By Rob Jones in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
The South African World Cup downhill course has not inspired wild enthusiasm from the riders. At nearly four minutes long, not especially technical, and with a flat section in the middle, to do well requires a strong and fit rider who can pedal. The top portion sends the riders through sweeping turns amid rocks, before they hit bumps that should see some substantial air action. From here they enter the flat section before dropping into the final descent that spills them out onto the four cross course.
On the women's side, world champion and defending World Cup champion Rachel Atherton (Animal Commencal) is out due to injury, which leaves the opportunity for former champions Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Tracy Moseley (Trek) to battle it out for victory. Both are on new teams.
Moseley won the first round, in qualifying on Friday, with Jonnier well back in eighth place. Jonnier crashed heavily in training, which may have slowed her down in qualifying. Former junior champion Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center) took second to Mosely in qualifying, over nine seconds back, while Canada's Claire Buchar (Chain Reaction-Intense) could score her first ever podium at a World Cup, after finishing third in qualifying.
The men's downhill is the final event of the weekend, and the one most likely to hold the interest of local fans, with hometown hero Greg Minnaar under immense pressure to deliver a victory. Defending World Cup titleholder Minnaar has the ability; however, he will face strong competition from perennial favourite Sam Hill (Specialized), as well as world champion Gee Atherton (Animal Commencal) and another former World Cup champion Steve Peat (Santa Cruz). Other potential spoilers include fellow South African Andrew Neethling (Trek) and Chris Kovarik (Chain Reaction-Intense), who won last week's test event on the course.
In qualifying, Minnaar made it clear that he is here to win - first out of the gate, he delivered a stunning 3:50.31, six seconds faster than Kovarik's winning time the week before. Kovarik was the only one among the top contenders to come close to Minnaar at 3:53.49, with Steve Peat (Santa Cruz) at 3:56.09 . It appeared that Minnaar had qualifying all sewn up, until Mick Hannah (GT) took over a second and a half off of Minnaar's time. Hannah is a former top contender, but took the previous season off. Clearly, it has not hurt his form.
Canada's Steve Smith (Evil) qualified 39th, after going off course part way through his run. "It was a spot where I had hit a pointed rock in two training runs, flatting both times. So I think I was focussed too much on missing the rock, and ended up off the course."
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup opener in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.