Many of the mountain bike world's best cross country riders will get one final test of their legs at round 3 of the Swiss BMC Racing Cup on Sunday, just one week before the next World Cup in Nove Mesto, Czech and two weeks before the World Cup in La Bresse, France.
Solothurn will host this weekend's round of the BMC Racing Cup in conjunction with its National Bike Days Festival. With the next two World Cups serving as the final two qualifiers for the Swiss and many other national Olympic teams, the race has drawn an outstanding list of starters, including more than a dozen top 15 ranked male and female riders in the world.
Swizterland's Nino Schurter, ranked second in the World Cup standings, is the favorite, but he'll be challenged by Spaniard Jose Antonio Hermida (ranked fourth), Frenchman Maxime Marotte (ranked fifth), Swizterland's Florian Vogel (ranked seventh) and Lukas Flückiger (ranked ninth), German Moritz Milatz (ranked 12th) and Swiss riders Thomas Litscher (ranked 13th) and Christoph Sauser (ranked 14).
In the women's racing, last year's World Cup winner Julie Bresset of France will compete against Italian Eva Lechner (ranked fourth), Russian Irina Kalentieva (ranked sixth), local rider Nathalie Schneitter (ranked eighth), two-time Solothurn winner Esther Süss (ranked 13th) and 2008 Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (ranked 14th).
Many of these riders are medallists at last year's world championships in Champery, Switzerland. Among the Swiss medallists are silver medal winner Schurter, U23 world champion Litscher, junior world champion Linda Indergand and team relay silver medal winners Schneitter and Lars Forster.
The French are also bringing many of their top riders from last year's Worlds: U23 world champion Bresset, junior world champion Victor Koretzky, team relay world champions Fabien Canal and Marotte.
The Italian Lechner was also a bronze medal winner in the elite women's cross country last fall.
The racing action will kick off in Solothurn on Friday night with a short-distance contest featuring Schurter and short race specialists Daniel Federspiel from Austria and Severin Disch. Last year, Schneitter won the women's short race ahead of her teammate Lechner.
On Saturday, the racers will compete in the cross country, on a fast circuit around Solothurn. If previous years are any indication, they will race in front of tens of thousands of spectators.
Last year's cross country winner Schurter is using the race as preparation for the 2012 London Olympic Games. "The Bike Days are much more than just a race, they are a bicycle festival and, accordingly, the atmosphere every year is unique," said Schurter. "A great opportunity!"
Schurter's top rival may be Milatz, who will be trying to back up his win in round 2 of the BMC Racing Cup in Tesserete with another victory. He'll also be hoping to overcome the bad luck he had last year at this event. Milatz had crashed during the start loop and eventually abandoned.
In the women's race, Süss will be going for her third straight cross country victory in Solothurn. "After consultation with the start list, a win this year would be even more valuable, I'm looking forward to the great atmosphere in Solothurn," she said.
In addition to the female World Cup contenders already mentioned, Süss will battle Swiss stars Kathrin Leumann, Sarah Koba and Kathrin Stirnemann. However, Schneitter, the hometown favorite, will be tough competition on familiar home ground, especially as her fan club is expected to come out in force to cheer.
"I am glad that so many world class riders will be at the start, and we can offer Solothurn so much action and a thrilling race," said Schneitter. "I will be motivated on my home race course especially and will give everything, and I'll be trying to build confidence for the World Cups in Nove Mesto and La Bresse. The favorite is Julie Bresset, I think. After all, she has shown her good form in the World Cups, but we Swiss will surely have something to show."