By Sue George, Mountain Bike Editor
The 2009 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in South Africa, with cross country, downhill and four cross disciplines is the first event of 2009 to draw all the favorites to once place to race head-to-head. While the stars have been quietly logging training time and making race appearances to test their fitness in rounds of the various national series, they have yet to see how they stack up against each other this season.
It's been a long winter; the last World Cup was held in September of 2008 in Schladming, Austria, so Cyclingnews has picked out 10 cross country riders - five men and five women - to watch as the World Cup season gets under way.
We predict you'll see their names again and again this season.
10 - Nino Schurter (Swi) Scott-Swisspower MTB-Team
Nino Schurter is one of the youngest members of the enduring, talented Swiss mountain bike empire.
Schurter, who will turn 23 years old in May, won the Under 23 World Championships in Italy last summer.
He joined the powerhouse Swisspower Mountain Bike team of Thomas Frischknecht in 2003, and he turned professional in 2007.
Despite his young age, Schurter boasts 11 World Cup medals. He also impressed the world last summer when he won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
He has won two golds and a silver medal at the Under 23 World Championship and was regularly mixing it up with the elite men at international races last year. He finished eighth overall in the 2008 World Cup standings.
Schurter has spent his early season training in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where many elite European riders have set up training camp during the winter months in the northern hemisphere.
Expect Schurter to start his season in good form and continue his upward trajectory toward continued success in the elite ranks.
9 - Georgia Gould (USA) Luna Women's Team
Georgia Gould is competitive at the World Cup level not only for mountain biking, but also for cyclo-cross. In 2008, she displayed her versatility by finishing fifth overall in the mountain bike World Cup and by taking third in the Nommay cyclo-cross World Cup months after finishing a long and challenging Olympic mountain bike season.
The American visited the World Cup mountain bike podium several times in 2008 with three fifth-place finishes and one fourth place finish.
At the World Championships in Italy, she ended up ninth, as the top American finisher. She earned one of two spots on the US Olympic team and raced to eighth place in Beijing, China.
Gould is a perennial winner at North American races. Last year, for example, she won the overall National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) title for the cross country.
Last fall, she won North American Cyclo-cross Trophy overall, taking four wins along the way. In addition, she won three rounds of the US Grand Prix of cyclo-cross.
Gould showed excellent form when she kicked off her racing season with a win at the opening round of the USProXCT in Fontana, California, in late March.
In 2009, Gould will again contest a full season of mountain bike races before switching to cyclo-cross for the autumn.
Read the complete feature.