New Zealand and Australia shared the spoils in the Oceania Continental Cup Triathlon raced as part of the Sovereign Tri Series in Kinloch, with Ryan Fisher (AUS) taking out the men's title and Rebecca Spence (NZL) the women's on a searing hot day.
Raced over the sprint distance (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run), the elite athletes turned on a show for the big crowd, many of whom had themselves raced in the national age group sprint champs, short distance events or the Erin Baker standard distance event earlier in the day.
The women's race saw hometown girl Nicole van der Kaay (NZL) push the pace on the bike, with Spence the only rider able to stay the pace as first the Japanese contingent and then Simone Ackermann (NZL) lost the wheel, leaving van der Kaay and Spence to battle it out on the run, a battle that was won by the more experienced Spence who had no problems with the warm conditions.
"The heat was fine, I live in Auckland so I reckon the humidity up there is double, this was a breeze really," said Spence. "It is a strong course, that massive hill on the bike, but because it is such a small field you don't have to push too hard on the bike, the gaps just open quickly. This is a great start to the year and I am really pleased, I don't really have a grand goal or dream this year, I am just looking to stay in the sport and race because I love to."
Van der Kaay was also delighted with her performance after a year interrupted by injury in 2015, the Tri NZ HP Squad member thrilled to be back racing.
"It was awesome out there, having my first race back in my hometown with everyone cheering me all the way. I was just going for it today, I didn't know who was behind me, we were just riding and it was only on turning corners I saw it was just me and Rebecca at the end. This is an awesome start to the year for me, it is good to be back."
The men's race that followed saw Aussie Ryan Fisher sneak away on the final lap of the bike along with (JPN), establishing a 21 second lead on the chase pack that included Ryan Sissons (NZL) and Sam Ward (NZL).
Fisher held his form though and was delighted to have won a Continental Cup title as he looks to a big season on the ITU stage.
"To be honest I thought about it a little before the race, I wanted to get away by myself until I saw how hard the course was yesterday, I sort of thought about it again but didn't plan on it happening when it did. I was worried though about going on to the run with the likes of Ward and Sissons, so I was pleased it played out the way it did for sure."
Sissons too was pleased with his first hit out for the season as he ponders a strong start to the ITU circuit as he looks to book his place in Rio.
"That is a tough course, a good race for me, I was hoping to get away with Fisher but I was a little far back coming into the downhill section when he made a move. The bike was hard, I rode at the front most of the way with a couple of others, I know a few of the boys were hurting a fair bit out there today. I felt really strong and controlled the whole way, it is early season and I am feeling pretty strong."
Sissons paid tribute to his fallen friend Laurent Vidal as he crossed the line, with a point to the heavens and an emotional tribute at the end of the race.
"It is still pretty hard, he inspired me to keep racing, it was always hard coming here to race without him, knowing he was going to be with me through until Rio, I am just thankful I had the chance to know the guy and call him a friend."
Sam Ward ran strongly alongside Sissons for much of the distance, fading only in the final few hundred metres to finish a strong third and pick up the bronze medal in the Oceania Continental Cup event.
Earlier in the day Matt Franklin ensured there would at least be one new name on the prestigious Erin Baker trophy at Sovereign Tri Series Kinloch today, taking out the men's race in 2:02:24 from Malcolm King and Jake Jackson-Grammer. But it was a much more familiar story in the women's with Sam Bradley (nee Warriner) winning the women's race for the fourth time in succession.
Franklin led from start to finish and always had a comfortable margin over King, even allowing for some tired legs after racing in a half ironman last weekend. Bradley was also in control throughout, despite these days spending all her time on coaching athletes young and old, the former world number one finished 11 minutes in front of Tamara Reed (Manawatu).
One of the great sights today was the post-race embrace from Ray Lichtwark (Rotorua) and Steve Currie (Taupo) as the good mates and rivals both completed their 33rd successive Taupo events, in what is now of course known as the Erin Baker race.
"Steve keeps bringing me back," said Ray while of course Steve returned the favour with an immediate response that it was Ray who brings him back year after year.
"We were in right at the very beginning, I must admit I went hard on the bike because I sniffed out Ray in front of me and I knew he was going to beat me on the run and sure enough he did," said Currie.
"Taupo is the premier place for a triathlon I reckon," said Lichtwark. It is just amazing, the water is pure and I have always liked the hard courses and this is a hard course isn't it."
Both were equally quick to say they would be back to race each other again for the 34th straight time next year, albeit after a few beers to celebrate this one in the meantime.