This weekend hundreds of amateur and professional mountain bikers who have qualified to race in the US national mountain bike championships will head to Sol Vista Bike Park in Granby, Colorado. Stars and stripes jerseys will be awarded in cross country, short track, mountain cross, and downhill events. Racers will compete in categories according to skill level and age. The youngest racers will be ten-year olds, while the oldest racer will typically be over 70.
The national championships will be held at altitude for the first time since 2005, when they were at Mammoth Mountain, California. The base of the course sits at 8,200 feet, while it tops out at 9,200 feet. That's more than 25 percent less oxygen pressure than at sea level.
Defending women's cross country champion Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) described the cross country course as "Alpine style, one big climb and one big descent". The course has received mixed reviews from some pro racers, partly due to some newly cut, and therefore rough singletrack. The pros are hoping that section will be well ridden in by the amateurs who race before them.
In the absence of any US ProXCT Cup races since mid-June, the cross country racers have spread out in many directions to prepare for nationals. Some participated in the lucrative Teva Games, where Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Gary Fisher/Subaru) and Katie Compton (Katie Compton Coaching/Independent Fabrications) won.
Others, including Barry Wicks (Kona), Ryan Trebon (Kona), and Georgia Gould (Luna Women's MTB Team) participated in (and won) the week-long BC Bike Race. Still others took part in the US Marathon National Championships at the Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge, Colorado, on the Fourth of July, when the husband and wife team of Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Heather Irmiger (Gary Fisher/Subaru) won. Defending short track national champion Jeremiah Bishop competed in both the Firecracker 50 and the grueling six-day Breck Epic, which he won.
This past weekend, Adam Craig (Giant), Kelli Emmett (Giant), Ross Schnell (Trek), Willow Koerber (Gary Fisher/Subaru), and Rachel Lloyd (Proman) all raced the Downieville Classic for the unofficial world championship title of "Best All-Mountain" bike racer. Craig, who is the defending cross country national champion and Luna's Katerina Nash won by large margins. As a citizen of the Czech Republic, Nash, will not be racing at US Nationals.
Racers who live at altitude should have an advantage at this year's nationals. However, others have attempted to close that gap by spending several weeks racing and training in Colorado's high country. A few more, including Adam Craig, are using altitude tents to acclimate without the expense of living on the road.
Defending champions and Olympians Adam Craig and Mary McConneloug are sure to have their hands full racing on a course that is less technical than they prefer. Many of the 2008 Olympians have had a slow start to their 2009 seasons after last year's exhausting chase for UCI points en route to earning their chances to compete in Beijing. On the other hand, these athletes have proven they know how to peak for major events.
Craig, who is winless this season on the ProXCT circuit, often comes into form just in time for the national championships. Last weekend, en route to winning both the cross country and downhill races at the Downieville Classic, he set a new course record. While he is not be the best pure climber in the race, Craig, will use his superb handling skills to make up time on the descents.
In recent weeks, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski has been on fire. In addition to finishing second at the Colorado Springs round of the US ProXCT, he won the Teva Games, and then thrashed his competitors at the US Marathon National Championship. JHK, along with his wife Heather Irmiger, have enjoyed an unprecedented month and a half in their home state of Colorado. Including some local races in Winter Park, they have done at least six races that they could drive to while sleeping in their own bed at night.
JHK is rumored to be riding a new sub-20 pound Superfly for the cross country race - an advantage that will only complement his chances as one of the best climbers in the pro field. The question is - can he stay with Craig on the descents?
Todd Wells (Specialized Factory Racing), who also lives at altitude in Durango, is sure to be a contender for the jersey. Former champion Ryan Trebon (Kona) should have excellent form after winning the BC Bike Race's co-ed duo category with Georgia Gould. Trebon may or may not have been training at altitude, but Bishop could be extremely competitive if he has recovered from 15 hours of racing last week in Breckenridge.
Sam Schultz has beaten JHK on a few occasions this year and is due for a break-out ride. Michael Broderick, who finished third two years ago and is the fifth-ranked American in UCI points, is also a podium contender.
Mary McConneloug and Heather Irmiger are likely to be the best two climbers in the women's field. Whether they can get enough of a gap on former champion Georgia Gould is questionable since Gould is also an excellent descender. What the course lacks is flat power sections that typically allow Gould to dominate the women's races. McConneloug has been racing at altitude for three weeks, but both Gould and Irmiger live in Colorado.
I've won at altitude before, at Mammoth. I believe I can do it," said McConneloug. "It's just a matter of putting all the pieces together and focusing on the preparation."
"I think we are going to see the riders who are trained at elevation [at the front] - those who are prepared for this event," said McConneloug. "I think we all know who they are."
