- Sue George, Mountain Bike Editor
Pietermaritzburg hosts cross country and downhill riders from around the globe
The first-ever UCI Mountain Bike Worlds to be held in Africa kicks off on Wednesday in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. For the rest of the week, mountain bikers will compete in the team relay, cross country, downhill, eliminator and trials disciplines.
Pietermaritzburg previously hosted the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, and the well-organized event has stepped up to a new level by taking on the job of hosting the Worlds.
Competition opens on Wednesday with the team relay. Each nation will field four riders - one elite man, one U23 man, one junior man and one woman, with each taking a turn doing a lap. The order of the riders is up to each team and plays a key role in the strategy of the winning squads.
Switzerland, France, Italy and Czech Republic often bring strong teams and will be among the favorites, but any nation can surprise with a good ride. Italy won the most recent Worlds, held last year in Saalfelden, Austria.
At the time of this posting, the start list for the team relay was not available, so no one knows which cross country riders will feature from each nation.
The cross country races will feature from Thursday through Saturday, with the juniors racing the first day, followed by the U23s on the second day and the elites on the weekend.
Among the favorites for the elite men's race are defending champion Nino Schurter (Switzerland) and former world champions Julien Absalon (France), Jose Hermida (Spain) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic). Although Schurter has been beating Absalon for most of the season, the Frenchman pulled off the win at the most recent World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, Canada.
It's not a super technical course, but there are short, intense technical sections. As has happened at the World Cups this year, Absalon will have to attack on a climb to get away from Schurter and then hope for good mechanical luck to hold a lead until the end. Schurter will probably have the upper hand on the rock gardens and more gradual climbs.
Kulhavy hasn't had a strong World Cup season, but as the Olympics proved, the Czech rider knows how to pull off a one-day race victory as well as anyone. Hermida is recovering from a cold and hoping to feel better in time for the weekend.
"I'm still sounding a little like a truck driver, but in the next five days and with this good weather, I should feel better," said a congested Hermida to Cyclingnews. "It's just a cold. I hope to recover and do my best if I can."
In the elite women's race, several women could take the title. Defending champion Julie Bresset (France) is a bit of an unknown after breaking her collarbone earlier this year, but she seems to be regaining form and confidence each race since she has gotten back on her bike.
Tanja Zakelj (Slovenia), a former U23 world champion, has been extremely strong on the World Cup circuit, pulling off wins. No longer an unknown rider, Zakelj commented to Cyclingnews that she does feel more pressure and more like a marked woman than she used to.
Eva Lechner (Italy) has never won an elite world title, but is consistently strong at international events and could pull off a win.
Former world champions Maja Wloszczowska (Poland), Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway) and Catharine Pendrel (Canada) can never be counted out. Pendrel hasn't had a strong season, having missed the middle of it for a broken collarbone although Wloszczowska and current marathon world champion Dahle Flesjaa have put in some strong World Cup performances.
Riders like Sabine Spitz (Germany), Georgia Gould (USA), Emily Batty (Canada), Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) and Lea Davison (USA) could bring home medals.
The cross country course is 3.094 miles or 4.979km long and features two main loops. Races typically range from one hour to two hours, depending on the category. The number of laps also varies by category, with the elite men likely to do seven laps and the elite women likely to do six. Lap times measured during the team relay will help organizers in finalizing numbers of laps for each category for the rest of the week's races.
After a 350m long start straight, loop one of the cross country course kicks off with a sharp climb called Red Face Hill, where racers will likely bottleneck on the first lap. Then riders are off onto meandering forest tracks to Noogies Knoll, which starts with a hairpin right into the first big climb of the first loop. The bottom section is short, but it's one of the steepest sections of the track, with five switchbacks taking riders to the top. This leads into Kim's Corner - a short, technical descending section with a number of step-like drops.
A forest road, and two short sections of singletrack, take riders into the top section of Pick Up Stix. This consists of a left berm into a right berm into a short off-camber section, which has two-step downs that are positioned on a steep slope. After Pick- Up Stix, some flowing, descending singletrack leads into the top of Rapid Rocks, a hand-made rock garden and the most technical section on the first loop. Riders then cross a stream down to a new section called Buckjump Alley, four rocky mounds of soil with multiple lines. After Buckjump Alley, riders will enter Feed/Tech Zone 1 near the start/finish area.
Then it's on to loop 2, on which riders face the largest climb of the course up to Switch Back singletrack. The first portion of Switch Back is contoured, with the second half made up of short and tight switchbacks. The track continues to climb into the top of The Amphitheatre, the highest point and one of the signature features of the track. This is made up of switchbacks, berms, bridges rocks and drop-offs.
