There was simply no stopping Auckland’s Liam Draper or his Husqvarna FE250 on Sunday.
The 20-year-old apprentice plumber from Howick obviously knows his way around the Riverhead Forest, west of Auckland, and he also knows which bogs to avoid and which tree roots to dodge, all the while keeping his throttle fully twisted.
He won the renowned Dead Toad cross-country race there last year and now he’s backed that up by producing an even more convincing win at this year’s edition of the gruelling two-and-a-half-hour senior race.
Draper was quick out of the start gate on Sunday and already had a two bike-length advantage as he led the talent-laden field into the forest for the first of what eventually became six 18-kilometre laps.
“I got an excellent start and then just put the hammer down to try and open up a gap over the riders behind me,” explained Draper.
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, this event doubling also as the fifth round of six in the NZXC cross-country series.
Manawatu’s former United States cross-country champion Paul Whibley was the next best on the course, with a fierce battle being fought out a few minutes further back between NZXC series contenders Sam Greenslade and Callan May.
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, while Whibley held on to the runner-up spot and Greenslade won his battle-within-the-battle with May to claim third overall, with Helensville’s Tom Buxton crossing the line two minutes behind fourth-placed May to round out the top five.
Waimauku’s Jake Wightman and Rotorua’s Bradley Lauder respectively finished sixth and seventh overall, with just the top seven riders able to complete six laps in the allotted time for the race.
“My fitness is really good at the moment,” said Draper afterwards. “I’m looking ahead now to racing the final round of the NZXC series and then to racing a motocross version of the bike, an FC250, at the big annual New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix at Woodville (at the end of January).
“I managed to stay clean and out of trouble today and avoided getting tangled with lappers. I love racing at Riverhead. The course got better as the day wore on and it dried out a bit,” he said.
It was a double-whammy on Sunday for the Husqvarna supporters too, with Nick Wightman leading a 1-2 winning punch for the brand in the 90-minute junior race held earlier in the day.
It was a tight battle however, with Waimauku’s Wightman (Husqvarna TE125) eventually winning by only seven seconds from Te Awamutu’s Rachael Archer (Husqvarna TE125). Third overall in the junior race was Gisborne’s Troy Andrews (Yamaha YZ125).
Just five of the NZXC series’ six rounds are to be counted, with riders discarding their worst result, and the win on Sunday elevated Draper up to third in the senior standings, although he has only a very slim mathematical chance of winning it, with Greenslade and May 20 points clear at the top.
Greenslade had started the day one point adrift of May (on adjusted points), but the result of their battle on Sunday saw those positions switch around and now Greenslade leads May by one point, meaning it will be a winner-takes-all final round in two weeks’ time.
The sixth and final round of the NZXC series is set for Pahiatua on December 4.
© Words and photos by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com
Chauffeur driven by Bill Mancer
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