Round three of the USA Cycling Pro XCT series is set to take place this weekend at Ute Valley Park, Colorado Springs, at an altitude of 6,100 feet. It will be the first time the series has visited this venue, which is close to the US Air Force Academy. Colin Cares (Kenda/Felt) will be coming in as the series leader for the men, while Zephanie Blasi (WXC World Racing) is the women's series leader.
With 2012 being an Olympic qualification year, the top mountain biking pros have placed their priority on collecting UCI points at the four World Cup races held so far this year. As a result, participation by top pros at the last US Pro XCT race in San Dimas, California was extremely low. This gave riders such as Cares and Blasi a chance to get some deserved recognition.
In the men's race, likely Olympian Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek) will renew his battles against former Olympians Todd Wells (Specialized) and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Trek). All three have been training at altitude and are expected to make this race an important tune-up for the upcoming North American World Cup races, which start next weekend. Horgan-Kobelski is coming off an impressive win at the Teva Mountain Games and always races well at altitude.
Sam Schultz told Cyclingnews, "I look forward to the Ute Valley race. I've heard great things about the new venue and course. The next round of World Cups will be in North America, and I am sure there will be stiff competition toeing the line in Colorado Springs. It's always nice to be able to race close to home. Colorado has a lot of fast racers, so I am sure it will be tough!"
Young Stephen Ettinger (BMC Racing) had the second best World Cup season of any American racer, finishing just one point ahead of Wells. There is little doubt that Ettinger will be looking for a good result at the Ute Valley race. By race time on Saturday, both Wells and Ettinger should know who has been selected for the Olympic team.
Historically, most US Pro XCT races feature battles between the talented Canadians and their American counterparts. This weekend, however, the Canadians will be racing their national championships. Canadian Champion Max Plaxton (Sho-Air-Specialized), who has "owned" the US Pro XCT series for the past year, will be again be facing his nemesis Geoff Kabush (Scott-3Rox Racing) for the Canadian title.
Also expected to be absent are world champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team), Emily Batty (Subaru-Trek), Ralph Gagne (Rocky Mountain, who currently sits third in the US Pro XCT series), Amanda Sin (Scott-3Rox Racing) and Derek Zanstra (Scott-3Rox Racing).
Ute Valley Park is 338 acres in size dominated by Hogback Ridge. It is popular with Colorado Springs residents for hiking and mountain biking. The race organizer has described the cross country course as "filled with tight, twisty singletrack, short steep ascents, and rocky descents. There's also plenty of doubletrack and fire roads for passing." The laps are 4.5 miles in length with 344 feet of climbing per lap. The start/finish is on a dirt running track.
The women's race will feature the Luna veterans Katerina Nash and Georgia Gould, who are ranked 17th and 19th in the world respectively. Gould found her legs during the final two World Cups, while Nash nearly pulled off a victory at the World Cup race in her home country of the Czech Republic. Nash has already been named to her Olympic team while Gould has a virtual lock on one of the US spots. Both are obviously on form and may treat the crowd to a typical inter-squad Luna throw-down.
Gould, a resident of Fort Collins, Colorado said, "I'm looking forward to the Ute Valley race. It will be good to get back to Pro XCT racing and test out the old legs before jumping back into the next two World Cups. I'm actually skipping the eliminator race so that I have another day at home before setting off to the east coast for Mont-Sainte-Anne and New York."
Lea Davison (Specialized), also a likely 2012 Olympian, will be skipping this race. Davison said, "I am choosing to stay here [Vermont] to prep for the North American world cups in my backyard. It's been wonderful to be home and training after the globetrotting this spring."
Other contenders for the women's podium include Kelli Emmett (Team Giant), Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek), Judy Freeman (Crank Brothers), Chloe Forsman (Crank Brothers), Krista Park (Cannondale-NoTubes), and Pua Mata (Sho-Air Specialized). Emmett finished third overall last week at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic (road racing), and second at the Teva Mountain Games prior to that. As a Colorado Springs resident, she will undoubtedly have home court advantage.
For the first time during a Pro XCT weekend, there will be a a cross country eliminator race for the pros. Throughout this World Cup season there have been eliminator races held one or two days before the cross country events. The course this weekend will be a single 0.75-mile lap with 100 feet of climbing. Racers generally start four at a time with two advancing to the next round until there is a winner.
Very few USA World Cup racers participated in the eliminator events this season for fear of injury or that it would negatively affect their cross county race. Those who did participate, such as Chloe Woodruff, will have an advantage in this weekend's racing. Brian Lopes (Ibis) who won the first ever World Cup eliminator race in Houffalize, Belgium, is not expected to race this weekend. On paper, one might assume that explosive riders such as Rabobank-Giant riders Adam Craig and Katie Compton could pull off the victory.
Gould and Wells have both confirmed that they will not race in the eliminator event due to preparing for the next World Cups.
The weather for the weekend is predicted to be in the mid-80s with a chance of thunderstorms. Check back with Cyclingnews this weekend for coverage of the racing Ute Valley, Colorado Springs.