Most of the big names in North American mountain biking will converge on Lance Armstrong's ranch outside of Austin, Texas, this weekend. This will be the third stop of USA Cycling's Pro XCT series.
Nobody, including the organizers, know for sure if Lance Armstrong himself will make an appearance at the race, but regardless, pro racers will compete in cross country racing on Saturday, on what is supposed to be a challenging course completed with rolling Texas hills. Amateurs will also race on Sunday.
Heading into this weekend, the series is lead by Todd Wells (Specialized) and his teammate Lene Byberg. While Wells is expected to compete this weekend, the European based Byberg is not. In addition to the travel being excessive, she has been suffering for weeks with a virus that prevented her from competing at the Offenburg World Cup. Nonetheless, the women's race is expected to be a Texas throw-down.
Luna's Georgia Gould is in a virtual tie with Byberg. She has regained if not also surpassed her 2008 "Olympic year" form and is looking more dominating than ever. This season she has won the Sea Otter Classic, swept all three races at the Chalk Creek Stampede in Colorado and finished second in Offenburg World Cup this past weekend.
As usual, the inter-squad competition amongst the Luna women is going to be fierce. Canada's Catherine Pendrel won her first World Cup of the season in Offenburg last Sunday. Pendrel was ranked the number one rider in the world during most of the 2009 season and will be one of the favorites at the World Championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, in August.
Katerina Nash, also of the Luna Team, finished near the top of the World Cup podium at Dalby Forest, England. She is almost a sure bet to be on the Mellow Johnny's podium, but will have a big challenge on her hands to stay with her teammates.
US National Champion Heather Irmiger (Subaru/Gary Fisher) has been struggling with illness since the World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium, but is rumored to be back in good health. Her teammate Willow Koerber has been one of the hottest riders in the world this year, taking two second place finishes in World Cup competition. Koerber is riding with a new level of confidence and aggressiveness.
Several racers who are off to a good start this season will be providing Todd Wells with stiff competition. US National Champion Jeremy-Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru/Gary Fisher) swept the Chalk Creek Stampede, and followed that up with a solid race in Offenburg. Max Plaxton (Sho-Air/Specialized) will be coming off a win at last weekend's UCI Canada Cup race in Beau St. Paul, Canada.
Fellow Canadian, Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), trails Wells by only five points in the US Pro XCT standings. Kabush also appears to be coming into form, having finished 12th in Offenburg, making him the top North American finisher. Whether on top form or not, Kabush always seems to find a way to win his share of Pro XCT races.
Sid Taberlay (Sho-Air/Specialized), who suffered mightily at the Chalk Creek Stampede's 7,500-ft. altitude, should find Austin much kinder on his lungs. Almost unbeatable in early season races due to fitness earned racing in Australia, he will now have his hands full as most Northern hemisphere racers are now firing on all cylinders.
Adam Craig (Rabobank Giant) will make his return to racing following reconstructive surgery on his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) after he ruptured it this winter.
Unlike the rest of the Pro XCT events this year, there will be no short track racing at the Mellow Johnny's round. Several top racers have told Cyclingnews that they are disappointed since a short track, combined with the cross country, gives them a whole weekend of racing.
Horgan-Kobelski and Irmiger had good things to say about this course when they raced on it a few months ago. For the rest of the pros, this will be the first time they have seen the course. A total of 1,100 amateurs and pros are expected to compete this weekend.
The weather in Austin this Saturday is expected to be in the mid 90s and humid. Fortunately, the pro races will start before noon.
Cyclingnews will be on site at Armstrong's ranch on Saturday. Stay tuned for full coverage.