Willow Koerber has shown some flashes of brilliance this year on the World Cup circuit. And, along with Kelli Emmett, she is one of the best descenders in the business. Both will need one of their best climbing days ever to stay with the leaders over the top of the course. Pua Sawicki is hoping to redeem herself in the cross country race after a disappointing ride at marathon nationals.
The big X-factor in the elite women's race is Katie Compton. She has shown not only that she can win cross country races, as she did in the Teva Games, but she actually descends better than many of the pure cross country specialists. If Compton has any weakness, it is her climbing, but she has been working hard to improve that aspect of her riding.
This year's Super D promises to highlight Team Giant. Defending champion Adam Craig is expected to battle his teammate Carl Decker for the title. While they are very good friends off the bike, neither gives the other an inch on the race course.
Typically Super D courses include up to twenty percent uphill, giving a decided advantage to cross country racers riding full suspension bikes. However, occasionally the percentage is much lower and the course much steeper (as in Park City, Utah), which throws the advantage over to some of the stars of downhill racing. It is yet to be seen what the nature of the Sol Vista course it, but Eric Carter (GT Bicycles) has entered the event. Given the right type of terrain, Carter could pull off an upset.
Ross Schnell (Trek) is not expected to compete due a planned flight to Europe. Bryan Fawley (Park Place), Michael Broderick (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes), Sam Koerber (Gary Fisher 29er) are expected to fight for podium positions.
The women's race is likely to be a showdown between Kelli Emmett (Giant) and Willow Koerber (Gary Fisher/Subaru). Both are excellent cross country racers who love to descend. Emmett barely edged out Koerber in last week's Downieville Classic.
Pua Sawicki (Ellsworth) and Kyie Anderson (Ekho/Cannondale) are also likely podium contenders.
Rachel Lloyd has informed Cyclingnews that she will not be defending her championship. Perennial favorite Marla Streb (Luna Women's MTB) will also be absent, as will Sue Butler (MonaVie/Cannondale), and Katie Compton.
In the most spectator-friendly discipline of short track, the racers will compete on a course that is typically about a half-mile in length for 20 minutes plus three laps. The courses often include a significant climb, a bit of singletrack, as well as a stretch on pavement. It requires short bursts of power as well as experience in criteriums or cyclo-cross racing. Tactics and drafting play a large part in the outcome.
Defending champion Jeremiah Bishop has been downplaying his chances of success due to his emphasis this year on endurance racing. "I will go 100% but I know that specific training reaps specific results. When you train for a 100-mile mountain bike race, and that's all you train for - you are up against a tall challenge," said Bishop.
Other likely contenders will be former champion Barry Wicks, Adam Craig, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Carl Decker, and Sam Schultz (Gary Fisher/Subaru).
On the women's side, defending champion Katie Compton rode away from everyone last year on her tubeless Dugas cyclo-cross tires. Only Mary McConneloug was even close. Compton's power and cyclo-cross experience will make her the heavy favorite again this year. McConneloug says she is ready after doing some power training on Martha's Vineyard, that including riding into headwinds.
Georgia Gould has also won many short tracks and should also be a contender. Last year she appeared a bit flat due to the massive effort she made in the cross country race. Heather Irmiger won the US ProXCT short track race in Colorado Springs in convincing fashion and will certainly be near the front of the race.
Finally, Lea Davison, who finished third last season, is targeting this race. "I've been doing a lot of good work in the past months for preparation and I'm excited to toe the start line and give it my best shot. It's a deep field, and with the altitude - it should be a really interesting race," said Davison.
It will be interesting to see how the 29-inch wheeled bikes fare this weekend. The American invention is rarely seen at the World Cups. JHK won the US marathon championships two weeks ago on his Superfly 100, but at this point no 29er has won a cross country championship. JHK, Todd Wells, Sam Schultz, Sam Koerber, Katie Compton, Heather Irmiger, Ryan Trebon, and others are expected to race 29ers this weekend.
Downhill and mountain cross
On the gravity side, racers will compete in the downhill and four cross. Veteran racer Eric Carter (GT) is the favorite in both events, but racers like Cody Warren (Specialized / Redline) and Duncan Riffle (Cannondale Factory Racing) will be there to challenge him. Myles Rockwell will reportedly not be racing after breaking his wrist last weekend, but Shaun Palmer may make an appearance in the downhill.
On the women's side, current four cross World Champion Melissa Buhl (KHS Bicycles) will go head-to-head with former World Champion Jill Kintner, who returned to mountain biking this season after a year off to focus on racing BMX at the Olympic Games.
Temperatures for the weekend are forecast to be in the 70s (degrees Fahrenheit) during the days. High altitude and dry conditions should make for dry, fast trails.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of the US National Championships this weekend.
(Additional editorial assistance provided by Sue George)