The 2020 New Zealand Cross-country Championships kicked off to a blistering start near Marton on Sunday with a number of talented riders revealing themselves as title contenders.
Manawatu's Paul Whibley won the three-hour senior race on Sunday, but Bay of Plenty's three-time former national cross-country champion Brad Groombridge and Pahiatua's Charles Alabaster showed that they too would be in the hunt for overall honours this season, the speedy trio forming an impressive podium.
Taupo man Groombridge set the fastest lap time of the day as he recovered from a poor start to hunt down the early race leaders, taking his Kea Trailers Suzuki RM-Z450 to close to within just two minutes of the fast-starting Whibley before the chequered flag finally came out.
Alabaster impressed too as he marked his comeback to this level of competition by taking his Motorcycle HQ Suzuki RM-Z450 to third overall, a great foundation on which to build his title bid.
Like Groombridge, Alabaster also suffered a poor start – Alabaster back in about 17th position midway through lap one – and it posed a daunting prospect for him, visibility hampered by dust and having to fight through fast traffic on the unforgiving, steep farmland course.
Alabaster achieved this even with the dry, rock-hard terrain ripping the rubber knobs off his rear tyre and, with minimal traction and the bike sliding underneath him, he rode bravely to hold off a stern late challenge from Raglan's defending national champion Jason Dickey to secure the No.3 spot.
Any of these three riders, and perhaps half a dozen other riders too, could be title contenders this season, particularly so with points to be counted only from three of the four rounds, with riders discarding their worst result.
Groombridge had previously won the New Zealand Cross-country Championship title on three consecutive seasons – in 2016, 2017 and 2018 – but his title defence in 2019 had been troubled by a succession of injuries. However, with remedial surgery completed in the off-season, he was back to his best on Sunday and he said he feels positive about his title chances in 2020.
"My arm muscles pumped up a bit for me over the early laps," Groombridge said. "I also had some brake issues when the front brake cable got tangled behind the number board. The brakes were coming and going and this caused me problems throughout the race.
"But I was able to put in some hard laps and caught to within a couple of minutes of Paul (Whibley). He was out front and in clear air, so that would have helped him a lot. Once I was up to second I made some gains but then decided to settle for that position on the last lap. It's still good points for me to build on.
"There are three more rounds to go and anything can happen."
Alabaster was also in a positive mood.
"I raced the Suzuki last year but didn't do any national rounds, so I'm pleased to get on the podium here today," said the 27-year-old diesel mechanic.
"I passed a few riders to get up to third. That's my best result at a nationals event for a long time and now I'm looking forward to the rest of the series," said Alabaster.
"This bike is stock standard and it's not even fitted with a bigger after-market fuel tank like some of the other guys have. I probably didn't make the right tyre choice for this track today though," he said, indicating towards his almost-bald rear tyre.
"It was pretty slippery for me on some of those down-hills."
Round two of the New Zealand Cross-country Championships is set for Flemington, in Central Hawke's Bay, on March 22, before it heads to the South Island for round three, near Nelson on April 26. The series wraps up near Taupo on May 23.
Words and photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com