The 2009 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships open Tuesday at Mount Stromlo, on the outskirts of Australia's capital of Canberra. All the circuits will offer a considerably different experience that riders are used to on the World Cup circuit - wide open with no wooded sections and limited natural obstacles.
Racing begins with the team relay, with four riders from each nation doing a lap of the 6.49-kilometre cross country circuit. Each team fields an elite man, elite woman, Under 23 man and junior man. The order in which they ride is up to the teams, and open to considerable debate as to whether it is better to start with your strongest riders (Elite/U23 men) or finish with them.
Canada is always one of the favourites for this event, and also Sweden, the European champions. others to watch will include France, Switzerland and Italy. Spain is missing from the list - the national coach elected to bring no Junior or Under 23 riders to the Worlds after poor showings at the European championships.
Canberra's cross country course a challenge
The cross country course is garnering considerable praise as demanding, technical and yet enjoyable to ride. The most difficult (and interesting) sections are all in the first half of the circuit.
The course immediately enters winding singletrack from the start-finish line, so for the first lap riders will use a parallel fire road for the first 600 metres before joining the regular course. This is a false flat climb for the first kilometre of the circuit, before narrowing to singletrack and then steepening considerably.
After a long section of steep single track traversing Mount Stromlo, riders hit the first dropoff which looks considerably more difficult than it actually is, according to US rider Sam Schutlz.
"We were looking at some of those dropoffs, and thinking that they were pretty much unrideable. But then this junior woman came by and rode straight through it... so we gave it a try, and once you get into them, they aren't too bad."
After the first dropoff, the riders continue to traverse to the highest point of the course - Hammerhead. There are a number tight, twisting sections, rock gardens and dropoffs all through this part of the course.
"It is okay to ride," said defending men's champion Christoph Sauser, "but difficult to ride quickly. It will be easy for a breakaway to get away here, because one little mistake will open up a gap that is hard to close, because there are not many possibilities to pass."
After Hammerhead, the riders make a long, swooping descent through bermed turns into the first Tech Zone and then head out for the second half of the course. This opens with a long and steady fireroad climb before entering singletrack again. This whole section, including the final descent into the finish will be very fast, and even the wide sections will offer little possibility to pass because everyone will be travelling at maximum speed. After the team relay, the individual events will begin on Wednesday with the junior and under 23 women, followed by junior men, Under 23 men and finally the elite men and women on Saturday.
In the elite categories, the big missing names are Ralph Näf (Switzerland) and Wolfram Kurschat (Germany) for the men, Elisabeth Osl (Austria) and the Chinese riders Ren Chengyuan and Ling Liu and JingJing Wang for the women. Näf is injured, Kurschat and Osl pulled out for the stated reason of focussing on the final two rounds of the World Cup, and no one knows why the Chinese are not here, although there is a possibility it is related to the current political firestorm brewing between Australia and China.
On the men's side, Absalon is the favourite, after his dominating performance in the World Cup all year. Other podium favourites including Sauser and his teammate Nino Schurter, Jose Hermida (Spain), Bromont World Cup winner Geoff Kabush (Canada), recent Marathon World Champion Roel Paulissen and the Italian Marco Fontana.
For the women, the short, fast nature suits defending champion Marga Fullana (Spain); however, she will face very strong competition from Canada's Catharine Pendrel and Marie-Helene Premont, Irinia Kalentieva (Russia), Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (Germany) who is recovered from a bacterial infection to her liver, Norway's Lene Byberg and the American trio of Willow Koerber, Heather Irmiger and Katie Compton.
Gravity course won't grab the favourites
Unlike the cross country course, the gravity courses are not receiving much praise from riders. The organisation does not have much in the way of natural features to work with, so the 1.7km downhill opens with a couple of not too technical rock gardens, then a long pedalling section leading into the Triple Treat middle portion of jumps and bermed turns, before finishing with another pedalling section and a couple of final jumps.
Defending women's champion Rachel Atherton (Great Britain) is the only "name" missing so far from the downhill start lists - Atherton's season ended before it started after a collision with a car in the spring, and she is still recovering from surgery.
The women's side has one favourite - Sabrina Jonnier (France), who has only one World Cup loss this season. Tracy Moseley and Fionn Griffiths (Great Britain) both have strong podium shots, as does the rest of the French team - Celine Gros, Floriane Pugin and Emmeline Ragot.
For the men, it is pretty much wide open, with home favourite Sam Hill under a lot of pressure to deliver a title. There are a lot of other Aussie riders who could easily take his place, including Mick Hannah, Chris Kovarik and Jared Graves. Other top contenders include defending champion Gee Atherton and Steve Peat (Great Britain), Greg Minnaar (South Africa), Fabien Barel (France), Sam Blenkinsop (New Zealand) and the young American hopeful Aaron Gwin.
The four cross course is also not attracting rave reviews, with Dutch World Cup winner Joost Wichman saying, "It's a little too BMX and flat for me, but there are some good turns."
Two riders so far are out before the Worlds start - Romana Labounkova (Czech Republic) and Roger Rinderknecht (Netherlands) - both injured in crashes.
The women's final is likely to come down to Anneke Beerten (Netherlands) and Jill Kintner (USA), as it has all season. However, those two have taken themselves out of contention on more than one occasion, so we could see another upset, like defending champion Melissa Buhl (USA), or Fionn Griffiths (Great Britain), or local favourite Caroline Buchanan.
Australia's Jared Graves is the clear favourite on the men's side, having already locked up the overall World Cup title. Wichman has also won this year, and others who are hungry for a win include defending champion Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Spain), Romain Saladini (France), Dan Atherton (Great Britain) and Michal Prokop (Czech Republic). The young American revelation Mitch Ropelato is a dark horse for the podium.