By Rob Jones in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
For 2009, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is proving to truly be a "World" Cup, with the season-opener taking place in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa - the capital of the Zulu Nation, and home to 2008 Downhill World Cup champion Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz). This weekend's event boasts a couple of firsts: first Olympic cross country World Cup in Africa, and first World Cup "Triple" in Africa.
The vast majority of the top pros have made the long trek down here, with the defending World Cup titleholders in four of the six classes of competition are here to wear the number one plates on the start line. In total, seven medalists from the Beijing Olympics are in attendance, including cross country gold medalists Julien Absalon (Orbea) and Sabine Spitz (Ghost).
Many of the Olympic riders are describing the circuit here as having similarities to Beijing - fast and relentless. From the start line, the circuit radiates out in two loops, each with a long climb. However, the descent doesn't offer much chance to rest, with tight and narrow switchbacks requiring complete attention from the riders.
"The climbs are longer than Beijing," said Absalon, "but the heat and the hard, dusty track are very much like China."
Besides Absalon - who is also the defending World Cup champion - the men's favourites have to include world champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan-Merida), Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and South African favourite Burry Stander (Specialized). Americans Adam Craig (Giant) and Todd Wells (Specialized) will also start on the front row.
Missing from the men's roster are Jakob Fuglsang (moved to the road), Ralph Näf (Multivan-Merida) who is sick and 2000 Olympic champion Miguel Martinez who, earlier in the week, was fired by his team - Felt - after being convicted of assault against his wife in a French court.
On the women's side, the number one and number two ranked Canadian riders Marie-Helene Premont (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Catharine Pendrel (Luna), are both absent - Premont decided to not make the long trip to South Africa to defend her title and will focus on individual race wins this season, while Pendrel, along with teammates Georgia Gould and Katrina Nash have stayed in California for the Sea Otter Classic next week, a very important event to their sponsor. However, Spitz will face tough competition from world champion Marga Fullana (Massi), and Olympic silver and bronze medalists Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkowice) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon). Wloszczowska won the test event on the circuit last week.
The course is the longest ever for a World Cup, at 850 metres, so fitness will be a factor. Last year's breakthrough rider, Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Specialized), took both the World and World Cup titles in the four cross, so it will be interesting to see if Guido Tschugg (Ghost ATG) and Dan Atherton (Animal Commencal) can mount a challenge to the Spaniard. All of the top-10 ranked men are here; it is a strong field.
Women's defending champion Anneke Beerten (Suspension Centre) will go up against two strong challengers - world champion Melissa Buhl (USA) and Jill Kintner (Red Bull-Intense), a former World and World Cup champion returning to the sport after leaving for a year to go and win the Olympic bronze medal in BMX, and now hungry to win again. Second and third ranked Anita Molcik (Cze) and Mio Suemasa (Jpn) are not here - victims of the shrinking sponsorship pie and the cost to come all the way here.