Mountain Bike World Cup fans will turn their attention to Albstadt, Germany this weekend for the first round of the 2013 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. In the men's race, home crowd favorite Manuel Fumic (Cannondale) will battle the big three favorites: Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower), Julien Absalon (BMC) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized). In the women's race, Catharine Pendrel (Luna) will try to defend her World Cup title against Maja Wloszczowska (Giant) and Marianne Vos (Giant)
Ten months have passed since the last cross country round of the 2012 World Cup in Val d'Isere, France, and more than eight months have gone by since the World Cup elite met for the last time at the world championships in Saalfelden, Austria.
The races will take place on a newly designed 4.2km course with 190 meters of altitude per lap.
"The toughest course in the World Cup," is the impression of many riders after their training, but the course also has some fun sections. It is designed in such a way so that the public can see most of the action right in front of them.
Men: Locals cheer on Fumic
The "Big Three" have been dominating the World Cup since 2011 and includes current world champion and overall World Cup title holder Nino Schurter, the most World Cup-winning racer Julien Absalon and 2012 Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy. No other rider has shown such capabilities up until now.
However, the cards are reshuffled in the beginning of the season. After a long winter and a long preparatory phase, no one knows for sure who is at his/her best and from time to time, new faces emerge in the lead group.
Schurter has already won three races this season in a close battle with Absalon. Kulhavy still hasn’t taken part in a cross country race with his two rivals, but he did win the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race with teammate Christoph Sauser.
"It's a bit more relaxed in the post-Olympic year, but I'm still super motivated. My goal is the top three, but of course I'd like to take over the World Cup lead again," said Schurter, who will be going for the eighth World Cup win of his career.
"I know, Julien is in a top shape," said Schurter.
Kulhavy sees himself as not one hundred percent after dealing with a recent tooth infection.
The German crowd is hoping that Fumic can build on his strongest World Cup season ever last year to achieve a good result this season. As the World Cup kicked off in 2012, he was able to climb on the third podium step in Pietermaritzburg.
"I want to be in the top five in front of my home crowd," said Fumic. "I count on my home crowd; they will cheer me on up in the mountain." Fumic didn't mention a World Cup victory on Monday at a race press conference, but he has a realistic shot at the podium.
"I am very well prepared, the training went perfect," said Fumic. "I see the future development of the World Cup courses in Albstadt. I like the course a lot. But, personally, I'd like if the climbs were a bit shorter. Still, I think that no one can say that this course is perfect for him," said the 31-year-old German, who made the official race poster.
Unfortunately for German fans, European cross country champion Moritz Milatz (BMC Racing) has had problems with his health, suffering from infection, and it is not yet known whether the German will line up at the start.
Women: Tough competition at the top
With a hugely talented field, including several unknowns and one missing favorite, it's impossible to guess who will win the women's World Cup.
In contrast to the men's class, the North American riders are among the best with namely, the World Cup defending champion Catharine Pendrel from Canada and her Luna Pro Team colleague, the Olympic and World Championship bronze medalist Georgia Gould of the USA.
One unknown is Maja Wloszczowska (Giant Pro XC) from Poland, who, after a seven-month break due to injury, celebrated an impressive comeback in the spring by winning a couple of races.
It's to be determined what record World Cup winner Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan-Merida) from Norway can do in Albstadt. She has been struggling with an infection for much of the spring and except for Münsingen, she didn't finish a race.
Olympic and World Champion Julie Bresset (BH Suntour-KMC) broke her collarbone in the same race and is out of competition until mid-June.
As for the German ambitions, hopes do not rest solely on Sabine Spitz (Haibike), who has already won six times in Albstadt and loves the spectators in the western Swabian Alb.
"There are two very steep climbs that do not suit me. If you have good form, then you can go fast on every course," said Spitz, who noted that she does not know how good her form is. "I cannot draw any objective conclusions." Spitz said she is targeting a top 10 finish.
The 41-year-old Spitz noted that her 13-year younger teammate Adelheid Morath could be the top German finisher. The Freiburg native has made a leap in performance recently. "Adelheid is really good. I believe she can secure a place in the top five," said Spitz.
Morath is hoping to make the World Cup podium for the first time this season. "I can only do it if everything fits together. But in Albstadt the conditions are probably the best for me," she said.
Eliminator: Favorites from Switzerland and Sweden
The World Cup weekend will begin on Friday in downtown Tailfingen with the eliminator. For the first time in 2013, there will be an official overall World Cup classification for the discipline. Therefore, more racers are expected to participate than in previous years.
Thomas Litscher (Multivan Merida), world championship bronze medalist Daniel Federspiel (Oetztal-Scott) and Slovenian Mihal Halzer (Enegijateam) are among the favorites. World champion Ralph Naef (BMC Racing) from Switzerland is not yet certain whether he will line up at the start. He will decide at the last minute.
German champion Simon Gegenheimer (Ultra Sports Rose) also hopes to make it in the final four. Last year, he made it into the semi-finals in all three World Cup competitions and once he even made it to third, on the podium.
"I think I can do well on all courses," said the Gegenheimer, who won the German eliminator national championship for the second time last Saturday.
In the women's racing, eliminator world champion Alexandra Engen (Ghost Factory Racing) from Sweden is the top favorite. However, last year's Worlds silver medallist Jolanda Neff (Giant Pro XC) from Switzerland is an equal competitor.
Eva Lechner (Colnago South Tyrol) from Italy might have a shot on the podium as well as Kathrin Stirnemann (Sabine Spitz Haibike).
From a German point of view, Nadine Rieder (Topeak-Ergon) is probably the strongest rider. It would be a great success for her and for Germany if she were to make it to the semi-finals.