By Luke Webber in Houffalize, Belgium
Houffalize, the home of cross country racing, will open the UCI Mountain Bike Cross Country World Cup presented by Nissan this Sunday with thousands of fans lining the course hoping their rider clinches a most memorable win.
Standing between the 273 male and 130 female competitors is a currently dry and dusty circuit - the racers' favourite. Similar to the lap that so suited Jose Hermida last year, it is a real mountain bike course with short power climbs, fast roads through the Houffalize town centre and steep descents. The Spaniard is already in high spirits before the race along with the circus that follows the World Cup circuit across Europe, Canada and Australia. All are eager to start after a long winter break.
For most this race will be a first test in an especially important Olympic year - so far in 2008 most of the front runners have only competed in national events with the exception of those who were in South Africa for the toughest endurance test - the Cape Epic.
Amongst those Epic riders was promising under-23 Burry Stander and despite a leg injury sustained early on in that race, he will start on Sunday. Also back is Liam Killeen, but following a year out through illness, he will have a hard race starting a long way back on the grid in 140th.
All of the usual favourites will start the race with great ambitions - current World and Olympic champion Julien Absalon, marathon World Champion Christoph Sauser and local favourite Filip Meirhaeghe. Nino Schurter will once again look to dominate the under-23 category following World Champion Jakob Fuglsang's move into the senior ranks.
Adam Craig is the top American, while strong performances in the NMBS leave Canadian Geoff Kabush another contender, especially if it stays dry. He finished especially well last year in similar conditions and in 2008 has a great chance thanks to a much improved grid position.
The women's race sees the return of Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja to the field - another rider who was ill in 2007. While her outward ambitions are reserved everyone will be watching her, including newly crowned World Champion Irina Kalentieva.
"I'm excited about the start of the new season, especially the added competition it will be more interesting and definitely harder," said Kalentieva to Cyclingnews on Thursday. I did not prepare in the same way this year because I have aspirations for the Olympics and World Championships. If I win, that will be great, but if not it will have at least been good training!"
Last year though it was the Chinese who dominated the women's early season races and nobody will be more motivated to show what is in store for the Olympic race than Ren Chengyuan, Jingjing Wang and Ying Liu.
A race within the women's race will be the Australian team of Kate Potter, Dellys Starr, Tory Thomas and Rowenna Fry - all of whom are travelling the first three European World Cups together in a bid to become the Australian representative for the Beijing Games.
Alongside the elite racing there is also a packed schedule of support events on Saturday including a UCI category one 4X race. Houffalize is full of mountain bikers with an expectant atmosphere so stay tuned to Cyclingnews to find out what happens on race day.