With important ranking points up for grabs, Kiwi mountain bike star Anton Cooper is primed for the UCI Altherm Oceania Championships in Dunedin at the weekend.
More than 200 riders have entered the two-day championships with both the cross-country and downhill events to be staged at the famed Signal Hill, located behind the University of Otago and Logan Park. Cooper is among a number of high profile riders to contest the championships, with the world number seven ranked Trek Factory professional to defend the title he won in Australia last year. He will face compatriot Sam Gaze, the double world under-23 world champion, and Australian star, Dan McConnell, who was ranked as high as number five in the world. This trio filled the podium at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and are destined to dominate the 2018 Games on the Gold Coast in April.
“This is an important race for sure. For me this year I have two peaks, at the Commonwealth Games if I am selected and then the world championships later in the year,” Cooper said. “I am keeping a lid on things a bit and not doing too much intensity but I am happy where I am at right now,” said Cooper, who beat McConnell in the recent Australian national series race on the Commonwealth Games course in Nerang.
“The Oceanias carry some important points and on top of that I would [like] to defend my title. The points will help with the start positions in the early World Cup and also for the Commonwealth Games.”
Cooper has been working in the gym as well as back on his bike since December, “putting in place the basic building blocks that I will need this year.”
Gaze, who rides for Specialized on the world circuit, has been in sparkling form on the road over recent the summer, winning the Taupo Cycle Challenge in November, the national criterium championships in December and racing prominently in the national road championships in January. He also has his sights set on the Commonwealth Games after winning silver behind fellow Altherm Elite New Zealand teammate Cooper in Glasgow.
The 22-year-old will head to South Africa after the weekend for a training camp and build up for the opening UCI World Cup in Stellenbosch next month.
National champion McConnell is on a similar pathway and will look to carry the Australian flag in Dunedin, after a strong finish to 2017 with a top-10 placing at the world championships in Cairns.
Other men to watch is rising Kiwi Subway National Hub rider Ben Oliver, who was ninth in the under-23 world championship last year, and Australian Cameron Ivory, runner-up in the nationals and with two wins under his belt in the national series this year. He was runner-up to Cooper in last year’s Oceania Championships.
Of interest is Australian Ben Henderson, brother of leading women’s rider Rebecca McConnell, who is chasing a Commonwealth Games spot in his return to the sport after time out of the sport following a rare illness from a mosquito bite.
Australian-based Kiwi Samara Sheppard will defend her women’s title from last year, and has started the year in outstanding form. She won the first four rounds of the Australian national series, including the test event on the Commonwealth Games course in Nerang.
The challenge from across the Tasman will come from McConnell (nee Henderson), the Glasgow Commonwealth Games medallist, ranked 17th in the world, who was second behind Sheppard at Nerang. Holly Harris was runner-up in the Australian national series and the national championships behind McConnell, stepping up from the under-23 division. Also back to strong form is Glasgow Commonwealth Games rider Kate Fluker, a three-time New Zealand champion, who was second behind Sheppard at the Gold Coast recently.
There is training on Friday afternoon, with cross-country racing from 9am on Saturday with the women’s combined elite, under-23 and junior race at 11.30am on Saturday and the men at 1.30pm. The downhill competition is on Sunday, also at Signal Hill, with a preview to be published on Friday.