When the New Zealand Motocross Nationals begin this Sunday near Timaru, Tauranga's Ben Townley will use the defence of his MX1 crown as the kickstart for the next phase of his racing career.
With six wins from seven starts at major events in recent weeks, the 28-year-old former MX2 world champion says the four-round New Zealand champs will prepare him for the upcoming Australian Nationals riding for the Carlton Dry Honda squad.
"I put in a really big five weeks of base training from the end of December all through January," said Townley.
"I've had Jake Nicholls [British rider who finished fourth in the 2012 MX2 World Championship] staying with me and we've torn up the roads around the Bay on our bicycles and done a lot of swimming and running.
"It's been great to have a training partner again. Jake has been able to escape from the snow and the cold and we've been able to push each other. It's very similar to when I was based in Europe."
Sidelined through the second half of 2012 as he recovered from a dislocated hip, Townley has recent won the Whakatane Summercross and the New Zealand International Grand Prix at Woodville. He posted three wins from four starts at Woodville and edged Papamoa's Cody Cooper (Suzuki) for the MX1 GP title.
"Woodville wasn't that great for me. I was a little bit flat after all the training and I think it showed in my results which weren't quite the standard I was aiming at.
"I made a small mistake that allowed Cody to get a win."
Along with preparing for the physical challenges of the sport, Townley has had to get plenty of seat-time aboard the latest Honda 450cc machine.
"The 2013 Honda is radically different and we've been testing a lot of stuff on the bike," he said.
Cooper, the 2011 national champ, along with Scottish star Billy McKenzie racing for Josh Coppins' new Yamaha team, Australian KTM riders Todd Waters and Kirk Gibbs and Hawera's Daryl Hurley (Suzuki) are likely to offer the main threat to Townley.
"I think Cody will be the one to beat. He's come into some good speed lately."
Townley is still eyeing an eventual return to racing in either Europe or the US as he continues to battle back from a string of injuries.
"The New Zealand champs is the perfect format to prepare for Australia," said Townley.
"I want to get a good year behind me in Australia, get back into racing a whole season again and put myself in a good position. I had that opportunity last year and it got away from me."
The 10-round Australian Nationals start on April 14 and run through until early September.
Along with Townley and Cooper the other BOP rider likely to figure at the top end of the MX1 field is Rotorua's Michael Phillips (Honda) who finished fifth last season.
In a very strong MX2 (250cc) line-up Papamoa's Rhys Carter (Suzuki) and Tauranga's Peter Broxholme (Honda) - third and fourth respectively last year - are among the title contenders.
"I'm all set to go," said Carter.
"My fitness is good and at Woodville my races got better and better."
Carter is hopeful a strong showing in New Zealand will open doors for an Australian campaign after he got a taste of the action across the Tasman at the end of last year.
"I haven't got anything finalised yet but going out and winning the nationals would definitely be a help," said Carter.
The impressive depth of talent in MX2 ranges from Hamilton-based World Veterans champ and defending MX2 champ Darryll King (Yamaha) to international racer Scott Columb (Queenstown), highly-rated Australian Jesse Dobson (Kawasaki) and rising stars Ethan Martens (Yamaha) from Auckland and Mangakino's Cameron Dillon (Honda).
"MX2 is stacked. There are six or seven dudes who could win the title," said Carter.
In the combined 125cc and Youth class, Te Puke teenager Logan Blackburn (Yamaha) has returned to form since breaking his collarbone in October with front-running performances at both Summercross and Woodville. He's looking to improve on his third placing last season.
Wider Bay of Plenty representation in the nationals include Rotorua's Cameron Vaughan (Yamaha) and Nathan Sharland (KTM) in the 125cc class, Whakatane brothers Mitchell and Damon Rees riding Hondas in MX1 and MX2 respectively and Rotorua's John Phillips (Honda) and Scott Canham (Kawasaki) in MX2 class.
The Timaru opener is followed by round two at the Patetonga track in the Thames Valley on February 24, the Harrisville track near Pukekohe on March 10 and the final round is an Easter Sunday (March 31) contest at Taupo.