference between a podium result this weekend or failing to qualify among the 20 countries that will reach the final stages of the competition.
A top 10 result would be a massive achievement for the Kiwis, considering we have one of the smallest populations and have the furthest to travel.
In 2006, when the MXoN was staged at the same circuit, Cooper raced with Taupo's Ben Townley and Motueka's Josh Coppins to finish a remarkable third overall.
But the past 10 years have been lean times. 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 in 2015.
Multi-time New Zealand MX1 champion Cooper is under no illusion that the task is daunting, but he has faith that Harwood and Natzke will again bring great strength to the squad.
Double national MX2 (250cc) motocross champion Harwood has just completed another solid season of racing in Australia and, because he typically also races in the MX1 class when opportunities allow, the 22-year-old's strength and stamina is undeniable.
The youngster of the squad, 18-year-old two-time former New Zealand senior 125cc champion Natzke, has been racing the European 250cc Motocross Championships for the past two seasons and he has finished as high as runner-up among young riders who will no doubt be the Grand Prix stars of the future.