Manawatu’s Paul Whibley (Yamaha) took the lead at the start of the three-hour senior race and he never looked back.
The 41-year-old two-time former United States cross-country champion and 2015 New Zealand cross-country champion was in scintillating form and he quickly built a solid advantage as Hamilton’s Phil Goodwright (Husqvarna) and Pukekawa’s Jim Orton (KTM) settled in behind him.
Suffering various injuries over the past couple of seasons and generally only an occasional racer in recent times, Whibley was hoping to mark his return to this four-round Yamaha-sponsored competition with a positive statement and he certainly did that on Sunday, eventually winning the main race by a comfortable margin.
“I knew I couldn’t relax and had to push near the end,” said Whibley afterwards.
“I think the last time I’ve raced the season was 2015, so it’s been a while. My training has not been going like it used to be. It was hard work today. I don’t know how I hung on for three hours. It was a quite demanding track with lots of ups and downs.”
Taupo’s three-time former national champion Brad Groombridge (Suzuki) and Raglan’s defending 2019 champion Jason Dickey (Beta) were stuck in traffic at the start and well behind the leaders as the riders completed the first of what would be seven brutal laps on the parched farmland course.
Groombridge eventually fought through to close to within two minutes of Whibley, but a runner-up finish was the best he could hope for and he backed off the pace over the final lap, while Pahiatua’s Charles Alabaster (Suzuki) also overcame a difficult start to claw his way up and claim the third podium spot. Dickey settled for fourth overall, albeit finishing just a few seconds behind Alabaster.
Meanwhile, Taupo’s Wil Yeoman (Yamaha) celebrated a start-to-finish win in the 90-minute junior race held earlier in the day, crossing the finish line ahead of Eketahuna’s Luke Brown (KTM) and Tauranga’s Jack McLean (Honda).
Best of the 85cc bike riders was Cambridge’s Jared Hannon (KTM), who finished eighth overall in the junior race.
“It’s all gone according to plan. There was a really good turn-out here from both junior and senior riders,” said Motorcycling New Zealand cross-country commissioner Chris Smyth.
There were 22 entries in the junior grade and 51 in the seniors, the high-speed rush into turn one an impressive sight for both races at Marton on Sunday.
“The track here was awesome, with a bit of everything … fast stuff, a bit of tight stuff, with pine trees and even some mud out there, believe it or not,” said Smyth.
“The depth of talent is very good and any rider finishing here today in the top 10 has a good chance of winning the series outright.”
Round two of the New Zealand Cross-country Championships is set for Flemington, in Central Hawke’s Bay, on March 22, before heading to the South Island for round three, near Nelson on April 26, and then it all wraps up at Taupo on May 23.
Points from only three of the four rounds are counted towards the championship, with riders to discard their worst score, ensuring it will be a tight competition until the finish.
The New Zealand Cross-country Championships series is supported by Yamaha NZ, O’Neal apparel, The Dirt Guide, Oakley goggles, Bel Ray oils and Michelin tyres.
2020 NZ Cross-Country Champs
Round One – Sunday, Feb 16 – Bush Riders MCC, Marton
Round Two – Sunday, March 22 – Central Hawke’s Bay MCC, Flemington
Round Three – Sunday, April 26 – Marlborough MCC, Nelson
Round Four – Saturday, May 23 – Taupo MCC, Taupo
© Words and photos by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
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