It will be all guns blazing when 70 New Zealand adventure racing teams line up on the start line for Godzone Chapter 9 in Rotorua next month.
The multi-day, non stop expedition race, from March 4-14, has attracted some of the world's best racers, including six-time world adventure racing champions Nathan Fa'avae, Sophie Hart, Stu Lynch, and Chris Forne of team Avaya and two time Coast to Coast longest day winner Simone Maier, who is teaming up with All Blacks legend Richie McCaw, Rob Nichol and Aaron Prince as team isport.
"We have quite the lineup of adventure racing royalty in those two teams alone," Godzone race director Warren Bates said.
"I expect the movers at the front of the Pure full course field will be led by Nathan Fa'avae and team Avaya. They will be strong across all-terrain with Sophie Hart bringing some good local knowledge, having grown up in the region."
Fa'avae said he could not wait to put his adventure racing boots back on for Godzone in Rotorua.
"It's a great opportunity to experience the very first North Island Godzone – it's going to be unique in that volcanic landscape," he said.
Bates said Maier's second Coast to Coast win last weekend turns the spotlight on to McCaw's isport team.
"Simone was in the winning team at Godzone Chapter 8 so knows what it takes to lead from the front of the pack, and she is fast.
"Aaron Prince brings all the adventure racing credentials required for a swift and consistent pace having 20 years under his belt, mainly with the Swedish team Haglof Silva. His strategy and decision making could be key for isport."
Rob Nichol, of team isport, said the team was looking forward to experiencing an interesting Rotorua course.
"We have had the chance to get out and test some gear and enjoy hanging out together. With all four team members competing at Coast to Coast last weekend, we have now turned our attention to full Godzone preparation and are super keen to get out and race and see how we go together as a team. There is nothing quite like the unknown."
Bates namechecks Queenstown team Tiki Tour with Tom and George Lucas, Mike Kelly, and Kym Skerman as a combination with a win in their sights after being pipped at the post at Chapter 8 in Canterbury. They won Godzone Chapter 6 back in 2016.
"I like Tiki Tour for their tenacity and drive, and their new team member Kym is very hardcore, however, they will need to keep their heads together and have plenty of speed to match Aaron and Simone.
"I like the look of the T7 team led by Richard Anderson out of Wanaka along with Tim Farrant, Tim Skima, and Sara Prince. They are all seasoned adventure racers with good strategic and navigation skills but will they have the pace to keep in the top three is my question. Their navigation abilities should land well in the varied Rotorua topography."
With more than 70 teams competing in the event, Bates expects some new teams may edge into the top 10 with no international teams at play.
The introduction of support crews to Godzone this year adds a new dimension to the race, and Bates said it could mess with some of the top teams' racing style.
"The addition of support crews this time around will change things up out on the course as traditionally in Godzone, the teams don't see any supporters at transition areas as we move their gear around.
"I think this could be a negative for team Avaya as they've done more races together than all the other leading teams put together and are the slickest and best organised in transition areas carrying the least amount of stuff in their gearboxes.
Support crews will take that advantage away as other teams will be able to concentrate more on optimising their pace and strategically thinking about when to sleep and when to attack certain stages."
In the shorter formatted Godzone Pursuit category, Bates picks Oliver Thompson as a likely front runner.
"Oliver Thompson from Whakatāne is a young adventure racer who always brings good form and he is racing with team Crossing Peaks alongside Jake Varg – they are ones to watch."