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FEBRUARY 4, 2015: It may have been quite some time since Kiwi international Paul Whibley last tackled a national enduro, but he showed at the weekend that he still has the skills to match it with New Zealand's elite enduro riders.


The Yamaha rider twice won the Grand National Cross-country Championships (GNCC) during a nine-year stint of racing in the United States and also rode the World Enduro Championships in Europe for three years before that, but still he was not keen to accept any 'favourite' tag when he showed up to race the opening round of the New Zealand Enduro Championships at Riverhead Forest, west of Auckland, on Sunday.


The 36-year-old former Manawatu forestry worker, affectionately dubbed "The Axeman" on the motorcycling scene, returned home from the US at the end of last season, withdrawing from international competition and switching his focus to the slightly-less frenetic domestic scene in New Zealand.


But Whibley enjoyed having the opportunity to blow off the cobwebs after a quiet time with family over Christmas.


He will now take his Yamaha YZ450F to concentrate on trying to win the New Zealand Cross-country Championships this season, that four-round series set top kick off next weekend in Central Hawke's Bay, and his Riverhead Forest adventure on Sunday was merely part of his build-up for that.


But, as with any top-class athlete, when the flag drops all thoughts turn to twisting the throttle to the stop and beating the other competitors.


In the end, he finished the day overall runner-up, just one minute behind fellow Kiwi international and defending national enduro champion Chris Birch, who lives just down the road from the Riverhead Forest in Glen Eden.


"It had been a long time since I raced a national enduro in New Zealand and even longer since I had raced in Riverhead," said Whibley.


"While I didn't recognise any of the trails, but there seemed to be more tree roots per square mile than I remembered," he laughed.


"It was quite unsettling because I'd never know what angle the bike would bn tipped next. But the bike worked well and I didn't crash anywhere.


"The drizzly morning rain had dampened down the expected dust nicely, but, in return, the hard-pack clay was pretty slick.


"I completed the first section with enough time to grab a quick splash of gas and then into the first special test. The next section seemed to hold a lot of slower trails and when we came into check two there was a real scramble to get gas and into the check point without losing time. A lot were caught out by how tight it was on time and lost minutes.


"The trail pace was fast enough to prohibit slacking and keep you pushing. I kind of liked it because it kept my focus, but I'm not sure many of the intermediate riders appreciated the pace they had to ride.


"The last loop of the day was abandoned with a horse on the loose in the forest and posing a danger to riders.


"My times felt okay but I suspect I need to work on my special test speed. I felt I rode pretty safely and could do with hanging it out a little. I think I my test pace was basically my three-hour cross-country speed. It was the pace I can ride at for three hours, but I probably needed to push it more in the enduro special tests.


"Overall I had a lot of fun. The bike worked great and with some more test-specific training, I will be right in the hunt (to win a Kiwi enduro)."


Whibley is supported by Yamaha Motor New Zealand, Freedom Moto Yamaha, Monster Energy, Shoei, Sidi, Smith, MSR G2, Asterisk, Moto SR, Vortex Ignitions, EC3D, Bush Riders MCC, Spectro, Acerbis, DID, JT sprockets, Leatt, Kenda, Yamaha NZ,, Unibiker and Tire balls.


Words and photo by Andy McGechan,