By Rob Jones in Melbourne
Today (Wednesday), the Commonwealth Games mountain bikers had their last chance to train on the race circuit before they race tomorrow. At six kilometres, the circuit is short by World Cup standards, and some of the top competitors found it not very technical, but still expect a tough race for the gold medal. The women will do 8 laps and the men 10.
The circuit does not have a major climb, instead featuring a number of short up and down power climbs and false flats. The technical sections are not particularly difficult, but the many twists and turns will force the riders to constantly pay attention. The ground is very dry and dusty, with lots of loose gravelly sections where a rider can wash out. In training today it was 25°C, and tomorrow it is expected to go to 30-plus, so heat could be a factor.
The small women's field (12 riders) has a huge talent gap. At the top of the skill level are the two Canadian entries - Marie-Helene Premont and Kiara Bisaro. Premont was the Olympic silver medalist in Athens, and was the only rider to beat world and Olympic champion Gunn-Rita Dahle in World Cup competition last year (which she did twice). Bisaro is a regular top-10 finisher on the World Cup circuit. Barring unforeseen circumstances, these two are virtually assured podium spots. Behind them, the only recognizable name is Rosara Joseph (New Zealand), who has competed in World Cup competition, and won the Oceania title three weeks ago.
Premont flew in Monday, but has had two days of training on the course now. "It is a nice course, and I feel that I am going well on it. It should be fast; the more I ride it the more I like it. But it is my first race of the season, so you are always unsure of how well you are going. The heat will not be a problem; I like the heat!"
Bisaro echoed her team mate's comments: "It's fun, it's fast. It may not seem too technical until you are at speed, then you can quickly get into trouble if you are not paying attention."
On the men's side, the competition is not quite so lopsided, with six of the 29 riders in the pro ranks. Geoff Kabush (Canada) is the early favourite, having obliterated the competition at the Oceania championships. However, Liam Killen (England) is also a top World Cup rider, and has come from training in South Africa (with new Specialized team mate Christoph Sauser) and doing some road racing in California.
After these two, there is Kabush's team mate Seamus McGrath, who took the silver in Manchester, and finished ninth on a similar course in Athens. Also, New Zealand pro Kashi Leuchs, England's Oli Beckingsale (who has been racing in Cyprus and is reputed to be very fit), and Australian hope Sid Taberlay, who could benefit from a strong partisan crowd cheering him on.
Both Kabush and McGrath feel that the race will really start in the final laps. Kabush: "Yeah, it won't start until late. There is nowhere to really get away, but lots of places to make little mistakes that will cost you."
McGrath agrees: "I'm expecting that it will be fast, and that there'll be a group of six or maybe seven that stays together for the first part of the race. I think that the Aussies could be strong- they've been training for this."