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Three weeks post-Olympics, favorites are back in action in Saalfelden, Austria
Defending world champion Catharine Pendrel (Canada) practices the dropoff at the top of the course
Just three weeks after the Olympic Games, elite cross country racers are back in action for their final major match-up of the season: the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships. While some riders are hoping to stretch their Olympic form for a few more weeks, those who did not race the Olympics or who had back luck there will come into the weekend with fresh legs and plenty of motivation.
Austria last hosted the world championships in 2002 in Kaprun. Saalfelden is the venue for this year's cross country world championship events, including the team relay, cross country and the first-ever eliminator.
The action will kick off Thursday evening at 5:00 pm with the team relay, made up of teams from each country. Four riders - one elite man, one elite woman, one U23 man and one junior man comprise each team. Teams can start their riders in any order - that is part of the strategy - each rider does one lap of the cross country course in his or her turn.
France, Switzerland, Italy, Czech Republic and Germany topped last year's standings in that order and are again favorites. Canada and the US are both fielding strong teams this year and could surprise with a medal, especially on a day when slippery course conditions are expected.
Beat Wabel designed the 4.5km course in Saalfelden. It features 180m of altitude variation per lap, with two primary climbs, one of which is mostly on pavement. Race durations will vary from 45 minutes to one hour and 45 minutes, depending on the category.
Located within walking distance of downtown, the cross country racing is expected to draw up to 10,000 spectators over the weekend.
Coming so soon after the Olympic Games, a rematch of sorts is expected between defending world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) and last year's runner-up Nino Schurter (Swizterland). But as seen in the Olympic Games, surprises can come from anywhere, including bronze medallist Marco Fontana (Italy).
"The course is nice. It's nicer than I expected," said Fontana to Cyclingnews. "Once I did the first loop, I thought it would be nice to ride - tough for sure, but every race is tough. There are some fast sections on the tarmac and gravel roads and there are also some technical spots with a few roots and rocks. It will be interesting to race and for spectators."
His Cannondale Factory Racing trade teammate Manuel Fumic of Germany said, "Like Marco, I had expected the course to be more like a German autobahn after last year's test event here. I thought it might be a boring course, but when I rode it yesterday, it was quite exciting - we had a lot of fun. There are a lot of turns and fast and slow sections, with some technical stuff. I think it will be a fast race course if it is dry. It will be muddy and dangerous if it is wet."
Julien Absalon (France) will be looking to redeem his DNF Olympic performance while other top riders such as Switzerland's Lukas Flückiger, who was not selected to race the Olympics, are expected to be fresher and more motivated to finish off their seasons with a top world championship performance. Jose Hermida and Carlos Coloma (Spain) and Mathias Flückiger and Florian Vogel (Switzerland) are also racers to watch while 2008 world champion Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) will be in his final cross country Worlds.
Several North Americans can't be counted out, including Canadian Geoff Kabush and Americans Todd Wells and Sam Schultz, who put in impressive races in London. Canadian Max Plaxton, who earned her first World Cup podium this season, is out due to a knee injury.
Wells told Cyclingnews, "We've been riding the course all week, and it's been really dry and fast and bumpy. There are a bunch of roots and steep things out there, but it's pretty straightforward although with all this rain overnight, today's team relay will probably be more slippery and technical than if it is dry on cross country race day."
"Champery [which hosted 2011 Worlds] was probably the most technical course we had last year. It had a very steep climb and the rest was totally flat. This course doesn't have any steep climbs or any flats. It's more of a gradual climbing or descending the whole time kind of course."
The women's race should prove just as exciting with a head-to-head match-up expected between defending world champion Catharine Pendrel (Canada) and freshly crowned Olympian Julie Bresset (France). Bresset raced as a U23 at Worlds last year and is a first-year elite rider, and she and Pendrel have been battling each other all season.
Sadly, Maja Wloszczowska (Poland), who was last year's runner-up after an unfortunate flat tire, will be absent as she continues to recover from a broken foot and ankle sustained in July. Last year's bronze medal finisher Eva Lechner (Italy) could return to the podium.
Others to watch include Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway), who has won two World Cups this season, and Olympic bronze medallist Georgia Gould (United States). Olympic silver medallist Sabine Spitz (Germany) often comes through on the big day as done another former world champion Irina Kalentieva (Russia). Nathalie Schneitter (Switzerland), Marie-Helene Premont (Canada), Katerina Nash (Czech), Heather Irmiger (United States) and Alexandra Engen (Sweden) could also contend.
"I had no expectations about the course," said Gould to Cyclingnews. "It seems like a good one with a little bit of everything. I expect it to be the same people, but I never count anyone out. You never know at the big races and everyone has a breakout race sometimes."
American Lea Davison has been steadily moving up the women's ranks the last and this season and could surprise the others.
"I think the climbs are kind of Windham-esque," said Davison to Cyclingnews. "The climbs are shallower, but not as long, so it's pretty much two gradual climbs and some technical roots in there. The woods section is like Champery. There are some steep chutes and rooty singletrack. It's pretty straightforward - I like it."
Emily Batty (Canada) will be back in action following her courageous performanc in London, where she raced the Olympic Games with a broken collarbone. Her Subaru-Trek team manager Jon Rourke said Batty is healing well and this course in Saalfelden, with more dirt than rocks, should not be as hard on Batty's still mending collarbone.
The U23 women will kick off the cross country racing on Friday morning, followed by the U23 men and the junior women. Saturday's racing will include junior men, elite women and elite men.
The exact number of laps per race will not be determined until closer to the races, likely after UCI official see how long the laps take during the team relay.
Eliminator cross country
For the first time ever, the eliminator will be a world championship event and how it will be received is something many are waiting to see.
Three World Cups included eliminator events this season, but many of the favorites skipped them as they focused their preparations on the Olympic Games. With this eliminator being held after the marquee cross country races, many of the top cross country favorites will join in the action. The lure of rainbow-striped jerseys is strong.
The elite men and women will do qualifying and finals for the eliminator on Sunday afternoon in downtown Saalfelden. To make the event even more spectator-friendly, the racing will not kick off until 1:30 pm, allowing plenty of time for fans to recover from the celebrations planned downtown for Saturday night.
After some rain on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, weather conditions are expected to improve and stay nice throughout the weekend. Mostly sunny conditions and temperatures in the low 70s (degrees Fahrenheit) are expected. The course should mostly dry out in time for the cross country races.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage from the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.