The 22nd edition of the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships begins tomorrow in the Swiss alpine village of Champery, 90 minutes south of Geneva. Champery has played host to the World Cup three times, and is known for its extremely technical cross country trails, and its very steep, fast downhill.
The action begins Wednesday with the junior women's cross country, followed by the team relay. Switzerland is a favourite for both events, with Jolanda Neff easily winning both of the last two World Cup Challenge races for juniors. In the team relay, Switzerland is going for a record fourth title, but its biggest competition is likely to come from Canada - also going for a fourth title. The Canadian team is headlined by Catharine Pendrel and Max Plaxton.
Thursday, the junior men and under 23 women will compete for their cross country titles. Anton Cooper, the phenomenal first year junior from New Zealand, is the clear favourite for the men's race. In the last two World Cup Challenge races he dominated, riding the rest of the field off his wheel on the first lap. The under 23 women also has an overwhelming favourite, in the form of Julie Bresset (France), who won the elite World Cup title in Val di Sole, Italy, last weekend. Bresset is required to race in her age category for the world championships. Another World Cup rider dropping down to her age category who should medal is Great Britain's Annie Last.
On Friday, the cross country competition will continue with the under 23 men and, in the evening, the four cross championship will take place on a newly-designed track. Gerhard Kerschbaumer (Italy), the World Cup champion, has been almost untouchable this season, although he will get some competition from Alexander Gehbauer (Austria) and Thomas Litscher (Switzerland).
For the four cross, organizers decided to go for a less "BMX-y" style, and included a creek crossing and a wooded section, to make it more of a mountain bike course. In the men's field, World Cup champion Jared Graves (Australia) will try to take back the title he lost last year to Tomas Slavik (Czech Republic). Others to watch include Michal Prokop (Czech Republic) and the Swiss pair of David Graf and Roger Rinderknecht. On the women's side, Anneke Beerten (Netherlands) has dominated the World Cup, recently winning her fourth title. However, the Dutch rider has never won the world title, something she desperately wants to do. Others to watch are defending champion Jana Horakova (Czech Republic), Switzerland's Lucia Oetjen and American Melissa Buhl, the 2008 world champion.
The cross country events will conclude on Saturday with the elite women and men. In the women's race, Canada's Catharine Pendrel has been battling all season on the World Cup circuit with Julie Bresset - who is racing under 23. However, the world number-one ranked rider will face strong competition from the defending world champion Maja Wloszczowska (Poland), who finished second to Pendrel last week at the World Cup final. Others to watch include the resurgent Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway), Italy's Eva Lechner and Russia's Irina Kalentieva. Last year's bronze medallist, Willow Koerber (United States) is not racing because she is pregnant with her first child.
The men's race comes down to one question: can anyone beat Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic)? Kulhavy won five out of seven World Cups this year, including the final two this month leading up to the Worlds. He faces a formidable field, led by 2009 world champion Nino Schurter (Switzerland) and four-time world champion Julien Absalon (France). Both riders are the only ones to have beaten Kulhavy in World Cup competition this year, and both have made winning the world title their major goal of the season.
The world championships will conclude on Sunday with the downhill. In the women's field, the competition all season has been between three riders - defending champion Tracy Moseley (Great Britain), Floriane Pugin (France) and Rachel Atherton (Great Britain). Others to watch include Myriam Nicole (France), the winner of the final round of the World Cup on a similar technical course, and Emmeline Ragot (France), the winner of the World Cup here in Champery last year.
American Aaron Gwin has dominated the men's downhill World Cup this season in the same way that Kulhavy dominated the cross country. Gwin took a record five World Cup victories out of seven races, often winning by large margins. Others to watch include Greg Minnaar (South Africa) and 2010 Champery World Cup winner Gee Atherton. Missing from the field is the 2010 Worlds silver medallist, Steve Smith (Canada), who broke his leg in training at last week's World Cup final. Returning to racing, after missing much of the season with a shoulder injury, is defending world champion Sam Hill (Australia). Hill said today that after three easy runs his shoulder is still painful and weak.