The national motorcycle road-race championship season kicks off in the South Island this weekend with a pair of Suzuki riders again favoured to lead the way in the glamorous superbike class.
Suzuki riders won four of the six championship classes last season and it looks as though it could again be the men on the distinctive blue and white bikes who feature prominently this time around too.
Three-time New Zealand superbike champion, Brisbane’s Robbie Bugden, has declared he will be fast and fit to go when the 1000c bikes line up for battle at Levels Raceway, just outside Timaru, this weekend.
This is despite the fact that he hasn’t been able to ride as much as he’d have liked in the pre-season build-up period following an accident at the Cemetery Circuit street races in Wanganui on Boxing Day.
Bugden won the New Zealand superbike crown in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and he would like nothing better than to snatch it back again in 2011.
But, even if he is back to his fighting best this weekend, most pundits favour his great rival, 2010 champion Andrew Stroud, to dominate.
Stroud wrapped up his third consecutive superbike title in the popular Suzuki International Tri Series, that competition wrapping up at that fateful Boxing Day race meeting, and the Hamilton-based 43-year-old father-of-eight is obviously still at the top of his game.
“I’m looking forward to battling with Robbie again,” said Stroud.
“Hopefully he’s fine again, but even if he’s only 90% fit, he’ll be very fast indeed. He’s a very determined rider and a great competitor. It takes more than just pain to stop him.
“He certainly makes my life interesting on the race track,” he laughed.
But it will not be just a two-horse race — Stroud and Bugden expect to be challenged all the way by fellow Suzuki stars Craig Shirriffs (Feilding) and James Smith (Christchurch), as well as an Australian first-timer at the Kiwi nationals, Dan Stauffer (Yamaha), Hamilton’s graduating champion from the 600cc class, Nick Cole (Kawasaki), and Tauranga’s fast-improving ex-motocrosser Sloan Frost (BMW).
“Yes, I thing Craig (Shirriffs) in particular will need to be watched. He usually goes very well around Levels Raceway.”
Christchurch’s John Ross (Yamaha), Wellington’s Glen Skachill (Suzuki), Auckland’s Karl Morgan (Suzuki), Christchurch’s Dennis Charlett (Suzuki), Taupo’s Scott Moir (Honda), Auckland’s Jaden Hassan (Yamaha), Christchurch’s Eric Oliver-Maxwell (Yamaha) and Inglewood’s Midge Smart (Yamaha) should again rank among the leading riders in the 600cc class, split this year into two separate divisions, for supersport and superstock (unmodified) bikes.
With another Port of Nelson street race win placed under his belt just a couple of weeks ago, Charlett is currently in top form, while and Christchurch brothers James and Alastair Hoogenboezem move up from the 125cc and 650 Pro Twins class respectively to also give the 600cc class a good crack.
Dannevirke’s Geoff Booth (Suzuki) won’t be defending his Pro Twins 650 class title but fellow Suzuki rider Daniel Kempthorne, of Palmerston North, is ready to step into his boots.
The 125cc class will again feature New Zealand’s fastest female, Auckland’s Avalon Biddle, although this season she’ll have a couple of international visitors to contend with, Malaysian Amirul Hafiq Azmi (Honda) and Australian Josh McGrath (Yamaha).
Meanwhile, Wanganui pair Stephen Bron and Dennis Simonsen (Suzuki) are favoured to defend their crown in the sidecars class, although they can expect tough challenge from Suzuki Tri Series rivals Adam Unsworth and Stu Dawe (Windle), also from Wanganui.
© Words and photo by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com