By Rob Jones in Spa
The Mountain Bike World Cup season begins tomorrow at the Spa Francochamps Formula One circuit. Spa, 30 minutes south of Liege, is a new stop for the World Cup, with the cross-country event scheduled to go head-to-head against the classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Despite near perfect conditions for the past week, the 6.1 kilometre circuit is still muddy, so tomorrow's predicted rain is likely to turn it into sloppy mess. The race begins on the paved Formula One circuit, with the riders immediately heading up a steep climb. At the top they turn right and head off-road, into a steep, rooty drop-off and then a two-step climb to the highest point of the course (on the first lap, to avoid pileups on the downhill, the riders bypass this section, going right to the top of the climb). After a short traverse along the top, it is up-down, up-down through twisty and root-filled forest terrain, with numerous mudholes to grab wheels and send riders sliding into the trees. Only in the last 200 metres of the lap do the riders pop back out onto the pavement for a final short climb up and through the finish line for the start of another lap. At this point, it looks like the women will do four laps, and the men five.
Olympic, World Cup and World Champion Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) is the favourite for the women's race, and will try to continue her unbeaten streak from last season, while Olympic silver medalist Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) tries to unseat her. Premont has only raced one stage of a Norba race this season, so she is an unknown quantity, however, new Specialized signing Sabine Spitz reported that Premont looked extremely fit when sighted during training today.
Spitz, the Olympic bronze medalist, reports that she is not yet at the top of her game, suffering from a slight cold after some weeks of heavy training. Spitz is using Spa to obtain a better starting spot for Madrid, where she hopes to be on form. Other contenders include Poland's Maja Wsoszczowska (Lotto), Annabella Stropparo (Italy) and Germany's Ivonne Kraft.
The women's field is missing two top names - Alison Sydor (Rocky Mountain-Business Objects) and Alison Dunlap (Luna). Sydor will start her campaign next week at the first World Cup Marathon in Riva, Italy, and join the cross-country circuit the week after in Madrid. Dunlap has stated that she will not be doing any World Cups this year, sticking to the U.S. for her final season of racing.
The men's field has some bigger holes. Former Belgian star Filip Meirhaeghe is still serving his suspension for EPO use, Ryder Hesjedal is on the road (racing nearby in Liege-Bastogne-Liege), Roland Green (Kona) is staying in North America, working on regaining form, Sea Otter winner Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) is racing the Tour de Georgia with Jittery Joe's, and the Haro duo of Seamus McGrath and Chris Sheppard are also staying in North America.
Despite the missing names, the men's race should be an interesting one. Christoph Sauser (Siemens Cannondale), who ended up winning the World Cup after Meirhaeghe's suspension, starts with the number one plate. The great Belgian hope, Roel Paulissen, will attempt to add another win to his victory at Houffalize last year, while Miguel Martinez (Commencal Oxbow) returns full time to mountain biking. Olympic and world champion Julien Absalon (Bianchi Agios) and Olympic silver medalist Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida) are both strong contenders, but the favourite, after his strong showing behind Kabush last week at Sea Otter, has to be Liam Killeen (Specialized).
Patrice Drouin of Gestev, the organization that is taking over the World Cup next year, spoke about his company's plans for next season. A television deal has been signed for the series. While venues have not been finalized, it looks like the World Cup will begin early April on the U.S. west coast, before Sea Otter. A break of a few weeks, then a European campaign, before another swing back through North America. The season will conclude with two World Cup triples (in Europe) after the world championships in New Zealand. This should keep interest higher in the World Cup through the end of the season. Drouin anticipates 8 events for each discipline, with five of the events as triples (cross-country, downhill and 4-cross).