The Giant Top Gun Enduro is everything you want your local club race to be. Based in sunny Nelson, the race tackles three of the steepest, rootiest, roughest and most fun trail-bike trails in New Zealand. The racing is tightly contested but the event still manages a laid-back, fun vibe. The calibre of entrants isn’t too bad either – this year locals were up against international riders such as Sam Blenkinsop, Wyn Masters, Rupert Chapman, Anka Martin and Raewyn Morrison.

Nelson’s not just craft beer and unseasonal amounts of sunshine, although it is ahead of the curve in both of those areas. The trails are ace as well – in a technical and challenging way. For the Top Gun Enduro, the tracks used are Peaking Ridge, 629 and Maitai Face. Any of these would be the ‘hard’ stage in a typical enduro.

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The day started bright and early with 70-odd enthusiastic riders mixing at the local golf course. After briefing, the majority loaded their bikes onto trailers and jumped into the shuttle vans for a casual 800m vertical. Those of us less sensible and more sadistic headed off to pedal to the top of stage one, up a more direct but steeper piece of forestry road. Although there was some walking involved, the banter was superb and the temperature hadn’t risen to unbearable yet.

There wasn’t much of a time difference between riding up and flagging a lift by the time the shuttlers had come across a pinchy, technical traverse. Peaking Ridge starts from a beautiful clearing on top of a ridgeline, surrounded by pristine NZ native forest. Although you can get there in an hour thirty from town, it feels like you are miles out in the middle of nowhere. Normally this feeling of remoteness makes it a tranquil place, but for race day nerves were tight as locals knew this would be the day’stoughest stage physically.

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Peaking didn’t disappoint. The track is a latticework of wrist-sized tree roots running down a perfectly graded ridge. It’s remarkable. On a good run, it’s possible to find heaps of flow, hold speed and gap the worst of the chunder. Trying to race it was a different story. After navigating the ‘gatekeepers’ (a couple of rough steep chutes and a small ladder bridge drop) I tried to open the taps. Race pace proved to be a different prospect to a casual ride with the boys; instead of floating through the rough stuff I hit every hole on the track at full speed. It was an absolute battering. By a third of the way in I was heaving breath and struggling to see straight. My poor bike was making some absolutely horrendous noises. All I could do was hold on and try to ride it out.

At the bottom it felt like someone had put my knuckles in a nutcracker and I was hoping I’d be able to hold on through the next stages. Still, we had a big climb to use as ‘recovery’ – the same gruelling road as at the start of the day, but this time in the baking sun.

Stage two was a real cracker which showcases everything that’s good about riding a bike in Nelson. The incredibly varied track is called 629, which is the height in vertical metres of the trailhead. I dropped into some of the nicest native forest in Nelson, sliding through the beech leaf ‘cornflakes’ and holding the flow. This section had me whooping and hollering as I flicked my back wheel around.

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The track crossed a fire road before dropping into a loose out of control chute with a bermed left-hander full of shingle to drift through at the bottom. It had me showing the whites of my eyes. Soon after I was blinded by sunlight as I emerged into a face of recently planted harvest pines. This part was exactly what a pump track wants to be when it grows up. The series of gently descending traverses were jam-packed with pumpable mounds and jumpable sets of rollers, and some blind crests thrown in for a laugh. Finally I dropped back into the native for a steep set of ‘are you kidding me?’ dropping corners and some wild, root infested chutes. A little flat pedal polished off the six to seven minute stage.

A gentle spin down the valley brought us all back to the golf course and a welcome break for lunch.
There was a great atmosphere as racers hung out, swapped times and spun yarns of loose lines and big binners from the morning. After replenishing the food and fluids, we headed up the last climb of the day. It was all comfortably rideable, making for a nice change from the mornings transitions. Even though the sun was still scorching, everyone was in a great mood going up and then happy to chill out in the shade at the top for while to come back down to operating temp.

The final stage was the shortest and the steepest. It felt radically different to the first two as it was all in a Douglas fir plantation. There was also barely a rock or tree root on the track. We didn’t get off easy though, as this track was steep.

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It started innocently enough with a short traverse that tricked racers into relaxing. Like flicking a switch, the track changed suddenly into a set of steep challenging turns. I knew what I was in for so the first steep left wasn’t a shock, but I’m told that more than one rider came in too hot and couldn’t hold it together. From here the whole track was smooth steep turns and short off-camber traverses through the pine leaves. A short new section of off-camber was specially ‘prepared’ for the race (cleared and taped in) and the deep loam deteriorated over the day, providing some exciting moments and spectacular washouts.

The last few turns of the track were easily accessible to the public and a rare rock feature provided Nelson’s own version of Heckler’s Rock – a small rock roll with optional huck line that offered great viewing. A fair crowd gathered to cheer on racers, and some loosely enforced reverse seeding meant that many other participants were up there when the fast boys came through. It gave the race a big event vibe and encouraged riders to take some zesty lines.

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When the times were checked it was Wyn Master’s who went fastest overall. Local shredder Loui Harvey surprised a few by slotting into second, with Kurt Lancaster winning the Masters category and taking third overall. Sam Blinkinsop and Rupert Chapman were next quickest on the day. The women’s was dominated by Raewyn Morrison, with Anka Martin an Amanda Pearce filling up the top three steps.

The Top Gun Enduro was the last race in a series of three over three days – the others were a DH and an XC. If racers entered two or more, their best two results were put together and an overall winner for the event was found. The winner for each gender each took home a cool $1000 NZD as a cash prize. This year it was Blenkinsop and Morrison who took the overall titles.

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The event finished on a real high note. Giant were the title sponsors and in that role they donated a bike to be given away. This ended up going to Mark Newton, a passionate advocate for mountain biking in the region. Mark’s donate loads of hours to trail building and race organisation, and even put on the Top Gun Dh event a couple of days earlier. Seeing the prize go to a deserving winner helped everyone to go home feeling good about the sport and the community.

The Top Gun Enduro is a small event right now, but it has loads of potential and a big heart. It combines great atmosphere with amazing tracks and fierce racing. There’s really nothing more you can ask for out of a race.

For more information visit the Nelson MTB-Website.

Words: Michael Hayward Photos: Digby Shaw

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