Hanlen says first ride almost put her off for life.

When it comes to the gruelling Contact Huka XL mountain bike race, Karen Hanlen has some history.

One of the highlights of tomorrow's Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, the 82km slog happened to be the first race the rising mountain bike star from Whakatane ever entered.

It almost ended her interest in the sport - but this year she returns as defending champion after a high-flying year that also saw her compete at the London Olympics and 2012 NZ National mountain bike champion and Oceania champion.

She laughed when looking back at her first attempt at the race.


"I was not very good - in fact I was lucky to finish it ... there were a few issues and I remember telling myself I was never going to do it again," she told the Herald yesterday.

"At the time I thought it sounded like a neat idea, but I'd never rode 82km, even on a flat, so it was a bit of a shock. This one nearly stopped me."

But it did not - and the glory the 32-year-old went on to is now history.

Coming off a "huge break", only interrupted by a race last weekend, she is not expecting to repeat previous powerhouse performances on the track tomorrow.

"I'd love to be peaking for it, but unfortunately I'm just looking forward to the summer series, so it'll just be a wake-up call.

"It's definitely challenging, and that's why just surviving it will be my mission."

Ms Hanlen will be among 8500 entrants in this year's challenge, New Zealand's largest cycle event.

Other top female riders include elite Australians Rebecca Locke, Nicole Whitburn, Naomi Williams and Sarah Riley who will square off in tomorrow's OPI Women's Road Race against top Kiwis Emma Crum, Rushlee Buchanan, Kate Chilcott and Reta Trotman.

Top male contestants in the 160km Men's Classic Race include Tour Of Southland winner Mike Northey, last year's winner Michael Torckler and London Olympic bronze medallist Aaron Gate.

Late entries for the 12 categories within the challenge will be available at the Great Lake Centre in Taupo between 10am and 10pm today.

Where to catch the action:
The best vantage point will be at the Contact Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge finish line in Tongariro St, Taupo, where riders in three of the elite events - the 160km Men's Classic Race, OPI Women's Road Race and the Contact Huka XL mountain bike race - are expected to pedal in between 10am and 11am. With organisers wanting to keep as many cars off the courses as possible, spectators are discouraged from driving out to areas on the circuit.