The course then goes up a short, sharp climb to the top of Sharka's Playground, where riders have three options of either a bull run, or one of two chicken runs. The bull run consists of a partial-spiral log staircase, and the first chicken run goes past the bull run on the right, off a small step-down, over a small gap jump, into a sharp left, and drops down into the main track. The second chicken run is the same as the first, but instead of the gap jump it goes left, over some log rollers.
The track descends down the Amphitheatre Extension to the bottom of Shale's Climb, which goes into Tree House Rock Garden. This has three main lines through (or over) the rocks. Riders uncomfortable with this obstacle can choose a B-line, taking them around the section. There is a short portion of singletrack between Tree House Rock Garden and the Corkscrew, which itself is a steep, bermed descent into a short, rocky section. From the bottom of the Corkscrew it's 150m to Feed/Tech Zone 2, and a completed lap. On the last lap, riders continue past the feed/tech zone to the finish.
The downhill covers 1.877 miles or 3.021km. Known as one of the least technical tracks on the World Cup circuit, the course again seems to live up to that reputation.
Hometown hero Greg Minnaar (South Africa) has to be the favorite in the men's race. Also the defending world champion, Minnaar has a bike shop across the street from the shopping mall next to course and lives nearby in Pietermaritzburg.
He'll face stiff competition from multiple World Cup winner and former world champion Gee Atherton (Great Britain), recent Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup winner Steve Smith (Canada) and former world champions Sam Hill (Australia) and Danny Hart (Great Britain). Though he hasn't had a great 2013, Aaron Gwin (United States) has never won a world championship and will be hungry for some late season success.
However, there is so much depth in the elite men's downhill field that emerging talent is always constantly improving and could have a breakout ride to stand on the podium and upset the favorites.
The women's race favorites include former world champion Rachel Atherton and defending world champion Manon Carpenter (both Great Britain) and the following French riders: Emmeline Ragot, Morgane Charre, Floriane Pugin and Myriam Nicole. Ragot is fresh off winning the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup.
Unknowns include former four cross world champion Caroline Buchanan (Australia), who is returning to downhill racing after a focus on BMX while Tracey Hannah (Australia) is just coming off injury and hasn't had much time to hone her form.
Sector one of the downhill course forms the steepest and most technical portion of the track. The start rock garden has been extended, creating a stair-step section down to the Eye Boggler rock drop. From Cloud 9, the track follows a ridge line through an off-camber singletrack to the Haibo road gap, then through the corkscrew and over the Doctor Evil gap jump. From here, speeds increase to almost 80km/h before the riders hit the N3 tabletops.
In sector two, riders have to change their riding style into the second sector, for the pedal section - a 40-second sprint. This sector tests the riders' endurance until they hit the left turn into the Bombhole and the gradient increases once again into the final sector.
Sector 3 starts with the Air-odrome bridge drop, where riders need to adjust their style once again, as the track changes from a flat-out sprinting surface to a massive supercross track. It overlaps with some of the old four cross track. Speeds again reach in excess of 60km/h, as riders are catapulted through an endless rollercoaster of berms and jumps. The final sprint to the finish includes the Moneymaker hip, a 15-metre step-down hip that wows the crowds. From there it's a massive power to the finish.
The juniors will race the downhill on Friday while the elites will compete in the finals on Sunday. Each category will get one official timed run prior to the finals; unlike in the World Cup, there is no qualifying.
The eliminator will be run on Sunday with most of the cross country riders expected to compete for another shot at a rainbow jersey. 2013 is only the second year that the eliminator is a world championship event. Last year's winners Ralph Naef (Switzerland) and Alexandra Engen (Sweden) have shown good form recently and have a shot at defending their jerseys; however, it's not uncommon for lesser known cross country riders or younger riders to surprise in this sprint-centric elimination event.
The weather has been unseasonably hot for winter in South Africa this week, with temperatures in the low 90s (F) and low 30s (C). That should continue through Thursday; however, rain storms are a possibility for Friday, when temperatures will plummet abruptly to the low 60s (F) and high teens (C) for the duration of Worlds. Those racing in the mornings later in the week could face near freezing temperatures.
The courses are notoriously fast and hard-packed when dry, but become almost impossibly slippery when wet. Riders are hoping for just a bit of rain to pack in some of the loose, marble-y sections, but not enough to turn into mud.
Race note: The four cross world championships will be held separately in Leogang, Austria in mid-September.
Gameplan Media provided editorial assistance with course descriptions.