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Crankworx first hit New Zealand’s shores for the first of a three year run in 2015.

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Crankworx first hit New Zealand’s shores for the first of a three year run in 2015. It was the opener for the other Crankworx events in France and Canada year and ticked a lot of boxes for making it a successful event:

For the Kiwi’s spectating, Crankworx provides an opportunity to see the best and brightest in the world, up close, on our home turf. With such a wide array of events as part of the Crankworx festival, along with the Enduro World Series (EWS) race there is something on offer for everyone.

 



WHIP OFF CHAMPS


The opening event is the Official Oceania Whip Off Championships and draws a big crowd of fans to see the Kiwis compete with the international riders. Unlike its namesake in Whistler with three jumps, the Skyline venue utilised a single, purpose-built monster. The resulting short push up the slope beside the track sees the 75 riders circulating quickly, some coming through in a train, to the delight of the spectators. With little down time, there is always someone in the air.

 

In 2015 Californian Ryan ‘R-Dog’ Howard was an early crowd favourite with his whips tweaked just a little further than anyone else’s and he walked away with the well-deserved win. “I’ve never really won anything, so it’s pretty huge for me. I’m stoked,” said R-Dog. Impressive as the Kiwis were, it was international DH racers Connor Fearon and Bernard Kerr taking second and third. It was awesome to see a couple of women step up including NZ’s Alanna Columb and (former Kiwi) Canadian Casey Brown.

 



DUAL SPEED AND STYLE


The next event on the schedule sets two riders racing against one another down a course designed for pulling tricks. The challenge for the riders being to figure out the best way to balance the need to go fast, with the need to pull points-scoring tricks. 

 

DUAL SPEED AND STYLE

 

Some racers clearly focus on the speed aspect of the duelling discipline, choosing to be as fast as possible rather than get extra judged points by throwing complex tricks. Others utilise their flare to help edge out faster riders in order to stand on the top step of the podium at day’s end. 

 



DOWNHILL

 

The downhill course features everything from rockgardens to massive booters, off camber to groomed berms. Most of the track is available to ride as part of Skyline's Gravity Park offering (a couple of the most difficult features are taped off and saved for competition use only).

 

Both Rachael Atherton and Loic Bruni attribute much of their energy at Crankworx Rotorua to the incredible crowd gathered for the event. Atherton went on to say “The people up at the track made the event. Everyone’s cheering and shouting your name; it’s wicked and cool that everyone’s come out here. This Crankworx is probably one of the best atmospheres for a Crankworx event. There’s loads of people but its small and compact so everyone’s in the same place and it’s just amazing.”


The Rotorua downhill track is highly regarded by Loic's Lapierre team as world class. This is no surprise given it runs along much of the same hill as the 2006 World Champs course, but made considerably harder to match the raised levels of current day skill and equipment of course. Loic hints that it is well regarded by the older racers - the last time some of them were here was for the World Championships in 2006 – Sam Hill won that year, Greg Minnar, Cedric Gracia and Fabien Barel were racing DH and are now back competing on the enduro circuit.

 

Bruni’s team mate at Lapierre in previous years was Sam Blenkinsop, who incidentally was second junior behind Cam Cole at the 2006 Worlds after a race-run crash. Although Blenkinsop moved on to other sponsors, he and Bruni are still friends and hang out in the race pits. Bruni regarded Sam as a mentor and big brother that would not only support him on the track but also off it.

 

“Sam was someone I really counted on” he says. Benefiting from Blenkinsop’s racecraft wisdom along with the raw talent and speed of Bruni has shaped him into a serious contender on the world circuit with many tipping him as the one to watch for the next few years.

 



PUMPTRACK 

Racing under lights results in an electrifying atmosphere as the fields whittle down throughout the evening. This is another feature of Skyline's Gravity Park which is open to be ridden at any stage of their regular opening hours.

