Angel Fire, New Mexico hosts combined cross-country and downhill round this weekend
By Steve Medcroft
World Cup mountain biking returns to the U.S. this weekend (July 9-10) in Angel Fire, New Mexico as the UCI holds its seventh round of cross country and sixth rounds of four-cross and downhill. The World Cup last made a stop on U.S. soil in 2002 in Telluride, Colorado.
After last week's virtual racer's vacation (due to many riders skipping of the Balneario Camboriu, Brazil World Cup July 2-3), more than 300 riders from over 30 countries are competing in the weekend's races. Many of them are Americans looking for a rare chance to test themselves against some of the world's top mountain bike racers, such as South African Greg Minaar (Team G-Cross Honda), who currently leads the World Cup downhill series and has won both of the last two races.
The cross-country start line will be thick with almost a hundred men signed up including series leader Christopher Sauser (Siemens Cannondale) and NORBA series leader and Canadian national champion Geoff Kabush (Maxxis). Missing though will be Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida) who showed devastating mid-season form in Brazil (winning by five minutes) and crept close enough in World Cup points to threaten Sauser's lead. Hermida decided to head home to prepare for the Spanish mountain bike national championships at the end of the month instead of coming north to contest the series.
There will be more than fifty competitors in the women's cross country too. Series leader and all-around World-Cup dominator Gunn-Rita Dahle (Multivan Merida) is in Angel Fire and ready to repeat her Brazilian performance (a win) and not her Mont Sainte-Anne showing (second). Not on the start list is the only women to best Dahle in World Cup competition in the last two-plus years: Marie-Helene Premont. Which means the most likely challenge to Dahle should come from Sabine Spitz (Specialized), who led Dahle in Brazil before snapping a chain, or possibly Americans Shonny Vanlandingham (Luna Chix), who seems to have recovered her form after injuries derailed her career the last two years or Willow Koerber (Subaru - Gary Fisher), who's fresh off her best World Cup result ever (fourth in Mont Sainte-Anne).
The racers will be challenged with more than just crowded fields of strong competitors - Angel Fire is an altitude race. The cross country event alone starts at almost 8,500 feet and climbs to 10,100 before turning back for the start/finish line. Although many World Cup and U.S. domestic races are held on ski resorts, not many top out above 9,000 feet. The fact has been so daunting that many top racers have spent the bye week camped out in mountain towns across the west to try and adjust to the altitude.
Weather could also be a factor. Angel Fire sits on the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range (on the opposite side of Wheeler Mountain from Taos) and is essentially rocky, mountainous, high-desert terrain. The air can be dry and the intensity of the sun at the venue's elevations, surprisingly sapping. There is also a propensity for quick-developing, late-afternoon thundershowers; weather that could impact both the downhill and cross country events which are being held in concurrent afternoons. Forecasts for the weekend are no help. On Thursday evening, as the tents were being erected in the expo area, Angel Fire's own Web site called for temperatures in the mid eighties and clear skies. At the same time, the U.S. National Weather Service hints at visits from the infamous thunderstorms.
Despite the challenges though, expect a strong showing from the natives. North American's showed increasing strength at the world Cup in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec (June 24-25) when Brian Lopes, Jill Kintner (Yeti) and Tara Lanes (Giant) scored podiums in four-cross, Adam Craig (Giant) took fourth in men's cross country, Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain - Business Objects) won the women's cross country with Willow Koerber and Mary McConneloug (Kenda Tires - Seven Cycles) behind her in fourth and fifth.