After a one year absence, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup has returned to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the opening round of the 2011 series. All three disciplines are represented in the opening round - four cross finals on Friday, Olympic cross country on Saturday and downhill finals on Sunday.
In the four cross, perennial men's favourite Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox) of Australia will go up against the powerful RSP 4 Cross squad led by Czech rider Tomas Slavik and the Netherland's Joost Wichman.
Graves repeated as the World Cup champion in 2010; however, Slavik was able to take the world title from him. 29 men have made the long trip to Pietermaritzburg.
On the women's side, Austria's Anita Molcik took the 2010 title from multi-time World Cup champion Anneke Beerten (Milka Trek) of the Netherlands, so Beerten is surely anxious to regain her number one status. Beerten has also registered to race the cross country, although she says it is too early to consider her a contender for an Olympic spot. The women have a small field of only eight riders.
The cross country is entering a critical phase in Olympic qualifying for next year's London Games, so the competition is expected to reach new heights in intensity. The men's side will see renewed rivalry between Julien Absalon (Orbea) and the 2010 World Cup champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower).
Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), who will wear the rainbow stripes of the world champion through the year, won here two years ago, while Lukas Flückiger (Trek World Racing) won here last weekend, albeit in extremely muddy conditions.
One other potential candidate is local South African favourite Burry Stander (Specialized), who is coming off a strong win in the Cape Epic stage race with teammate Christoph Sauser.
Sauser describes the course as a cross between Dalby (technical) and Offenburg (fast). All the riders agree that this will be a hard race, and will require a rider to be extremely fit if they hope to be there at the end.
From the start of the 5.8-kilometre loop, the riders hit a very steep climb that reduces many to walking, especially if it is muddy. After a quick traverse along a ridge the riders encounter the first technical rock garden descent (Note: both of these features are bypassed on the first lap).
From here, the riders steadily climb through a series of singletrack and doubletrack switchbacks to the highest point of the course. After traversing a ridge on fire road, they begin to descend through singletrack before hitting the final two technical sections - the Treehouse and the Quarry.
The Treehouse is the most difficult part of the course, beginning with a steep, boulder strewn descent that flattens and turns left before a final drop out of the rocks. There are two lines, and riders are still trying to figure which is best. Julien Absalon, for one, was struggling with this section in training. Saturday is forecast to be clear, but it has been raining every day here (usually in the evening), and if it does rain during the races, it will turn the course into a slippery mess, and all the climbs into running races.
For the women, Canada's Catharine Pendrel (Luna) will start the year with the number one plate, however, she faces strong competition from Americans Willow Koerber (Trek World Racing) and Pendrel's Luna teammate Georgia Gould, as well as Eva Lechner (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon).
Pendrel also identified Emily Batty (Subaru-Gary Fisher), who beat her last weekend at Sea Otter, and Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour-Peisey Vallandry) as riders who could challenge. Pendrel, Gould and Batty have come straight from Sea Otter, so travel fatigue could be a factor.
The cross country will introduce, for the first time, separate World Cup races for the Under 23 men's and women's categories.
Junior cross country races will also be run.
For a look at what conditions were like last weekend in heavy rain, watch the following video.
Local favourite Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) took a very popular win here two years ago and, on a course that is little changed from 2009, he has to once again be considered a favourite.
Gee Atherton (Commencal), who won the World Cup title last year after a season-long battle with Minnaar, is also likely to do well and world champion Sam Hill (Monster Energy/Specialized/Mad Catz) seems to be recovered from the injuries that plagued him last season.
Former world champion Steve Peat (Santa Cruz) said, "It has both technical and power sections, so it doesn't really suit any particular rider. I think that to do well will require the fitness to still pedal hard at the bottom of the course where there is some flatter sections. If you can't go hard there, then you won't be on the podium."
Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) dominated the women's World Cup last year, but world champion Tracy Moseley (Trek World Racing) won the last time here, while Jonnier could only manage third, behind Emmeline Ragot (Team GR).
One rider who will be missing is Rachel Atherton (Commencal), who elected to skip the long journey to South Africa as she continues her recovery from the shoulder injury that kept off the bike for much of last year. Atherton says she expects to return in June for the Fort William, Scotland, World Cup. This weekend's course seems to suit a power rider like Moseley, so we could see her repeat.