 

PUMPTRACK

 

Kiwis represent themselves well at the pumptrack challenge, but do a few laps of the track and you'll soon see how hard it is to nail a perfect run.

 



SLOPESTYLE


On the final day of the festival is the premium Slopestyle event. Even with the level of detail that goes in to keeping the track in perfect condition, the nine trickable features and limited practice time on event day invariably contribute to some crashes. In 2015 that included Carson Storch, Antoine Bizet and Paul Genovese, who bailed out on runs one after another. Another to go down was the dominant force in Slopestyle - Brandon Semenuk.

 

Nicholi Rogatkin’s sums up the feeling of competing on the course when talking about his second run in 2015 ultimately culminating in a backflip double tail-whip to place second. “I was in disbelief, you know. I pulled the exact run that I wanted and to see the fans appreciate that, and for the judges to be stoked on that, there’s really no better feeling,” he said. “The course was unreal, it was massive it was scary, but the feeling of riding it was amazing. It seemed like we spent more time in the air than on the ground and that’s way too good.”


Most of us will find it hard to imagine what must be going through these guys’ minds in the middle of a run. Each run is filled with a list of tricks that most riders couldn’t ever consider doing even a single one, let alone a string of them all together, and developing completely new tricks and unleashing them for the first time in competitions. The magazine's Editor caught up with winner Brett Rheeder and 2nd placer getter Nicholi Rogatkin to find out a little about the mental side of things:

 

Obviously, they’ve practiced all the parts of their runs multiple times before getting to the competition, so, is it the mental side of the sport that determines who wins? And, what exactly is going through their minds, during a run? “Keeping a clear head is a big part of it” said Rheeder. “I had one particular trick I really wanted to get right, so my mind was focussed on that until I’d done it, then I relaxed and the rest came easily”. In terms of who can win, he says “it’s totally a mental thing, anyone of the top guys were capable of winning today, it’s just a matter of who can keep their focus”. Rogatkin said “There was a lot going through my mind in the first run – things were going OK, but I was slipping on my pedals, so I was distracted by that a little.” Asked if that meant he might change his run if things went wrong part way through he replied, “Yeah, for sure. I have an ideal run I want to put together, but depending on how things are going, I might need to change that up in the middle of things”.


The crowd reacted loudly to Rogatkin’s second run in particular. When asked about the sheer aesthetic beauty of it and the relationship between what gets the biggest crowd reaction and what scores the highest he said “They’re not always the same thing. Some things that look great to the crowd are actually not that hard, and some things that don’t look all that amazing are really hard to pull off.”


The single trick that garnered the loudest reaction from the crowd was a cork-720. When asked about it Rogatkin’s response was humble and appreciative, “Well, thank you, I’m stoked you liked it, and that is a good example because that’s not all that hard for me compared to some other moves – I do that trick every day”.

 



McGazza


Crankworx Rotorua New Zealand ambassador, the late Kelly McGarry (McGazza) from Queenstown had a good time in 2015 and nailed tricks he was stoked on, but unfortunately crashed on his first run. In his other role at Crankworx McGazza built the course with his business partner Tom Hey of Elevate.

McGazza is a carpenter by trade so uses that background to craft the timber features while Tom focuses on shaping the dirt. It’s a combination that obviously works, with positive feedback from the other competitors. “It looks great, it rides great and the comp was really awesome, so we achieved all our goals in course building,” he said.

When asked if there was anything different about Crankworx Rotorua course from a competitor’s point of view McGazza said “For me Crankworx Rotorua was different than other Crankworx comps I have competed in. Having the event in my home country was a pretty awesome feeling and I was stoked to show my mates that I have competed with over the last 10 years the place I call home. Also, with me and Tom building the course there was a different kind of pressure on me. Normally it’s competition nerves , but this time it was hoping everyone would be stoked on the course. As well as the standard nerves about chucking yourself off enormous jumps and wanting to do as well as possible in the comp!"


