Set in the heart of the Texas Hill Country and a just outside the cultural mecca of Austin, Texas, the Mellow Johnny’s Classic is the first stop on the USA Cycling US Cup Pro Series presented by Sho-Air Cycling Group. The new four-race series is the richest purse in cross country racing, and all four events will be sanctioned by the UCI as Category HC or Category 1 events.
A star-studded pro field will line up on Saturday for the first major cross country race of the North American season. Three-time winner Max Plaxton (Cannondale Factory Racing) and two-time winner Georgia Gould (Luna) top the list of men's and women's favorites.
In the elite men's race, Plaxton will have to watch out for fellow Canadian Geoff Kabush (Scott-3Rox Racing) and Americans Jeremiah Bishop (Sho-Air/Cannondale) and Todd Wells (Specialized Racing). All four of them have previously proved themselves to be fast in the early season races. Last year's winner, Dan McConnell (Trek Factory Racing) nipped Bishop and Wells at the line in a sprint finish, but the Australian is not expected this year due to the Mellow Johnny's Classic being sandwiched between the third round of the Australian Mountain Bike National Series and the Australian National Championships.
"The Mellow Johnny's Classic always feels like the first real test of the season," said Plaxton. "You get to see exactly where you are with your fitness. I'm looking forward to going for another win at Mellow Johnny's this weekend.
A major unknown among the men is former cross country national champion Sam Schultz, who will be returning to racing after a year mostly off due to injury. He'll be making his debut for the Sho-Air/Cannondale team.
"I can't tell you how good it's been to get back into the routine of training and racing," said Schultz, who won a regional race last weekend in California. "My rehab has been going very well lately. It’s still absolutely a full-time job to keep things working the way I want, but the hard work has been paying off with successful days on the bike."
Other top men to watch include Kabush's teammates Derek Zandstra and Cameron Jette, Spencer Paxson (Kona), under 23 national champion Kerry Werner (BMC), Keegan Swenson (Cannondale Factory Racing) and Russell Finsterwald (SRAM- Troy Lee Designs Race Team), to name a few. Even Ryan Trebon (Sho-Air/Cannondale) will take to the start, having recovered from a severe leg cut requiring stitches at the cyclo-cross world championships in early February.
The Luna Pro Team is bringing its full firepower to the women's start line in Texas with former world champion and past Mellow Johnny's winner Catharine Pendrel, Gould, Katerina Nash and new signing Maghalie Rochette. Trek Factory Racing's Emily Batty will have her hands full against them, although she was the top finisher after Rebecca Henderson last year. Like McConnell, Henderson is also expected to stay home racing in Australia, skipping the trip to Texas.
As she usually does, Chloe Woodruff (Backcountry.com) will be there to give the other elite women a run for their money. Others to watch include Erin Huck, Evelyn Dong (Backcountry.com) and Erica Tingey (Jamis).
"I can't wait to get this season started," said Georgia Gould (Luna). "It's time to blow the cobwebs out of the legs and get back to racing! Thanks to USA Cycling and the Sho-Air Cycling Group, we are racing for big money this year at Mellow Johnny's and the rest of the US Cup series, and I'm expecting all the women to show up with their A-game."
The course is a mix of technical singletrack, with short climbs and limestone ledges that offer racers some technical and vertical challenges among adrenaline spiking dropoffs. The site is rarely open to the public, so few racers will have a home course advantage. As the first race in the series, pros and media from around the world will converge on Austin, as valuable World Cup points are on the line.
Free live streaming
The event, like all rounds of the US Cup, will be streamed free online at a dedicated page under USA Cycling's YouTube page. The direct link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeTHuEp1L0c.
Saturday, March 1 Mellow Johnny's Classic streaming schedule
12:00-12:15 Elite Women cross country call-up
12:15-14:15 Elite Women cross country race (Live Webcast)
14:20-14:25 Elite Women podium ceremony
14:30-14:45 Elite Men cross country call-up
14:45-16:45 Elite Men cross country race (Live Webcast)
16:50-16:55 Elite Men podium ceremony
All times are CST.