Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, will play host to the opening round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Series for the third time this coming weekend, hosting both the cross country and downhill disciplines. It will be the first chance this year to see all of the top international stars gathered in one place.
Pietermaritzburg will serve two additional functions - as a test run for the world championships to be held here in 2013, and as the first of four World Cups that offer the critical ranking points that will determine how many starting spots each nation will receive for the men's and women's cross country races at the Olympic Games in London this summer.
The importance of the event is reflected in the depth of the fields. Only three of the top-50 ranked cross country men are missing from the start list, and only six of the top-50 women did not make the trip to Pietermaritzburg. On the downhill side, 17 of the top-20 men are in Pietermaritzburg and 12 of the top-15 women.
While the downhill course has undergone some changes to the technical sections at the top of the track, this 3.12-kilometre run is known more for the physical demands it places on the riders than it is for its technical difficulty. A hard pedalling section in the middle called Khathala ("Tired" in Zulu) means that to do well requires power and endurance. The real unknown is the weather - currently, the course is dry and fast, but if it rains, the top layer of the clay will get extremely slick, and cornering will become a major concern.
Tracy Moseley, the defending women's champion in Pietermaritzburg and 2011 World Cup champion, has turned her focus to the new eliminator event (to begin at the Houffalize World Cup), and Rachel Atherton is still undergoing therapy for the shoulder she injured previously, so these two big names are missing from the women's start list. However, the 2011 World Cup runner up, Floriane Pugin (Scott 11), leads a strong French contingent that includes Myriam Nicole (Commencal/Riding Addiction), Sabrina Jonnier (Labyrinth Shimano) and world champion Emmeline Ragot. Another who could do well on this power course is British rider Fionn Griffiths. American champion Jill Kintner (Team Norco) will also be looking to get on the podium.
For the men, US champion Aaron Gwin (Trek World Racing) is the defending Pietermaritzburg winner, and the World Cup champion, after dominating last season. However, he will go up against hometown favourite Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), who won here in 2009, and finished second last year. Also sure to be in the mix are Gee Atherton (GT Factory) and world champion Danny Hart (Giant Factory). Canada's Steve Smith (Devinci Global Racing), fifth overall in the World Cup last year, despite missing the final event after breaking his leg in training, will be looking to improve upon his sixth place last year.
The cross country course has been extensively reworked, and the riders are praising the changes. The circuit has been shortened by 300 metres (to 5.4 kilometres), and consists of two loops out and back to the finish area. Many of the extremely steep climbs have been replaced by longer, more steady climbs and switchbacks on hardpacked, fast trails. At this time, the plan is for six laps for the elite men, five for the elite women and U23 men, four for the U23 women and junior men, and three laps for the junior women. Rain could reduce these numbers, since the ground gets extremely slippery in the wet.
The climbs are interspersed with hard technical sections. Sharka's Playground, at the far end of the second loop, is a big log drop that has already claimed a number of injuries in training, including American champion Todd Wells (Specialized), who had to be brought out on an ATV after crashing hard on Wednesday, injurying his ankle and whacking his head. The team says that the main concern is his ankle, and he will rest for a day before testing it on Friday and making a decision about Saturday's start. The final major tech zone is the Tree House rock garden, a long boulder-filled descent with a left turn towards the bottom.
In the men's field, the big question is whether Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized) can repeat his incredible performance of last year, when he won five World Cups, the World Cup title and became the world champion. After finishing second to Kulhavy multiple times last year, defending Pietermaritzburg winner Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) hopes to break that streak, as do Julien Absalon (Orbea) and Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida).
This fast course will also suit riders such as Marco Fontana (Cannondale Factory) and Thomas Litscher (Felt Oetztal X - Bionic), and local favourite Burry Stander (Specialized) will certainly be looking for a strong result.
Another name to watch will be Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud. Peraud is the 2008 Olympic silver medalist, who then successfully switched to the road, and was the top French rider in last year's Tour de France, as well as finishing third a week ago in the Paris-Nice time trial. However, he has decided to try and qualify for the Olympics in mountain bike, and will begin here in Pietermaritzburg. Peraud will start at the back of the field, but the hard fast track and his fitness will enable him to move up quickly.
In the women's cross country, look for 2011 World Cup champion Julie Bresset (BH-SR Suntour-Peisey Vallandry) and reigning world champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna) to resume the battle that resulted in one of the closest finishes in history for the World Cup title last season. Others to watch include Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkowice), Eva Lechner (Colnago Sudtirol) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon). Another name to keep an eye on is Willow Koerber Rockwell (Trek World Racing), a top rider returning to competition 10 weeks after giving birth to her daughter.
One of the worst kept secrets is the prototype Di2 XTR system that Shimano is race testing. Or, is it a new fork with an electronic lockout? Both Catharine Pendrel and Geoff Kabush are on it, as can been seen by the batteries attached to their frames. However, Pendrel said that she has been asked not to talk about it. No one will confirm or deny either story.