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Max Plaxton (Specialized) leading the dusty 2011 race on Juan Pelota Ranch
North America's top mountain biking talent will descend upon Flat Creek Crossing Ranch this weekend with guns blazing for round one of USA Cycling's US Pro XCT series. The ranch is a new venue for the race, which had previously been held on Lance Armstrong's Juan Pelota Ranch. With a UCI-1 designation, it will be the first critical race of the year for individuals named to the USA Olympic Team long list.
Searing heat and oppressive humidity have seriously marred the past two Mellow Johnny's races. Racers wore ice vests not only to the starting line, but also sometimes during the race itself. To beat the heat, the race has been re-scheduled each year to an earlier date. The current weather forecast is for 70 degrees Fahrenheit and sunshine.
Max Plaxton (Sho-Air/Specialized) and Georgia Gould (Luna Pro Team) are currently undefeated in the Mellow Johnny's Classic series. Plaxton won last year's edition by 1:33 while Gould crushed the competition by over five minutes. Plaxton is the reigning Canadian National Champion, while Gould holds the USA title. Both are heavy favorites to represent their countries at the Olympics Games in London.
In the men's race, USA Champion Todd Wells (Specialized) has been preparing at his Tucson home. He led much of last year's race but succumbed as much to the heat as he did to teammate Plaxton. Plaxton commented after last year's race "I let Todd push the pace at the start and just kind of sat on Sid (Taberlay) and Sam (Schultz). But when Todd got a gap, I knew I couldn't wait too long to catch him. When I got on my own I found that I was riding that stuff faster than anyone."
Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek) has been improving steadily every year and is looking to have a breakout season. He won the US Pro XCT finals last season in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. Adam Craig (Giant Rabobank) who represented the USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and can be expected to bring his A-Game again this year. He recently said on Twitter "I'm happy to be in Sunny SoCal doing my homework rather than racing just yet. It'll be a long summer." Sid Taberlay (H20 Overdrive) is home in Australia competing for an Olympic berth there.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Trek-Subaru), also a former Olympian, would probably like to forget much of 2011, as his results were not up to his standards. He told Cyclingnews at the end of last season that he planned to make some changes in his off-season preparation. Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) will be flying back from his team camp in Italy to compete this weekend. While he has not raced a full US Pro XCT or World Cup schedule in a few years, he plans to make a serious run at an Olympic spot. Typically he has strong early season form as was demonstrated when he torched everyone at Bonelli Park last year.
Geoff Kabush will be debuting his new Scott-3Rox Racing Team this weekend. While last year was the first time Kabush did not win a US Pro XCT race in many years, he now seems re-energized and focused on representing Canada at another Olympics. Joining him in Texas will be teammates and fellow Canadians Amanda Sin, Derek Zanstra, and Cameron Jette
Gould's most serious competition is likely to be her own team-mate, World Champion Catharine Pendrel. While the course seems to favor someone with Gould's power, Pendrel will use whatever climbs there are on the course to her advantage. While the Luna squad may occasionally work together in races, it is far more likely that the two will pummel each other until one succumbs. Katerina Nash, now one of the top cyclo-cross stars in the world, seems to be following her pattern of the past couple years by starting her racing season a bit later.
Lea Davison (Specialized), winner of the US Pro XCT Finals last season is a threat to win the race. Her off-season preparation last year won her the race at Bonelli Park. Her outing at Mellow Johnny's last year was not what she hoped for. She finished the race covered with Texas dirt. "I went down twice. I wasn't quite on my game," said Davision after the race. As a favorite to make this year's Olympic Team, she will no doubt be ready to go in Texas.
A dark horse threat this weekend will be seven-time USA Cyclo-cross champion Katie Compton (Giant-Rabobank). No doubt she has residual fitness from competing well into February. She is also no stranger to mountain biking, having won a silver medal at the 2010 World Cup in Val di Sole, Italy. On a "power course", Compton could easily challenge Gould.
Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-NoTubes), a two time Olympian, is currently training in Northern California and is not registered to race this weekend. Willow Koerber (Trek World Racing), a silver medalist at the 2011 World Championships will be skipping Mellow Johnny's and making her debut at the South Africa World Cup after having a baby in December. If she can return to that level of fitness, she would have a lock on one of the Olympic spots. Krista Park, who was also named to the Long Team, will be racing this weekend in Cyprus before traveling to the Pietermaritzburg World Cup.
Other women who will likely be in the mix for podium spots this weekend include Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek), Emily Batty (Subaru-Trek), Chloe Forsman (Crank Bros) and Judy Freeman (Crank Brothers).
The eight-mile course at Flat Creek Crossing Ranch has gotten some moisture lately. This might help with the dust. The course is a combination of rocky singletrack and dirt roads. While it may not be the most technical course of the year, it is plenty bumpy. It was used in past years for racing, but this will be the first time in a while that anyone has ridden it. With the pros racing this weekend before many of the amateurs, they may find that lines are not fully developed and rocks seem out of place.
Up to 1000 amateur racers will also be competing this weekend at Flat Creek Crossing Ranch. Cyclingnews will be on hand to report on all the action.