Reigning Australian cross country national champions Daniel McConnell and Jenni King have predicted tough battles ahead at the 2013 Subaru Australian Mountain Bike Championships in Canberra. The trails of Stromlo Forest Park will host Australia's best mountain bikers from February 20 - 24 as they vie for the coveted green and gold national champions jersey in the cross country, eliminator, trials and downhill disciplines.
McConnell, a two-time Olympian and Australia's sole male mountain bike representative in London, will go head to head with fellow Victorians Chris Jongewaard Paul van der Ploeg.
"Last year I had the green and gold jersey, and it was the first time I was able to step it up and get some pretty good results," McConnell said of his international season during which he improved his UCI world ranking from 80th to 22nd.
"It was pretty cool, and I got a fair bit of recognition out of it. It would be awesome to get that chance again," he said.
A four-time former junior national champion, van der Ploeg will be looking to make his mark in Canberra after recently returning to competition from shoulder surgery just two weeks ago, where he enjoyed immediate success by clinching two of three stage wins in Thredbo.
"Chris (Jongewaard) is a fair level in front of everyone, and I think he's the guy to beat. Paul van der Ploeg is there as well so there will be a few guys to watch out for," McConnell said.
"It's a fairly technical course, so there are always a few surprises that pop up," McConnell said of the famous 2009 world championships course which includes the notorious 'hammerhead' section.
Following McConnell's stellar 2012 season, the Victorian has had to deal with his own injury setbacks after a snapping ligament in his hand during the Cape to Cape in Perth late last year which forced him off the bike for three months.
"It was a simple crash but at higher speed over a jump," McConnell said. "I had just got back from my break after the Olympics, and it was one of my first rides back so it was a little disappointing to have an accident like that but in hindsight, it was probably not such a bad time," he said.
After a lengthy rehabilitation, which included sporting a cast for on his thumb, McConnell made his return to the road in January and claimed a podium finish in stage three of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
The 27-year-old returned to his preferred discipline at Thredbo's round two of the All Mountain Cup, although the time away from the sport has him staying clear of any predictions of his results in Canberra.
"My form on the mountain bike I think is getting better, but it isn't perfect. It's a little too early in my recovery," he said. "I'll give it a go to try and retain my title, but it will be a tough ask."
McConnell will race the Olympic cross country on Saturday, February 23 at 12:00 pm and the eliminator on Sunday February 24 at 10:30 am.
King hopes to build on breakthrough year
Similarly, 2012 was a breakthrough year for Target Trek rider Jenni King, with the Victorian taking out the season's All Mountain Cup National Series in addition to a convincing win in th Australian cross country national championships in South Australia.
King was undefeated in the 2012 series, winning all four rounds, with the 33-year-old carrying her winning form into the Australian championships where she claimed the national title in convincing manner over Rowena Fry and Jodie Willett.
In Canberra, King will battle Target Trek teammate and All Mountain Cup series leader Peta Mullens, with Fry and Willett to make their entrance to the 2013 cross country national racing season at the championships.
"[Fry and Willett] are always strong cross country riders," King said. "Particularly given the Canberra course is quite a bit more technical than what we have seen at the last two rounds of the national series, and I think those girls will have some good technical skills.
"My teammate Peta Mullens is also always riding strong is a bit of an unknown on a technical course, but I think she can put in a good day."
King describes her 2013 season to date as 'unlucky', after suffering a race-ending mechanical in round one of the All Mountain Cup in Mount Buller and a snake bite just days before competing in Thredbo.
"I think I have had a little bit of bad luck leading into the first couple of rounds," King lamented. "I'm hoping to have a clean race in Canberra - if I have a little bit of good luck then I feel like I can have a good race."
"I'm feeling good, nervous but I am pretty confident in my preparation. You're always a little bit more nervous having to defend the title but I am nervous every race."
Despite her result come Saturday, February 23, King revealed the highlight of the championships will come from watching the scores of athletes she coaches who are themselves trying to achieve their dreams.
"I almost have an athlete in every category - that's what I am looking forward to most, watching all the people I help out compete," she said.
King will race the Olympic cross country on Saturday, February 23 at 9:00 am and the eliminator on Sunday, February 24 at 9:30 am.