The hill just got steeper to climb for Kiwi Paul Whibley in the United States.
The defending champion in the Grand National Cross-country Championships (GNCC) in the United States, Whibley always knew he would start the year with a huge target on his back, but the man from Pahiatua is fast learning the truth of the old adage ‘a title is easier to win than it is to defend’.
The Yamaha ace endured another tough race at the weekend – a muddy round three of the series in Morganton, North Carolina – and he was also made to suffer a difficult decision by race organisers.
Despite emerging as one of the very few riders to conquer the steep and slippery hill — and the Kiwi hero was actually in the lead at the end of the sixth lap — organisers had decided to cut the race short, counting it back to positions on the previous lap.
This meant Whibley had to reluctantly settle for fourth overall for the day, just behind Yamaha team-mate Charlie Mullins.
Whibley remains fourth in the championship standings but he has now slipped from 24 to 36 points behind the leader, Australian Josh Strang, who was credited with the win on Sunday.
“With some improvements made to the set-up of my bike, I was confident of a better result going into this race at Steel Creek,” said Whibley.
“Light rain was falling as we lined up for the start making the mostly hard pack track pretty slippery under the wheels of my Yamaha WR450.
“The start went okay and I managed to sneak into the top three before we hit the woods.
“I was following Suzuki’s Josh Strang and KTM rider Cory Buttrick. I was riding a little tight with the slick conditions not inspiring any confidence and my arms pumped up a little in the early part of the race.
“I soon had other issues too, with the setting in the suspension seeming too soft and not behaving the way I would have liked. It seemed to be riding low in the back and this, combined with the slick conditions, was making life tough.
“I held onto third for a couple laps but then lost contact with the leaders.
“At the fuel stop, a quick adjustment was made to the shock and it was much improved and I felt I could push again but as the rain continued to fall and conditions became increasingly muddy and heavy.
“I was running in around fourth position when the ‘two laps to go’ signal board came out. The track was deteriorating and the slower riders began to struggle on some of the steeper hill climbs.
“One hill had a lot of riders bottle-necked on it a third of the way up. I weaved my way through and attacked the hill. I got past the main blockage but my back wheel slid down into a rut and I spun out. While I was restarting my bike, I was informed that the race was going to be called off due to the blockage.
“I got my bike going and, since I had got past the worst of it, I pinned the throttle and climbed to the top of the hill and continued to the finish where they had put the chequered flag out and had indeed called the race off.
“I was also informed that Strang and the others were stuck at the base of the hill I had just climbed and I was first to come through.
“I was also informed that the results were to count from the end of the fifth lap and the last lap that I completed would not to count.
“I was pretty gutted about that.”
Results for the premier XC1 class:
1. J. Strang
2. C. Buttrick
3. C. Mullins
4. P. Whibley
Leading standings after three of 13 rounds:
1. Josh Strang (Suzuki) 90 points;
2. Chris Bach (KTM) 60;
3. Charlie Mullins (Yamaha) 60;
4. Paul Whibley (Yamaha) 54;
5. Corey Buttrick (KTM) 53;
6. Glenn Kearney (Husqvarna) 39.
© Words and photo by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com