Organizers have put the finishing touches on the three race courses in Pietermartizburg, South Africa, for 2009's UCI World Cup opener on April 10-12. Technical manager Kim Philips, who is responsible for the design and construction, said that he is satisfied the courses are all up to world-class standard already, but that some tweaks will still be made over the next few months to polish them up.
"They're all complete and open for riding," said Philips on Monday. "There will still be some refinements made, but those are small. We'll be getting feedback from riders practising on the course as to ways to improve it so that it provides the best possible spectacle, but is also challenging, yet safe for the riders."
South Africa's top mountain bikers, including Greg Minnaar and Burry Stander, were present at the official media launch of the course on November 13, but builders were still fine-tuning the cross-country and downhill courses and had only just begun building the 4X course.
Current cross country World Champion Christoph Sauser is expected to be among the first foreign riders to test out the terrain later this month. The cross country course is 4.7km in length, relatively short by World Cup standards, but with a total ascent of 180m per lap, it's rather brutal. It has three menacing climbs in the first 3km, followed by a long descent that's punctuated with some technical sections to complete the lap.
"It's a very intense course," said Philips. "It's a little longer than the Olympic course in Beijing, but it's steep and technically challenging. Our primary goal was to ensure maximum visibility for spectators and we've achieved that with two passes through the main arena on each lap. We'll fine-tune it if necessary to ensure the top riders complete each lap in 18 or 19 minutes."
Stander, the African cross champion and U23 World Championship silver medalist, believes the course is one of the toughest he's ridden anywhere in the world and will offer a superb test to competitors.
"It felt no different to being on any other World Cup cross-country course I've raced," said Stander, who lives in Port Shepstone, just 100km from Pietermaritzburg. "Only difference is I can sleep at home! What it does have is a lot of steep climbing and is quite similar to the Beijing Olympic Games course, which most riders rated as the best 'and hardest' in 2008."
At 2.8km, the downhill course is relatively long, with a quick drop early on followed by a relatively mildly sloping section in the middle, which contains some jumps and tight turns and then a fast plunge in the final third, incorporating the last 500 metres of the 4X course into the finish arena. The total descent is 368 metres.
"The most technical section is in the first third of the course," said Philips. "Best to have the very technical stuff there because the riders are still fresh, mentally and physically. It's quite intense with rocks and steep drops through the forest. The next section is less stressful on the mind, but quite challenging on the body because it requires plenty of pedaling, while the last section to the finish is just plain fun!"
It's virtually the same course used for the South African national championships in March 2008, which Minnaar used as his comeback downhill race following major shoulder surgery at the end of 2007. Minnaar won the national title and is relishing the prospect of racing a World Cup in his hometown.
"I will be under a lot of pressure as the current World Cup champion, but I relish the prospect of racing against the world's best riders in front of my friends, family and home fans," said Minnaar, adding: "It's a fantastic course that's going to offer a very solid allround test. There is no time to recover really and there are some spectacular drops and jumps that will definitely thrill spectators!"
From the top section of the course, which winds its way through a eucalyptus forest, much of the City of Pietermaritzburg is visible in the valley below. One spectator magnet is likely to be the six-metre drop, about 500 metres from the start, with a couple of road-width jumps to follow before the flatter, pedal-heavy middle segment. There is no cable lift so participants will be shuttled to the start in motor vehicles.
The 4X course is the first to be built in South Africa and the UCI's official 4X course builder, Phil Saxena, flew in from England to spend two weeks designing and overseeing the construction. It's the most extreme World Cup 4X course in terms of length and descent, which should prove a spectator favourite.
Saxena was spoiled for choice by the geography and as a result, was able to design a course that's 730m long and drops 120 metres. Until now, the longest World Cup 4X course has been 650m long and the biggest drop has been 105 metres. There are 13 corners and 26 obstacles, which make it one of the most radical courses built to date. Permanent lighting will be installed to facilitate evening finals on April 10.