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All downhill: Capella speeds toward success

For 13-year-old Capella Martin, the path to success is a literal downhill slope.

The Martinborough-based downhill mountain biker is fast emerging as one of the region’s formidable young sporting talents: Clocking up impressive times and clearing 10ft high jumps on the national circuit.

Earlier this month, Capella took home the first-place trophy for the Under 15 Girls section at the North Island National Downhill Series in Auckland – with the best score across three races in “a very competitive category”.

Though this is her first national series, the Martinborough School graduate is no stranger to competition: Each season attending “at least 12 to 14” races throughout the country, including the iconic Crankworx mountain biking festival in Rotorua – where she’s left her overseas counterparts in the dust.

Downhill mountain biking is generally practised on steep, rough terrain, with courses comprised of “very steep” inclines, some flatter surfaces, and a series of jumps and drops – some of which can be at least 10 ft-12 ft.

Riders generally travel at high speed, with most tracks being cleared in two to five minutes, with winning margins often less than one second.

The sport also has a high rate of injury – in fact, Capella was unable to complete her first North Island series last year, having injured her ankle mid-race.

Despite having made “a few hospital visits” over the years, and entering each competition at a disadvantage due to a limited training ground in her home region, Capella has kept a cool head – and is gaining a reputation as one of the riders to beat, with times up there with her professional counterparts.

However, she admitted she was unsure about the odds of a win in Auckland.

“I went into it thinking I’d do decently at least,” Capella, who starts at Kuranui College next term, said.

“Everyone in my category had really improved. Lots of the girls are really strong, so it’s pretty competitive. And it’s a tough race – if you slip up once, you’re out.

“But I was happy with how I did. It’s a really big achievement.”

Capella was first inspired to try mountain biking at the tender age of six, joining dad Edward Martin on a ride through Pan Pac Mountain Bike Park in Hawke’s Bay. “I instantly loved bike riding,” she said.

“And, as it turns out, I was pretty good at it.”

Shortly afterwards, Capella honed her skills as a member of the World Off-Road Riding Department’s [WORD] Wellington chapter: A non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering a love of mountain biking in young Kiwis.

WORD, now rolled out in various New Zealand locations, runs after-school programmes for children and young people, and has recently received funding to encourage more girls to pursue mountain biking.

Capella took part in her first competitive event, a “fun race” organised by women’s biking organisation Revolve, at age eight – and quickly caught the bug.

So far, she has competed at Wellington Enduro Series, the North Island and Secondary Schools MTB Championships, and will ride in the South Island Downhill Series in January.

One of her proudest moments came at Crankworx, when the then 11-year-old outperformed several international riders – despite having less experience and a much less sturdy bike.

“She was this young kid from Martinborough with knock-off Vans and a second-hand bike,” Edward said.

“She went up against all these kids from the US and Canada, and won.”

News of her performance travelled to Stuart Edwards, owner of Green Jersey Cycle Tours in Martinborough, who offered Capella sponsorship – and to provide a new pair of wheels.

“Dad and I went into Green Jersey, and we were looking at this really amazing mountain bike. I thought it was for someone else – but Dad says, ‘nope, that’s for you’. I started crying – it was such a happy moment.”

Now she’s competing regularly, Capella also receives sponsorships from Scott Bikes, Funn Components, Granite Designs and biking apparel company Leatt – which cover the costs of bike parts, protective gear, and some competition fees.

Her biggest challenge would be the lack of mountain biking trails in Wairarapa, meaning she has to either travel to Wellington to train or arrive at competition sites several days ahead to familiarise herself with the terrain.

“It helps when you know the track. If you run into something unfamiliar, you’re more likely to muck up, and it’s going to slow your time down,” she said.

“Some of the tracks are so steep you can barely walk on them. One that I did recently had a slope that we had to slide down.”

Once she hits the track on her bike, it’s pure adrenaline.

“It’s really, really fun. It is kind of scary getting on your bike just before the race – but once I’m going fast, I always feel more comfortable.

“The hardest bits are when you’re pedalling really hard on the flats. Your legs are burning, and all you want to do is sit down.

“But, once I get to the end, I forget all about it – I’m just thinking, ‘that was awesome!’”

Though they are “incredibly proud” of Capella’s success, parents Edward and Auriga admit her choice of sport is a little hair-raising.

“As a parent, it’s terrifying!” Edward said.

“The scariest thing is waiting down the bottom of the track. You know when they’re taking off, and when they’re just about at the end – but you’ve got no idea what’s going on in between.

“Luckily, Pella is pretty sensible. She won’t give something a go unless she’s sure she can do it.”

In the future, Capella hopes to qualify for the Junior Mountain Bike World Championships and, eventually, compete professionally overseas.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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