The fourth round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup takes place, almost literally, in Julien Absalon's backyard. The two-time Olympic champion lives only 10 kilometres away from La Bresse, France, and his image fills the local shop windows. Organizers are estimating a crowd of up to 25,000 could show up to cheer on Sunday.
La Bresse, nestled in the Alsace region by the German and Swiss borders, has twice held a downhill World Cup, but for 2012 will hold its first cross country event. The competition holds additional significance, since it is the final event in the Olympic qualifying period for the London Games in just over three month's time. While Nations' rankings for the Olympics are all but decided, there are still many riders looking to qualify for their nation's Olympic spots, so riders will be fighting for every position.
The action will begin on Friday evening with the third and final round of the new eliminator World Cup. The first two rounds have produced different winners for both the men and women in each event, so this race is wide open. La Bresse has routed the sub-1000 metre course through the spectator-friendly village, with lots of sharp corners and stairs. This race is likely to favour men's round one winner Brian Lopes more than round two's wide open power circuit.
The organizers have made full use of the slopes surrounding the town in designing their cross country course. After a short start loop, riders head up the valley to tackle the major climb of the 4.9-kilometre circuit. It is a steep, singletrack climb with roots and rocks that depends both strength and technical skill. From there, the riders traverse the slope and hit the second part of the climb - a more open, gradual one to the highest point of the course. After this it is, literally, all downhill to the finish, on a twisting, technical run where skilled riders will open gaps.
World champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna), who has been riding the course, said, "The course is great. I got a couple laps in today [Wednesday]. It starts in the village of La Bresse. It looks like there will be a short start loop. The full lap will go along the river in town along pathways until we wind ourselves up the mountain. The climbing is sustained and fairly steep with a variety of surfaces becoming more technically challenging the higher you climb. I believe the total course climbing is just under 200m per lap."
"The descending is great. They make great use of the altitude by winding us slowly down the mountain through a series of natural rock formations, twisty chutes and a fair amount of knee height natural rock drops."
Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour), who leads the women's World Cup standings after winning round three, can expect strong competition from Pendrel (Luna), who won round two, as well as Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), who was second at round three, and round one winner Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkwice). A win by Pendrel could put her back in the lead of the World Cup standings.
In the men's competition, Switzerland's Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) has a firm lock on the World Cup lead, with two wins and a second. However, second round winner Absalon, who did not finish last weekend after crashing and not feeling well, will certainly be drawing inspiration from the legions of fans who will be on hand to cheer on their hero. World Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized), after a slow start to the season, battled Schurter until the final kilometre last weekend, and is starting to show the form that won him the World Cup and world championship title last season.