Iconic mountain events put Raglan on the map

Movers and Shapers: A series on ways Raglan reinvented itself from the sleepy seaside town of the seventies

Mt Karioi might be 2.4 million years old but it took two new arrivals to town this millennium to really put  Raglan’s “sleeping lady” on the map.

First a Belgian, then a few years later a French Basque came up with the two iconic events now based around our local maunga.

Fittingly enough Dirk de Ruysscher’s idea for an annual cycle race came while he was out biking Karioi’s gravel roads for exercise, and Frenchman Francois Mazet’s moment of inspiration came while he was running the mountain tracks.

First up each year is the Karioi Classic, which kicks off again in just three weeks when cyclists from all over the country converge on town to take on the gruelling stretches of gravel road encircling the extinct volcano.      

Months later, at the end of the year, Raglan Karioi Trail will attract yet another 400-odd  competitors – runners this time, many keen to test themselves in a gut-busting traverse of the mountain twice-over that has a total elevation gain of 1850m.

Neither event is for the faint-hearted. But both bring athletes and their families out in force, thanks in large part to the instigators who’ve adapted and altered courses along the way to ensure wide appeal.  

Dirk de Ruysscher, who emigrated from Belgium to Raglan 15 years ago with his wife and two young sons, says the main goal in developing the Karioi Classic was simply to put Raglan on the map and to attract people to town in wintertime when local businesses did a starve.

Back then Dirk was already riding round the mountain himself and coincidentally checking bikes for Raglan’s Sea to Sand summer  triathlon/duathlon series.

That series was being co-run by Lisa Thomson, who is now our district councillor. So the pair put their heads together – and 12 years ago organised the first Karioi Classic. 

“We only had 80 registrations before race day,” Dirk recalls of that inaugural event back in 2009. It was a foggy morning and conditions weren’t looking good at all “but then the sun came out and it was beautiful”.

Even more surprisingly, competitors numbers swelled on race day to 200 as a steady stream of vehicles loaded up with bikes flowed into town in time for the start.

An old yellow house bus being used as a base was completely overcrowded, Dirk recalls, and registration forms ran out. Needless to say the bus was ditched the following year – and the event’s been “slowly growing” ever since, to a point where it now attracts double the number of competitors.

While the Karioi Classic started out as a once-around-the-mountain event, there have been all sorts of variations over the years to broaden its appeal. That’s included a two-lapper dubbed the “double buster”, a tandem teams category, a single-speed bike category and even a marathon.

Most recently “the ultimate winter cycling event” – as it’s billed – has also tagged on an extra 25km leg to Aotea, an option which has proven popular with the “serious” riders, Dirk says.  

It’s that race, the Enduro 86km, and the traditional Classic 50km which are on offer this year.  

But it’s also pedal to the metal around Karioi for the final time. Dirk says there are various reasons why it’s time to call it quits on the Karioi Classic: health and safety rules are getting stricter, traffic management more expensive, our roads are busier and the task of rounding up volunteers to help run the race each year is a little harder.

And ironically there’s no need to promote Raglan any more, he adds. 

Accommodation providers are booked out every weekend now, for instance, the quiet backwater Dirk encountered a decade-and-a-half ago now only a memory. 

This year may mark the end of the road for the Karioi Classic but the Raglan Karioi Trail is now in its ninth year and going from strength to strength.

The trail’s the brainchild of Francois Mazet, who’s come to town from a quite different part of Europe, the French Basque Country.

A keen skier and snowboarder who usually ventures back to Les Troi Vallees (The Three Valleys) over our summer, Francois decided while traversing Mt Karioi regularly himself to capitalise on his previous event planning skills and share his passion for mountain running.

With only 60 to 70 competitors in the first few years, the tough trail run gradually grew in popularity and last year attracted 300 entries, primarily from the Waikato and Auckland but also from around the country including the South Island.

Francois wants to cap the numbers at 400 to keep it a small community event. Already known for its feel-good atmosphere, the trail starts and ends around the other side of Karioi: on ‘Swanny’s’ farm at  the foothills of Karioi, where it’s all wrapped up with a barbeque. 

While the trail started out as just the 24km course – a route traversing the mountain twice – a 2km kids’ race on the farm was added the second year and a 10km run or walk the third year to capture more interest.

That 2km race has now morphed into a 5km family run, says Francois, but lots of local kids who started small back then are now running both the five and 10-kilometre courses.

“The idea is to make it fun for the kids … encourage all to participate and just enjoy Karioi,” he insists.

While describing the main 24km trail as  “beautiful” scenically, Francois concedes it’s also technically more difficult than other events on New Zealand’s mountain running calendar because of its elevation – “and there are rocks everywhere”.

But athletes like a challenge and, as long as he can keep ahead of the ever-increasing demands such as those made by annual health and safety audits, he’s happy to forge ahead. 

Edith Symes