Current men's and women's world number one downhill mountain bikers Gee and Rachel Atherton of Great Britain are heading into the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg later this month with high hopes. The pair previously won both of their respective elite world championship titles together in Val di Sole, Italy in 2008.
The two GT factory Racing stars have been in imperious form this year, having won the first two UCI World Cup meetings of this year's season in Fort William and Vale de Sole. Rachel also won the recent Andorra World Cup while Gee was second. The are now in the pole position heading into the calendar's pinnacle event which takes place in Africa's "Bike City" from August 26 to September 1.
Despite Gee having raced in Pietermaritzburg a handful of times previously, this year's world championships will be the first time for Rachel will be performing at Cascades MTB Park, making it a little more difficult for her to get a grip on the conditions and the track.
"I have never been to Pietermaritzburg. I've missed all the World Cup rounds there due to injuries, so I am excited to finally see the track!" Rachel said. "I have heard it's very pedally, and I have heard it's very technical up the top, so I am feeling good that those two things are what I love to race, like the rest of our team members."
Despite his familiarity with the Cascades course, Gee has, however, had poor fortune in Pietermaritzburg in past with a third in 2011 his best results to go with a fifth in 2009 and fourth last year.
"I've had some good races there, but at the same time I've made mistakes at all of them that cost me a lot of time, so I know I'm fast on that track," he said.
The scope for improvement provides Gee with the drive needed to take on the track with pace and precision with his recent form giving the GT Factory racing rider good confidence that he will perform well in Pietermaritzburg.
"I like the course on the whole. It's fast and fun to ride and definitely challenges the riders physically," he mentioned.
"The bike I'm riding gives me a lot of confidence going into Pietermaritzburg. It pedals well and it's comfortable on the steep and flat alike."
Apart from the course itself, Atherton will need to overcome stiff opposition from his fellow competitors with hometown hero and current world champion, Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), undoubtedly set to be a major factor in this year's title challenge.
Despite both Gee and Rachel expecting tough field, much of their focus in the build up to the event is on themselves with rest and making sure they're at their physical peak come August.
"For me it is important to go in well rested. We worked hard in the off season and came into the season very fit, so it's just about maintaining that strength and keeping the momentum going," said Gee.
"I think it is important for me to come into world champs well rested because my body picks up little injuries pretty easily, but I will still be doing a lot of power sprint work over the next couple of weeks," said Rachel.
Despite their recent form having raised the expectations of their supporters, an apparent level headedness from the duo appears to have them relatively calm in their approach to the global event.
"Let's just wait and see what happens," said Gee of his expectations ahead the event as he keeps his cards particularly close to his chest.
"Obviously everyone racing wants to win, and I am no different. Racing is in my blood and is my life so I can't wait to see how things turn out!" said a somewhat more animated Rachel.