The UCI Track World Cup swings back into action this weekend with a schedule of racing and a field that promises to ignite the track season. This season's World Cup series is all about implementing long-term plans for the London Olympics and with the analysis of Beijing done and dusted, the business of preparing the next Olympic cycle is underway.
Manchester provides national teams the first opportunity to see what level their riders are at, and while training times are one thing, the breakdown of competition performance is another. The two track cycling powerhouses to watch - Australia and Great Britain - bring two very different teams, with the British crammed full of experience, while the Australians deliver youthful exuberance and promise for the future.
There's also the return of the trade teams, with the likes of Team Sky +HD, Team Jayco and Cofidis creating additional interest in the racing while providing more athletes the chance to compete on a higher platform in preparation for the world championships and Olympic Games.
Manchester's packed house promises excitement
The opening night has a smorgasboard of racing on offer, with local boy Chris Newton looking to make good in the points race while Victoria Pendleton defends British honour in the women's sprint. The reigning Olympic champion will be turning out for the Sky +HD squad against the cream of international women's sprinting, including Australia's Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch, plus Dutch speedster Willy Kanis.
The men's 1km time trial, women's scratch race, the men's keirin and men's team pursuit will also light up the night's program, as Great Britain's male sprinters look to assert their dominance early in the meet. Look out for Jamie Staff or Ross Edgar in the keirin, each continually making improvements on their technique.
A name to throw into the keirin ring may be Shane Perkins (below), the Australian having come out of a tough stint on the Japanese racing circuit, although he may forego the race to concentrate on the 1km time trial.
And indeed the kilo promises to be another English-Australian battle, with Sir Chris Hoy the target man. He's a master at this event, but Perkins comes into Manchester with good form and a focus not yet seen during the 22-year-old Victorian's career. He'll throw up a suitable challenge.
The Manchester opener may just be a rare opportunity for some of the international field to get one up on Hoy; the Scot will be making his comeback after a crash in Copenhagen during last year's World Cup series and may not be up to full race fitness yet, although it's unlikely we'll see anything less than another sterling performance from the champion sprinter, however.
The second night of competition will be a pleasing mix of sprint and endurance, with the women's 500m time trial, the men's sprint, the men's Madison, the women's points race and the women's sprint. It will be a busy night for Australian queen of the track, Anna Meares, who will ride the 500m TT and back up as world champion for a shot at gold in the women's team sprint with talented youngster Kaarle McCulloch.
Glenn O'Shea and Leigh Howard will be another two Australians to watch in the Madison, setting the stage for a showdown with points race Olympic medalist Chris Newton and Geraint Thomas. Experienced Dutch pairing Peter Schep and Danny Stam is making the trip to Manchester and should be in the mix. This event normally throws up some surprises at World Cup level, so don't be shocked to see a few new names in there.
And while the enduros are doing their thing, the big boys come out to play in the men's sprint, with the Great Britain and Sky +HD teams packed with talent in this department. The French and Australian riders will have their work cut out with big performances expected from the British in their home event, guaranteeing some spectacular racing.
What may be the most explosive racing is saved for the final day of competition however, with all eyes on the men's team sprint. At most World Cup events it's a definite highlight of the program - the sheer power and determination of the men involved makes for an incredible atmosphere.
The outfit most likely to challenge the experiened trio of Hoy, Ross Edgar and Jamie Staff will be the Team Jayco squad of Daniel Ellis, Jason Niblett and Scott Sunderland, who have enjoyed promising preparations for Manchester and this weekend the trio begins its journey on the season-long road that culminates in the world championships next year.
The French national team and the Cofidis squad will be two to watch in this event, the likes of Kevin Sireau and Gregory Bauge always holding their own in both the individual and team sprints. The French have had a low-key preparation for the opening round in Manchester but without a hefty travel schedule they should be ready to perform well.
Look out for Ed Clancy, Andy Tennant or Geraint Thomas in the men's individual pursuit - with no Bradley Wiggins on the track, the field is opened up. Will another British rider take over his mantle, or will another nation step into Wiggins' shoes and become the new king against the clock? Maybe talented Belgian Dominique Cornu could make his mark his mark on the track after showing what he's capable of on the road.
Manchester promises to provide the answer to these and many other questions after a long track off-season, best summed up by British Cycling's Cycle Sport and Membership Director, Jonny Clay: "We are delighted to be holding the event here for the third consecutive year in what will be another fantastic occasion for fans to come and watch the world's best cyclists in the busiest indoor Velodrome in the world."