After a one-month break, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup returns this weekend to Nove Mesto na Morave in the Czech Republic for round 3 of the cross country series and round 2 of the new eliminator series. Even though last year was the first time Nove Mesto had hosted a World Cup, it was chosen by the riders, teams and press of the World Cup as the top cross country event of 2011.
Round 3 Nove Mesto, and round 4 next weekend in La Bresse, France, are the final opportunities for nations to score valuable ranking points for Olympic qualification (and for riders to meet Olympic standards), so the level of competition will be more intense than ever, with riders fighting for every position.
Held in the scenic Vysocina region southeast of Prague, the event is headquartered at the Czech Nordic and Biathlon centre, providing a superb stadium (doubled in size from last year) for fans to watch the start and finish of the racing, and cheer on their countryman, defending men's champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized).
The action begins with the eliminator on Friday, an exciting short course event that has riders sprint around a course filled with obstacles, with the top two moving on to the next round after each heat. Usually, the eliminator runs heats of four riders at a time, however, Nove Mesto will run six on the track at once, to make the racing even more exciting.
The course has been totally redesigned from last year and will take place mostly on asphalt, meaning that spectators are likely to see multiple bunch sprint finishes. Annie Last (Milka Brentjens) and American Brian Lopes (Ibis) won the first round in Houffalize, Belgium, last month, but the tight racing and crashes mean that they are by no means assured of repeating.
The cross country circuit is similar to last year, with the long climbs through the surrounding forest requiring tremendous fitness, plus technical descents demanding concentration and skill to do well. However, organizers have made a few changes to the course. It has been lengthened to 4.46 kilometres with the addition of a BMX-style technical section at the far end of the course. This will require both speed and technical skill - a rider could easily open a gap here, or drop out of contention with a mistake.
On Sunday, it is expected that the elite men will do six laps (plus a start loop) and the elite women one lap less.
One other factor could be the weather. Currently, it is sunny and in the low-20s (degrees Celsius). However, a cold front is moving in for the weekend, with frost expected on Saturday night, and it could be as low as single digits for the start of the women's race.
World champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna) leads the women's World Cup standings after her dominating performance in Houffalize, Belgium, but she is tied on points with Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkowice) at 410. The 2011 World Cup champion Julie Bresset (BH-SR Suntour-Peisey Vallandry) sits in third place at 340 points, just 20 points ahead of Emily Batty (Subaru-Trek). Pendrel and Bresset finished 1-2 in Nove Mesto last year, so expect them both to be contenders, along with Wloszczowska. One other rider who is sure to be in the mix is Pendrel's teammate Katerina Nash, a local Czech rider who began her international sports career here as a Nordic skier.
For the men, it should be an exciting battle between defending champion and local hero Kulhavy, the current World Cup leader Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower), and World Cup round two winner Julien Absalon (Orbea). Kulhavy dominated the entire World Cup season last year, including his home win in Nove Mesto, however, this year he has been building his fitness slower and is currently ranked seventh in the overall standings. This trio finished one-two-three last year, and it will be interesting to see if the influx of 20,000 local fans will inspire Kulhavy to new levels and a repeat win.