The XTERRA Rotorua Festival off-road triathlon elite races this Saturday, April 10, in the enchanting Whakarewarewa Forest have the feel of a cracking, pre-COVID-like showdown with big names in top shape going toe-to-toe on one of the finest XTERRA courses in the world.
While outsiders may think it’s hard to pull off a world-class field with just one country represented, New Zealand is no ordinary nation – most especially when it comes to the sport of XTERRA.
On the start list you’ll find reigning XTERRA Pan Am Tour Champions Sam Osborne and Samantha Kingsford – who had nine World Tour wins between them in 2019 – former Olympian Ryan Sissons, 2018 XTERRA Pan Am Tour Champ Kieran McPherson, 2021 XTERRA Wellington winners Kyle Smith and Maeve Kennedy, 2016 XTERRA Asia-Pacific Champion Lizzie Orchard, up-and-comer Jack Moody, super swimmer David Martin, and more.
“Bloody oath mate, I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve, very excited to be back racing after COVID stole our party in the redwoods away from us last year,” said Osborne, a homegrown superstar who won the last three races in Rotorua and is just now returning to full strength after an injury.
“I broke my hand just before XTERRA Wellington, but all healed up now, albeit took longer than it should have to come right. I was in denial for a while and too stubborn to get it looked at pre-Wellington for fear they would put me in a cast so haven’t had as much time on the mountain bike as I usually would have, but like they say, it’s just like riding a bike right?”
Smith, who has had a brilliant start to 2021 with wins at the Tauranga Half, XTERRA Wellington, and Challenge Wanaka, is just 10 days removed from a 3rd place finish at Ironman Taupo, his first full-distance IM.
“I literally did my first type of exercise since Ironman today and it wasn’t pretty, so the game plan for Saturday is to hopefully feel strong enough to push the front of the race and put the pressure on, but Sam will be tough to beat for sure.”
Smith finished third the last time he raced XTERRA Rotorua in 2017, but was up in the mix with Osborne on the bike in that one.
“That race was my first foray into anything long distance, first time racing for more than an hour that’s for sure, and I exploded something awful on the run that year,” said Smith. “Now XTERRA is one of the shorter races I do, so fingers crossed this time will be a lot of fun if nothing else.”
For McPherson, who was second to Smith at XTERRA Wellington in February, it’s an exciting time for both racing and life.
“It’s been pretty hectic the last few weeks as we’re packing up our lives to head back to the U.S. on April 19,” said McPherson, whose wife Morgan gave birth to their second daughter, Sadie, in October.
In addition to that good news, McPherson also raised $14,000 for the Philips Search & Rescue Trust Helicopters through a gruelling challenge to triathlon the length of New Zealand. It wasn’t all good news, however, as he suffered through a bout of glandular fever late in the year that set back his training efforts.
“Wellington was my first triathlon race since the inaugural XTERRA China race in 2019, so a 15-month hiatus, and it felt great to be back racing. I was a fair bit rusty because of that fever but have since had an incredibly consistent block of training and I am looking forward to racing in Rotorua.”
As for how the race will unfold, Osborne predicts madness from the start.
“David Martin is one of the fastest swimmers in NZ at the moment, races for the Czech Republic and is fresh off 3rd place last weekend at NZ Sprint Nationals. He will definitely add a very interesting dynamic to the race and from his ITU background will inject a lot of intensity from the gun I’m sure,” said Osborne. “He also knows how to mountain bike, so he won’t be flying under the radar for sure. Then you’ve got Moody, who has been creating headaches round NZ in the 70.3’s this summer with some big performances and has a killer run on him, and Smith is back so hopefully we get to relive our battle from Wellington in February because that was turning into a cracking race. Add Kieran and Ryan and it’s full game on.”
As for the course, rain is in the forecast which could add a whole new dimension to the challenge.
“The trails are as good as ever, we’ve got a new course this year that is a lot different to the previous editions, and the bike will definitely be rewarding to someone who can rail around corners repeatedly,” said Osborne. “The forecast for rain could add an interesting twist, I’ve not raced a wet Rotorua yet and that could turn all the tree roots into a bit of a nightmare.”
The women’s elite race is shaping up to be just as exciting, with Orchard (pictured above) in the mix and the rematch from Wellington between Kennedy, who picked up her first big XTERRA win there, and Kingsford, who won three XTERRA majors during the 2019 season.
“Feeling good, I’ve had a big block of training since my last race and been on the bike a lot,” said Kennedy, an Aussie from Wollongong who has been living and training in New Zealand since November.
“I’ve never raced in Rotorua before, so the goal is to just to be strong from the start. My triathlon experience is minimal, I started racing in local races around Australia in 2019 and entered my first pro XTERRA in 2020 then COVID hit.”
Orchard, on the other hand, has more than a decade of XTERRA experience and won XTERRA Rotorua the last time she lined-up for it in 2016.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced here so am really happy it’s possible this year,” said Orchard, who finished 5th at XTERRA Worlds in 2019. “I’m in pretty early season form, having had a race break last year then training and working here at home in Auckland since.”
For Kingsford (pictured above), who was third in Rotorua in 2019, the dream is to take the tape.
“That would be awesome, but with the strong field here it will not be an easy task,” she said. “In addition to my fellow off-road athletes Lizzie and Maeve, we have some of the high performance TriNZ girls having a crack at XTERRA. This will make the swim really fast, so no doubt I will be chasing those girls on the bike from the get-go. But this years bike course has a bit more single track in it towards the middle and end so hopefully that’s where us off-roaders can dominate and make up time we may lose in the swim.”
Of note, Jacqui Allen, winner of the last three women’s elite races, will not be on the start line due to travel restrictions.
“Definitely gutted to miss out this year, the travel bubble opens on April 19th, so we’re just doing what we can in Australia for now,” said Allen, who added that she has been loving life with Benny Allen and their little dog in their new home.
XTERRA ROTORUA ALL-TIME ELITE WINNERS
Year – Men/Women
2003 – Sam Mallard/Evelyn Willamson
2004 – Hamish Carter/Sonia Foote
2005 – Hamish Carter/Sonia Foote
2006 – Hamish Carter/Gina Ferguson
2007 – Tim Wilding/Gina Ferguson
2008 – Terenzo Bozzone/Sonia Foote
2009 – Richard Ussher/Nicola Leary
2010 – Scott Thorne/Nicola Leary
2011 – Richard Ussher/Karen Hanlen
2012 – Ben Allen/Jacqui Slack
2013 – Ben Allen/Renata Bucher
2014 – Conrad Stoltz/Barbara Riveros
2015 – Braden Currie/Suzie Snyder
2016 – Braden Currie/Lizzie Orchard
2017 – Sam Osborne/Jacqui Allen
2018 – Sam Osborne/Jacqui Allen
2019 – Sam Osborne/Jacqui Allen