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Racers got their first taste of the courses for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa yesterday with competition slated to start today.
The cross country course seemed to be a hit with most riders.
"It's really a world championships course - there is a little bit of everything for everybody. There are some flats, some steep uphills, some steep downhills. It's good," former world champion Jose Hermida (Spain) said to Cyclingnews.
"Pietermaritzburg always puts some novelty into their courses, and they are the inventors of the rock garden. We have a few rock gardens that are the same as last year, and there are also a couple of good technical parts."
South African team rider James Reid explained to Cyclingnews how the course has evolved. "The course is slightly shorter than the World Cup last year. They cut out a couple of the longer sections that didn't have much in them - a bit out of the first half and a bit out of the second half." Organizers are targeting a lap length that will let the elite men race seven laps.
"Compared to the World Cup, the Worlds is at a different time of year - four months later. When we race here in March, it's normally late summer with more heat and humidity. Now it will be hot in the middle of the day, but afternoons and mornings will be nice. Now the course is super powdery. I'm hoping for a bit of wet beforehand to pack it down."
Defending champion Nino Schurter (Switzerland) noticed few differences from last year to this year. "It is an awesome course, but it is really slippery at the moment because it is so dry," Schurter said. "I have ridden the course a couple times before, and it hasn't changed a lot since I rode it last, a couple minor changes with rock gardens and drop offs but otherwise it is pretty much the same."
US cross country national champion Stephen Ettinger also gave the course a thumbs up, but he noticed during his first day of training that some riders were struggling with the technical bits.
"They added a few new little sections that are fun and flowy. I like it," Ettinger told Cyclingnews. "I think the rock gardens look more intimidating than they actually are. So does that big log rollover with steep drops. That one is getting in a lot of people's heads. For sure, if you don't ride it smoothly, you'll be in trouble, but I think a lot of people are locking up on some of the stuff. They need to relax a little bit and take it easy."
Ettinger said he is feeling more comfortable in his new national champion's jersey. "It feels good to be wearing the stars and stripes. It's sunk in for sure now. There is more pressure and expectation now that I'm wearing it, but I feel like I have good legs and good fitness coming into it. Hopefully, I can do it some good."
Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup winner Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) admitted she was one of those riders who was feeling technically challenged on the first practice lap.
"The course is good and challenging. It keeps you busy," she said to Cyclingnews. "The first lap is always hard around here. The man-made obstacles are visually tough. I have respect for these kinds of courses, which are challenging. They do get better with each workout. I feel pretty good about this one already. They are intimidating to look at - just imagine riding them!"
"This course keeps us on our toes, and it brings in another element. You can't just be strong physically - you have to have skills and keep smooth. Ultimately, I do like that kind of riding, but this course does get my heart rate going, especially the first time around. When you see the riders stopped and looking at it, it makes you think. It's the consequences that get you. A mistake on a few of those sections could be very hurtful. You want to have a good line going into those technical sections. When you go down in them, it hurts."
Former world champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa was also spotted out training with her Norwegian teammates. Having just completed the first half-lap of the course, she said, "It's spectacular so far and has a bit of everything. If you love mountain biking, you'll like this. I'm practicing the jumping now and I'm a little bit nervous."
"This course is probably harder than ever before. That's the most spectacular thing about our sport - no courses are the same, and there is always something new. There are a lot of people who ask how I keep motivated, but there's always something new to work on with the courses constantly changing."
US short track national champion Todd Wells (USA) described the track as "fast and super hard packed and dusty on top".
Remembering that he crashed out last year after 10 minutes of practice, he joked with Cyclingnews, "It's already better than last year," after having completed a few pre-ride laps. "All the major features, like the downhill technical sections and the longer climbs are the same, just the way they link them up has changed a little bit," said Wells.
"It's a tough course here in South Africa - one because it goes from being very smooth to man-made rock gardens which don't have any real flow to them. Normally, a rock garden in the woods has water flow down it and create a natural line. These, they just cement the boulders in place wherever and a natural line doesn't really form. You can't always see where you're going to go before you get into it. A lot of times you're comitted and you get off-line a little and there is a rock right where you're headed. It can be a little tricky."
A few riders noted that the course would be completely different to race if it's wet.
"This place is like none other in the mud," said Reid, who has ridden it in many different conditions. "It becomes a clay-like mud that sticks to everything and it's nearly impossible to keep it together. The round rocks are man-made and that makes it smooth and super slick when it gets wet. The first rock garden becomes kind of a comedy show if it is wet."
Wells added that in his experience you couldn't ride some of the uphills when it gets wet.
Both Hermida and Schurter noted how agreeable the weather had been since they arrived; however cooler temperatures and some rain are forecast for later in the week.
"It's not the kind of winter I would have expected here, and it's definitely not the kind of winter we have in Europe," said Hermida.
Schurter said, "Coming from summer to this sort of weather it isn't really an issue for me, and I am feeling pretty good after a couple laps today."
Lots of pedalling for the downhillers
The downhillers seemed much less excited about their course. It's a course which is notorious for how much pedalling is involved. There are lots of jumps and not a lot of steep, technical sections compared to other World Cup-level courses.
Former world champion Danny Hart told Cyclingnews, "The downhill course is OK. It's a little flat. They changed it at the bottom and took it onto the four cross track which isn't that great, but it's the same for everybody."
"It's not that fun to ride, a bit boring, but it should be alright. It's still a pedalling track. There aren't many lines. You could not walk the track and get right up to speed during your run. It's just as quick. It's an easy, basic track. You just have to ride it. There's not too much to think about."
"There's not really any technical sections - just one up top with a few lines. We'll see how it goes."
Hart won his world title in Champery, Switzerland two years ago on a notoriously technical course in wet, rainy conditions.
Rumor had it that Jared Graves (Australia) was going to race his enduro bike instead of his downhill bike, but there was no word on whether he had actually seen this year's track at the time of the statement since the elite men had not yet been scheduled to do their track walk.