The 19-year-old Napier-based former Wairoa man had a share of the lead in the Yamaha-sponsored competition after the first two of four rounds in the series, with just two days of high-speed motorcycle racing in the South Island, near Balclutha on Saturday and then near Mosgiel on Sunday, to wrap it all up.
The championship went down to the wire with Watts’ main rival, Palmerston North’s 2015 New Zealand Cross-country Champion Paul Whibley, who was level on points with Watts after the two earlier North Island rounds (near Marton and Dannevirke respectively), featuring as a constant threat.
But, with only three rounds to be counted and riders to discard their one worst score, it meant nothing was certain until the end of racing on Sunday.
When Watts (Yamaha) won the day at Balclutha, finishing just seven seconds ahead of Whibley in the three-hour senior race, and then repeated the dose at Mosgiel the following day, this time beating Whibley (Yamaha) to the chequered flag by 44 seconds, the mission was complete and Watts could enjoy celebrating his first national title win.
Manawatu’s Whibley, a two-time former cross country champion in the United States, had to settle for overall runner-up, while Raglan’s Brandon Given (Honda), Glen Murray’s Sam “Charlie” Brown (KTM) and Whanganui’s Seth Reardon (Yamaha) rounded out the top five seniors for 2021.
Meanwhile, Taupo’s Wil Yeoman (Yamaha) dominated the 90-minute junior grade races on both days at the weekend and the 15-year-old therefore easily wrapped up the junior crown for 2021.
Runner-up junior rider for the series was Eketahuna’s Luke Brown (KTM), with Cambridge’s Bailey Morgan (KTM), Rotorua’s Daniel Bates (KTM) and Katikati’s Ryan Morrissey (KTM) rounding out the top five.
Masterton’s Max Williams (KTM) was best of the 85cc bike riders this season, impressive in finishing eighth overall in the junior grade.
“It was quite tight and technical terrain on Saturday, but a faster, more free-flowing course on Sunday,” said Motorcycling New Zealand cross-country commissioner Chris Smyth.
“There was forestry, bush, open farmland paddocks … a bit of everything really. Everyone seemed to enjoy both tracks and days in the South Island.
“The double-header format seemed popular with the riders too and we may look at doing more of that next season.”
The COVID-19 pandemic meant the championships were not run last year and the senior champion in 2019, Raglan’s Jason Dickey (KTM), did not return to defend his title this year.
It’s also interesting to note that no South Island riders committed themselves to the full series in 2021, although Alexandra’s Jesse Wright (Honda) managed to finish the championships 11th overall in the senior grade, with just the two South Island races to his credit, and fellow South Islander Bailey Basalaj (Kawasaki, from Nelson) ended with a national senior ranking of 13th, despite contesting just three rounds.
The 2021 New Zealand Cross-country Championships series was supported by Yamaha NZ, O’Neal apparel, The Dirt Guide, Oakley goggles, Bel Ray oils and Michelin tyres.
2021 NZ Cross-Country Champs
Round One – Sunday, February 28 – Bush Riders MCC, Marton
Round Two – Sunday, March 14 – Central Hawke’s Bay MCC, Dannevirke
Round Three – Saturday, April 17 – Gore & Districts MCC, Balclutha
Round Four – Sunday, April 18 – Mosgiel District MCC, Mosgiel
© Words and photos by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
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