By Dave McElwaine
The National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) resumes this coming weekend amidst the vineyards of the Chamberlain Ranch in Los Olivos, California. Without any conflicting World Cup cross country races, a full contingent of North American racers will be on hand to do battle on the steep, grassy, hills of the ranch. Notable exceptions will be US National Champions Adam Craig (Giant) and Mary McConneloug (Kenda / Seven) who both opted to stay in Europe to completely focus on the next World Cup in Andorra coming up on June 1.
Georgia Gould (Luna) is the favorite and she is expected to maintain her lead in the NMBS cross country series over team-mate Katerina Nash. Currently only 20 points separate them in the standings. Gould's streak of consecutive wins now spans back to the 2006 race season. This season so far, she has also finished fifth at the World Cups in Houffalize, Belgium and Madrid, Spain, and she appears to be riding at a level just slightly below World Champion Irina Kalentieva (Topeak / Ergon), and Canada's Marie-Helene Premont. In last year's NMBS round at Santa Ynez, Gould rode quickly off the front, and at one point had a three and a half minute lead over the chasers. Wendy Simms (Kona), who rode solid races at the three opening World Cups, is currently in third place in the NMBS series.
The Luna Women's Mountain Bike Team is presently ranked first in the world after winning the team competitions in all three World Cup races so far. The signing of Canada's Catherine Pendrel has allowed them to surpass even the impressive Chinese National Team. Pendrel, Gould, and Nash all placed in the top ten in Madrid. At Santa Ynez, Luna will also have on hand US National U23 and collegiate champion Chloe Forsman, who last season scored some top ten finishes. Former NMBS Champion Shonny Vanlandingham has been focusing on endurance events and will compete in the X-Terra race in Temecula, California this weekend.
While many of the top racers were at the three World Cup races, those who stayed home competed at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterrey, California. Both Sea Otter and the Madrid World Cup race courses have similarities with the cross country course at Santa Ynez. All three feature fast, hard packed, often dusty trails, along with mostly open terrain, plenty of cumulative climbing, and screaming descents. While Santa Ynez will not be that fast, speeds will be quite high on the 8.4 mile pro loop. Last year's chase groups could be seen trading pulls in pacelines as drafting was a critical part of the race. The course also features many off-camber singletrack sections on hillsides so steep that passing is virtually impossible. The initial climb that the riders face on the course will surely force many off their bikes. If one person puts a foot down, dozens of riders are behind them will be forced to tackle the hill on foot.
In the men's racing, Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) will be looking to extend his lead in the cross country series - especially given the absence of the second-place Craig. The competition should be quite high, however, as both Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (JHK) (Subaru/Gary Fisher), and Todd Wells (GT Bicycles) have bested Kabush on at least one occasion in Europe. All the racers are hoping that their form is still improving at this time of year and they will measure that by how they fare against those that they will face at the next World Cups.
Barry Wicks, who was ill in Madrid, currently holds third place in the NMBS and has looked strong this year. At the Houffalize World Cup, he passed 60 racers, a feat that nearly impossible given the high level of competition on the World Cup circuit.
The surprise racer from the 2007 Santa Ynez event was Max Plaxton (Rocky Mountain) who won the short track and was part of the lead group of four in the cross country. While he did not have good luck or form at the first three World Cups this year, he will no doubt be looking to get some results at Santa Ynez. Another racer to watch is Mathieu Toulouse (Maxxis) who finished fifth last year despite having no drafting help the entire race. The lead group of Plaxton, Wicks, JHK, and Kabush never opened a significant gap on Toulouse because of tactical in-fighting. Toulouse had commented after the race "I just rode steady while those guys would speed up and slow down."
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