With the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg fast approaching, downhill course designer Nigel Hicks is chomping at the bit to give the Cascades MTB park track a facelift.
Renowned for the tough flat middle section, the Pietermaritzburg track may not always be international riders' favourite venue, but is one that brings balance to the UCI downhill calendar and sets a unique challenge for riders.
"The Cascades track is not a technical track by any means. However, due to the unfortunate lie of the land, it's one of the most physically demanding tracks in the world, particularly because of the lung busting pedal section in the middle," said Hicks.
"We may have been gifted leftover materials from the construction in the centre's car park though which, if this is the case, we'll use these to make a couple of changes to the finish and podium area and then a few subtle changes to the middle section.
"It would make a big difference if we could make things flow better through the middle section and even though it would still be very much a pedal section these changes should really help reduce the time it takes riders to get through this tough stretch," he said.
Smaller may well be better when it comes to the planned course alterations with subtle variations of existing features potentially having a significant impact.
"We'd look to shift the two table tops just before the N3 stretch down the road a couple of metres and make both of them a little bigger. That would make them 23 metres and 20 metres respectively and, together with moving them, would really help make this stretch a little shorter time wise," said Hicks.
"We're going to be laying down granite overburden on the entire course, which will make a massive difference when it rains and could even speed things up even further," he said.
The Cascades course is one of the fastest tracks around and the apparent lack of numerous tight twists and turns adds to the uniqueness of the venue.
"Our average speed here is a lot higher than elsewhere in the world," said Hicks. "Usually the guys average between 30 and 35 kilometres per hour but here they go at around 45 kilometres per hour.
"Last year's top speed recorded in the Speedtrap section was 78 kilometres per hour, significantly faster than the 50 kilometres per hour riders experience overseas. This, together with it not being all that technical, doesn't make our track better or worse than others but if certainly makes it very different to what the guys ride most of the year," he said.
"That's what makes it fun," said Hicks, who explained that riders are able to use semi-slick tyres on the Cascades course, while at most of the other venues studded tyres are necessary.
Hicks explained that the course will not differ that much from the 2011 World Cup track, but it will incorporate subtle changes. What Hicks calls subtle should prove to be exciting for spectators, especially those watching in the area of The Gully, which leads into consecutive tabletop jumps. He's planning on moving both jumps 20 metres further down the track and extending the length of both of them. What it means is that riders will be able to take greater speed into the jumps and thus fly even further than before.
The home crowd will be hoping the likes of local hero Greg Minnaar and his fellow compatriots will be able to capitalise on any home ground advantage they may experience however Hicks believes the eagerly anticipated event will be a fair one for all.
"I wouldn't say any one type of rider has more of an advantage over another especially now that most of the guys have been here a couple of times in recent years and now know what to expect," said Hicks.
"They know that physically its very demanding and so they prepare themselves for it. I think it's a really good thing that it's the first race on the World Cup calendar because then the guys really have to work hard in the off season and make sure they're in top condition beforehand, but I wouldn't rule out anyone because of the terrain," he said.
Being a season-opener is also exciting for another reason, he reckoned, as it unveils new talent. "One needs only to look back on Aaron Gwin last year," he said of the American who came out of nowhere to win the season-opener.
Gwin went on to dominate the season, claiming five victories on his way to the overall World Cup title. The only other rider to finish on top of the podium in 2011 was Pietermaritzburg's Minnaar, who won at Fort William in the United Kingdom and at La Bresse in France.
The UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg will take place at the Cascades MTB Park from March 16-18, 2012. For more infomration, visit www.mtbworldcupsa.co.za.