Compared to other slopestyle courses he’s competed on McGazza commented, “I think the course we built was different than a lot of the other courses we ride on the tour. We wanted to make big features and when you start making big features they take up a lot of space! We jammed the features into the area we had available. It meant you were either in the air, or getting ready to hit another jump. There was no chill time like some of the other courses. It made for a high action run down the hill and as a rider the course felt awesome to ride!“


Other courses can be less than ideal, and with McGarry’s extensive experience on the world circuit he uses this to his advantage. “I have ridden features good and bad over the years. We tweaked this course to our personal preference of not having janky features that are no fun to ride”.


It’s not only the course that is different at Crankworx Rotorua, it’s the Kiwi culture as well. “It had a pretty chill vibe to it in comparison, I think it’s just the Kiwi way - no one stresses too much but we still get it done. It was great to be a competitor and also great to be a part of the Crankworx crew. The Kiwi crowd was great and it would be cool to have even more people show up next year.”


The weather on event day was a worry, more so for McGazza with his stake as course builder as well as needing to ride the competition. But due to our planning and an awesome team of crew and volunteers we were able to get tarpaulins over the course so we could ensure the competition went off on the day. Cheers team! ”When people who don’t ride the features build courses they can turn out a bit janky. Transitions too steep or too mellow, unsafe drops and jumps, too much or too little speed for features. I have ridden courses with all of those. It takes a lot of judgement building a course, there is no rule book or building guide.” That is where McGazza’s experience comes to the fore “I regularly refer back to courses I have ridden in the past - experience is a huge part of building an epic course.”




SUPERFANS

 

One of the best things about travelling out of town to attend big events is catching up with your mates, as well as checking out first-hand what the best riders and racers in the world can do. Crankworx has a name for these die-hard riders and spectators - Superfans.

 

Superfans

 

Crankworx Rotorua drew a few of my mates to stay at my place for a few days, spectating at all of the events, and also getting in some solid trail-riding time in Whakarewarewa forest. As long-time passionate mountain bikers they had a lot of knowledge of some of the events, while others were eye-openers for them. Their take on things is a pretty good indication of how the bulk of the down-to-earth Kiwi trail riders in attendance found the Crankworx Rotorua experience.

 

Doug: “We were expecting to see talent, world class riders and factory equipment/teams. We got that, and more. We wondered how Rotorua would cope with such a big event. It was amazing!” he exclaimed. “The buzz around the place was exceptional”.


Steve: “Running the Pump Track Challenge at night was a winner” he says, “that place was rocking!”


Stu: “The Downhill was one of my favourite events - the atmosphere, and being able to be so close to the pros. The speed that the top downhillers were taking what looked like unrideable terrain was awesome. The downhill was a highlight to spectate because it was easy to watch from the bottom of the course, able to see the big screen and then follow each racer once they’d emerged from the trees in the run to the finish”. At the pump track challenge he also bumped into R-Dog who had impressed him at the Whip off. “I think he’s even better now, after meeting him and seeing how humble he was. It’s cool to be able to meet these famous riders”.


“Coming to this event, I had an idea of what the top riders could do on their bikes from watching the videos and seeing the photos online, but nothing prepared me for the size of the obstacles. Seeing them in person, being able to gauge the massive gaps and the insane drop from the platform. And these guys were not only clearing the features with ease, but also performing tricks! The crowd, (and I do mean crowd, the place was packed), took up every available viewing space on the high side of the course. The atmosphere was electric. It was great to see that regardless of how each rider’s run had gone, they all obliged with autograph requests and high fives to their young fans as they walked up to the transport to take them back up to the top of the course.”


Steve: "Crankworx was hands down the best sporting event I have ever been to (and I have been to some big international events in Australia, Hong Kong, USA, Canada and South Africa). I’ve already booked in to come back from Australia for next year”.



Originally published in New Zealand Mountain Biker magazine. Writing and Photography: Nick Lambert