New Caledonia April 28, 2002

What an experience! Where does one start to try to capture in words, the Oceania Champs 2002? First up we were extremely fortunate that New Caledonia held the event at all as due to lack of entries the road and track events were cancelled. It was only the enthusiastic Aussies and kiwis keen for UCI points that kept the Cross Country and Downhill events alive.

Once in Noumea our preparation was challenged through language barriers and a severe lack of information - a point-to-point race of 42 km and no pre riding the course. The night prior to the race the local French organizer tried his best to describe the course: 2 feed zones at 9km and 30 km, 2 major “montains” of 1km and 2km long, the rest undulating along 4WD roads. Oh yeah, one 4km section of technical. Mmmmmn. It was to be an interesting race.

Sunday. Race day. A 5:30am start with a 3-hour drive towards Canala. We convoyed the 150km north east of Noumea through luscious green hilly but desolate countryside with the Aussies. The race began in Emma and finished in Canala. Canala was a village in the middle of nowhere.

Numbers were issued. Feed zones changed again – only one feed at 30km. Bike marking consisted of black vivid marks on the rims and tyres. Then staging. The organizer tried to call up riders according to their number plates, meaning all the New Caledonian’s would’ve been on the front of the grid. This was soon rectified.
The pro men started racing around 10:30am, followed 5 minutes later by the women. The temperature must’ve already been around 27 degrees and heating up. It was extremely humid. We were told to follow the VTT signs and the red and white striped tape. There were only 2 VTT signs! Straight away we were on a 4WD gravel downhill. Most of the course was flat and open. 46-12 wasn’t enough. The 5 Aussie guys had a real advantage by working together – even stopping when one needed to pee! There were 2 sections of road and only one hill before the 30km feed zone. A couple of river crossings were rather refreshing, though one was thigh deep and another extremely slippery.

The course wound through villages habituated by Kanak’s, who have had troubled times with the French since the 80’s and haven’t recently had any tourists visiting the area. Thus we were greeted with clapping, cheering, “allez allez,” rose petals, confetti, lemons, and yes, even rocks. At least this was one way to make certain I was going in the right direction. The kiwi guys weren’t so lucky. All, at differing times, got lost. Some going a few kilometres out of the way and reaching a dead end.
Near the last hill of the day, one of the officials repeated “tres difficile.” It was the most challenging part of the course, but I had imagined worse. The humidity and heat were major factors in the race and hydration was critical. With about 10km to go, I passed Australian Dellys Franke who was suffering in the heat. At 42km, the supposed finish, a local kanak yelled out “only 5km to go.” Luckily that 5km was all downhill. I was pretty thrilled to see the “Arrivee” banner and sprinted down the final straight to finish 2nd behind Australian Claire Baxter by 1 min 38 sec.

The best part of the day was still to come. The local village folk prepared a feast of local delights including sea snails, prawns, piranha type fish, purple potato and an array of fresh fruits – coconut, papaya and sugar cane are just a few. I tried my 4th form French on the local kids – not much luck there, but they were thrilled to receive some Maxxis stickers from Justin and to see themselves on digital and video cameras. The huge prize giving ceremony was presented in French and locally crafted wooden trophies and hats were given to the podium riders. A French version of the New Zealand National Anthem was played for Scott Lyttle, winner of the Junior Men’s title. Finally the village folk presented all their visitors with food to take with them. What awesome hospitality! Oceania XC Champs in New Caledonia was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Thanks to all those that made it possible and the help in Noumea from team manager Dereck McCarthy, coach John Lee and team mechanic Brian Gilbert.

Pro elite women
1. Claire Baxter (AUS) 2.19.24
2. Robyn Wong (NZL) 2.21.02
3. Nicole Swain (NZL) 2.34.21
4. Michelle Duffy (NZL) 2.55.03

Pro elite men
1. Josh Fleming (AUS) 1.49.22
2. Mark Leigh (AUS) 1.49.50
3. Craig Gordon (AUS) 1.49.50
4. Sid Tabberlay (AUS) 1.51.44
5. Brent Miller (AUS) 1.52.30
6. Julius Gejader (NC) 2.03.45
7. Aaron Tuckerman (NZL) 2.07.15
8. Jason McCarty (NZL) 2.07.19
9. Stuart Houtham (NZL) 2.10.06
12. Aaron Kells (NZL) 2.10.06

Junior men
1. Scott Lyttle (NZL) 2.03.22
2. Marcus Roy (NZL) 2.07.33
3. Mathew Dewes (NZL) 2.11.49
4. Justin Leov (NZL) 2.12.46