National Downhill – Rotorua

Kicking off a delayed season of Downhill in New Zealand this weekend, with round one held in Rotorua. I originally had no intentions of racing anymore downhill events this season, but with nothing else planned that day, and it being held on my local trails, I thought I would have a laugh and jump in.

This was the first round of five, being held across the country over the next five weeks. The event kicked off on Saturday with registration and track walk. The track had been closed off since Thursday to prevent local riders from practicing lines, so I was curious to see what the diggers had been up to.

The start ramp is positioned at the top of the Rotorua National Downhill track – Taniwha. Riders roll off the wooden ramp, over a small step down, and sprint across the area where the shuttle would normally drop riders off. Two quick corners and a small table jump, shot riders in to a long fast straight with lots of rough and rooty drops. At the end of this straight, riders needed to swing out wide to drop in on the ‘Mushroom’ line. This line has been used for Enduro and Downhill events, and traverses the camber back along the hill. An awkward left hand turn gave rider two options, all the way around the outside caused riders to stall up, so the better option was to cut tight and navigate the drop in to a freshly cut section of trail. Wide taping meant there were lots of line options, and these frequently changed as the track got blown out throughout the day. At the bottom of this, the track rejoined ‘Team-line’ which is fast and rough and took riders out of the top block of forest. If you wanted to clear the step down, you had to be hard on the pedals across the road, jumping in to the middle section of the track. Shortly after the step down riders had to weave right and had a short sprint along the road in to the ‘Fools Gold’ part of the trail, this sprint massively benefiting those on trail bikes or with strong legs. The normally soft loamy set of corners had turned to dust over the summer, but the revamped exit chute had been cleaned up so there were fewer ruts in it. This then joined on to the ’24 Carot’ section of the downhill track, this section had lots of rooty drops one after another, to really test how well set up the bikes suspension was. The final section of the course took riders on to a fast, but extremely loose and rocky access road, full or rain ruts, which became a matter of confidence and how much grip you could find. The last steep section rode like a sand pit. What felt like hub-deep soft sand was more like surfing than riding the bike. Once you survived that section, it was another short sprint in to a couple of gap jumps and over the finish line.

The event kicked off on Sunday, with an early start, first riders making their way up the hill at 8:45. The whole morning was spent looking at lines and practicing the track. I managed to get 4 good runs in, whilst testing out a few different lines to figure out what worked best for me. I am quite grateful that I had spent the last few week riding in these extremely dusty conditions, as it was one less thing I had to think about whilst doing my runs. I was already quite used to not being able to see where I was going, as big clouds of dust hang in the air. To ensure that riders would be able to race safely, everyone must complete at least two practice runs.

There was a scheduled lunch break at 12:30, with seeding runs kicking off at 1:30. It is mandatory for everyone to do their seeding run, as this time determines what starting order you race in. This ensures that everyone should get a clean run of the track, without catching up with slower riders. I had a great seeding run, nice a clean, with no real mistakes, which was exactly what I needed to do. I had seeded first in my age category, but as the Women’s Masters class is typically one of the first groups to set off it still meant I was third person off the start line when racing began.

Everyone is given 30 second gaps between riders, and for Downhill races this is normally managed by a clock on the start line, which gives you 10 and 5 second countdown beeps, and you can go anywhere in the last 5 beeps. I had a fantastic race run, despite accidentally blowing a foot off my pedal in the first straight, over taking one rider, and getting very loose in the sand pit towards the bottom of the track. I managed a 4:30, which was a few seconds quicker than my seeding run, and placed me 1st in my age category, and what would have been a 4th place in the elite category (if I had been organized in time to sort our my race license to race in elite). Louise Ferguson won fastest women of the day with an incredible 3:57, and Brook Macdonald took the mens win with a staggering 3:12.