Held in searing heat in the hills above the city of Dunedin, New Zealand, the opening day of the Emerson's 3 Peaks Enduro saw the world's top athletes rise to the top with Keegan Wright, of Rotorua, building a 13-second buffer in the men's and Katy Winton, of Peebles, Scotland, extending her lead to 35 seconds in the women's.
Wright was dominant in the men's winning the first three stages and finishing within two seconds of stage winner Joseph Nation, of Christchurch, in the fourth – his consistency paying dividends in the form of a 13-second lead over Nation. But hot on their heels are Jubal Davis, of Colorado, USA, who sits just 22 seconds adrift and local Dunedin rider Jake Paddon who needs to recover a 28-second deficit.
“I was surprised by how it panned out today,” 21-year-old Wright admits. “This is my first time racing this event on these trails. I just went out and tried to set a good pace.”
Wright raced the Enduro World Series, UCI World Cup Downhill and Crankworx events in 2017 – a packed schedule by anyone’s reckoning. In 2018 he will do the same as one of the lead riders for the Devinci Global Racing Team. He knows that in enduro racing the cat is never in the bag.
“There are still another three stages to go and anything could happen – it doesn’t take much in this game to close the gap – a flat tyre, broken chain – anything could happen yet and that’s why we love this sport so much.”
Davis, who crashed heavily into a tree during a training run in the lead-up to the event, was cautious in the opening stages.
“I had a good day," he smiles with a visible cut to the bridge of his nose. "I made a couple of rookie mistakes and maybe held back a little too much, but overall I kept it off the ground."
"I had that big crash coming into the race – luckily my head broke the fall,” Davis laughs. “I just wanted to have fun and be consistent today.”
Davis said he enjoyed the trails, which had everything from tight terrain to wide-open fast stuff.
“The hiking tracks can go from wide open to a 180° corner in an instant. That keeps you on your toes and you have to learn how to read the trail.”
“I’m happy where I ended up today and feel the more downhill-oriented tracks of Signal Hill will suit me well and being actual bike tracks we’ll be able to open it up a bit more," Davis explains. "I’m not sure if we’ll be able to catch Keegan – he has a pretty good gap on us now. But anything can happen.”
Local rider Ethan Glover, who sits in fifth place after Day 1, said the Mt Cargill stage was extra challenging this year.
"It had some fresh gravel on it in places and was very dry and loose," Glover offers. "I’m not really used to riding in these dry conditions – it’s usually a little bit damp at least. So lots of drifting today.”
In the women's event it was a clash of Enduro World Series (EWS) riders with Kiwi Rae Morrison, of Nelson, banging bars with world number 3 Katy Winton, of Peebles, Scotland.
“It was wild today," smiles the 24-year-old Scot. "Quite niggily and awkward – you have to be patient with the flow, but it was really cool natural riding and good vibes with lots of totally chilled people and a stunning day.”
Despite notching up a 35-second lead over Morrison, Winton never felt like she tapped into the flow of the Day 1 trails.
“The Mt Cargill track was nuts. That’s one of the most nuts things I have ever done," she exclaims. "The turns are flat and you’re just going totally blind with no idea what’s around the next corner. There are holes in the trees and bush where people have just gone in and not made it around the corner. It’s like you just have to roll the dice and see what happens."
“There were moments when I was skidding and my back wheel was coming around in front of my front wheel and you’re just doing everything you can to avoid carnage and to stay on the trail. It was wicked,” Winton smiles.
She admitted she was surprised to be leading.
"I just didn’t feel like I was putting down decent times, so I’m happy to be ahead. The trails tomorrow will suit me better because they are biking trails so I’m looking forward to smashing those runs as best I can and just laying it down.”
She was quick to acknowledge her nearest rival.
“Rae is a brilliant, brilliant rider – it has been a shame with her injuries recently, but she is a great strong rider and it is great to race with her here.”
For Morrison, it has been a tough year. She is a Liv rider on the Giant Factory Off-Road Team racing the EWS each year. In 2017 she raced while recovering from an ankle injury that meant she couldn’t unclip from her pedal for three-quarters of the season. She still managed to finish 10th overall in the EWS. This summer will be her first full-time off-season training as she prepares for the 2018 EWS. Morrison moved from Wellington to Nelson to take advantage of the longer trails – being able to access 20-minute runs is an important part of her training schedule. Just as the Emerson's 3 Peaks Enduro was a good test of her ankle injury recovery.
“Today was super fun – so many great people, good food and a great atmosphere,” offers Rae. “Having dry tracks made it a lot faster and wilder. Stoke levels are pretty high.”
“I had a few detours off the tracks today," admits the 28-year-old. "I hadn’t ridden all of them and rode a couple blind and made a few bad calls that saw me going bush here and there.”
She said her ankle was feeling really good after the day's riding.
“I’ve come a long way with it this year, so today is good progress.”
She said it was great to be able to race against one of her good friends from the EWS circuit.
“Katy and I race together in the EWS races and I stayed at her house this year, so it’s really cool to be able to hang out with her in New Zealand and race these events.”
But friendship aside, Morrison said she was here to win.
“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow. I like the Signal Hill tracks and I’ll push myself more and ride on the edge a bit more and see what happens.”
Another standout in the women's racing came from the Junior field with local Dunedin rider Shannon Hope posting the third fastest overall women's time of the day. Ben Friel, of Christchurch leads the Junior men winning three of the four stages and posting a time that puts him into the top 10 men overall.
Now in it's sixth edition, the weather couldn't have been more perfect with temperatures topping 29°C combined with very little wind, which prompted competitor Melissa "Mops" Newell, with her trademark smile, to ask organisers if she'd be penalised for climbing Mt Cargill topless.
The forecast for the three deciding stages on Signal Hill tomorrow looks identical.
Organised by local bike shop Bike Otago in conjunction with Mountain Biking Otago, the 2017 Emerson's 3 Peaks Enduro features stages on each of the three tallest peaks surrounding Dunedin's CBD: Flagstaff (668m), Mt Cargill (676m) and Signal Hill (393m) over two days of racing