Mountain Biking: Ragot's ready to rumble

Two world champions will line up for the BikeNZ mountain bike national championships in Rotorua this weekend, part of the inaugural Rotorua Bike Festival.

Headlining the elite women's downhill is two-time world champion Emmeline Ragot (France), who is in form following her recent domination of the final round of the BikeNZ MTB Cup series in Hunua, Auckland.

She will be joined by New Zealand's own superstar in junior world cross-country champion, Anton Cooper from Woodend, north of Christchurch.

Unfortunately for Ragot and the other visiting international riders, the New Zealand title must be won by a Kiwi. This leaves the door open for talented young riders such as Alannah Columb (Queenstown) and Sophie Tyas (Christchurch) to have a crack.

Ragot has been a regular Down Under in the European off-season, competing here two years ago, with her passion for the famed Rotorua trails going back to when the city hosted the 2006 world championships where the Frenchwoman finished fifth. She won the junior world title in 2002 and 2003 and the elite world honours in 2009 and 2011, as well as runner-up last year.

The men's downhill competition is shaping up to be a humdinger between the New Zealand-based professionals with Hawke's Bay boys Brook Macdonald and George Brannigan (both Trek World Racing), as well as Christchurch-based riders Cam Cole (Yeti-Fox Shox) and Sam Blenkinsop (Lapierre International) all vying for the rights to wear the national jersey in Europe this year.

Macdonald was the leading Kiwi in 2012, finishing the year ranked sixth in the world, Brannigan was ninth in his first full season at top level, Cole 15th and Blenkinsop 20th.

All four riders race professionally overseas but have made the effort to be in New Zealand for this annual event, which doubles as the feature show of the Rotorua Bike Festival.

Junior world champion Cooper headlines the men's cross-country event alongside Dirk Peters (Rotorua).

The pair are both still under-23, but with the class being run with elites, they are favoured to also fight out for the overall honours.

Cooper, 18, has recently signed with Cannondale Factory Racing and is widely regarded as an emerging superstar in world mountain biking. Peters, 21, is a two-time age-group national champion and has enjoyed a great start to 2013 with wins in the Bluff and Wellington rounds of the BikeNZ MTB Cup series.

The women's cross-country race looks to be another Kiwi dual between London 2012 Olympian Karen Hanlen (Whakatane) and 22-year-old Samara Sheppard (Wellington).

Hanlen, 32, is in great form as she blitzed the field in the final round of the BikeNZ MTB Cup series in Hunua, Auckland, at the weekend to win by almost five minutes. Meanwhile, Sheppard has recently signed with Belgium-based UCI trade team Toka Print Mountain Bike so would love to head to Europe with the New Zealand title.

Despite not being eligible for the title, this event has attracted a number of quality international riders, including entries from France, UK, Japan, Canada, Germany and Australia.

Practice for cross-country is today, with racing for age group and masters from 10.30am tomorrow and elite classes from 2pm in the Whakarewarewa Forest. Gravity riders will practice tomorrow ahead of their championship on Sunday on the famed Taniwha course in Rotorua, racing from 1pm.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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