Under new management by USA Cycling, the US national cross country series, the Pro XCT, comes to Fontana, California, this weekend. The opening round will also count as part of the Kenda Cup West qualifying series, the So Cal State Championship series, and the Southridge USA series.
Pro racers will compete in cross country, short track and super D racing while amateurs will compete in cross country, super D, downhill, and four cross events that are part of the Southridge series. While all this may seem a bit confusing, it is part of USA Cycling's new model for holding a Pro XCT events at existing race venues that have a proven track record.
Spectators will be treated to seeing some of the best mountain bikers on the planet at Fontana. Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team) was rated first or second in the world during most of last year. Luna's Georgia Gould has won three years in a row at Fontana, and Bromont World Cup winner Lene Byberg (Specialized) is spending a few weeks in sunny California and will be the X-Factor among those in the Fontana field.
"I wanted to do a different pre-season than other years. It's been very a very cold winter in Europe, plus I wanted to visit Dr. Andrew Pruitt at the same time," said Byberg of the time she is spending in California. "I like America and wanted to see more of its races and courses."
Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis/Rocky Mountain) is undefeated at Fontana. He admits that some of that was luck (due to a crash in 2006), and he won in 2008 after repeatedly being dropped by the leaders. In 2009, he faced a formidable challenge from Sho-Air's best riders, Sid Taberlay and Max Plaxton. Kabush finally pulled away to win it on the last lap.
"I think Sid (Taberlay) and Max (Plaxton) will definitely be at the front of the race again as they both have the skills and shape and have shown that," said Kabush of his expecations for this year's race. "It is always the usual suspects as well with Todd (Wells) and JHK (Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski) but I think Sam Schultz (Gary Fisher) is going to be playing an increasingly larger role in the outcome of the national events, and hopefully internationally as well."
Schultz finished third at the Bonelli Park Triple Crown opener ahead of established mountain biking stars Todd Wells (Specialized), Kabush, Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale), and former champion Ryan Trebon (Kona). This could be the year he makes a big splash on both the domestic and World Cup circuits.
Loaded with talent, the Sho-Air/Specialized Team is hot right now. Sid Taberlay won the Sagebrush Safari in San Diego, while Max Plaxton rode away from everyone at Bonelli Park two weeks ago. Teammate Manny Prado, the La Ruta champion, can also help out with team tactics.
The cross country course at Fontana underwent a major redesign last year. It proved to be much more challenging than in the past with a steep, technical climb, followed by technical downhill singletrack. Even the leaders were forced off their bikes at times due to deep sand and rocky obstacles. For the first time, a major section of the course was open to pros only and that section played a big part in determining the winners.
"The course is more condensed, more technical - a better mountain bike course," said Craig. "I definitely got a little loose a couple times on the bottom of the pro section and didn't die which is good." Unfortunately the former US cross country National Champion and ex-Olympian is recovering from knee surgery and will miss the race this year.
On the women's side, there is likely to be a battle between Byberg, Pendrel and Georgia Gould. Last year, Gould's superior power on the flats, combined with her descending ability, made up for Pendrel's climbing prowess. "Georgia was really schooling me on the dowhhills," said Pendrel. "Whatever gaps I would get on the climbs, she would reel me in between the flats and the descents."
Other riders with a chance of knocking off the favorites are US cross country National Champion Heather Irmiger (Gary Fisher/Subaru) and teammate Willow Koerber. While they have never won at Fontana, they always seem to be on the podium. Irmiger raised her game considerably last year by winning two national championships, and Koerber rode herself onto the World Cup podium in Bromont, Canada, and to a bronze medal at the World Championships.
Newly signed Under 23 Trek World Team rider Emily Batty has made the Fontana podium each of the past two years. She has been training hard in sunny Tucson for several months and is hoping to get her season off to a good start. The Toronto native is a leading contender to win the Under 23 World Championship this year at Mont Sainte Anne.
Just as athletes from Olympic host countries seem to step up their game, many North American racers are hoping to peak for the World Cup race being held this summer in Windham, New York, followed by the World Championships at Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec. That means that the competition for this weekend's coveted UCI points will be fierce as it helps determine critical starting positions at those races.
Short track racing
The short track race at Fontana is always the crowd favorite of the weekend. The course has some short steep climbs, whoops, berms, and a flat run into the start/finish. The cumulative climbing takes its toll, and only the fittest riders can maintain fast lap times throughout the event.
Predicting a winner in the men's race is nearly impossible. Geoff Kabush will certainly be the favorite, but newly crowned Australian short track national champion Sid Taberlay will provide some stiff competition. Todd Wells led the short track series last season and will try to do the same this year. Former short track champion Barry Wicks (Kona) will be in the field, as will his teammate Ryan Trebon.
Katerina Nash is the favorite in any short track race she enters, having dominated short track racing in the US for the past five years. US short track National Champion Georgia Gould can certainly win on occasion as well, and usually battles Nash right to the end. Heather Irmiger showed at the Colorado Springs race last season that her short track skills have improved dramatically. Finally, Sea Otter short track winner Emily Batty could beat them all again. The difference this year is that she will be taken much more seriously by the other favorites.
Super D racing
With Adam Craig on the sidelines, his Giant Teammates will surely be trying to take up the slack. Carl Decker, who won at Fontana last year and led the short track series most of the season, is the clear favorite. Travis Livermon made the podium last year and is most likely to be the one to push Decker. The biggest challenge with the super D race for the pros in the field is that it will start only 30 minutes after their short track race. That could tilt the advantage to one of the top Cat. 1 racers.
Kelli Emmett, one of the most consistent super D racers in the country, won the women's race ahead of Sue Butler last year. Emmett is showing some amazing early season form right now and has a lot of experience on the Fontana course. Butler is making her return to racing after ending her cyclo-cross season early to get her asthma under control.
The super D course features a Le Mans start followed a very steep climb to the top of the mountain. This has clearly favored the cross country racers riding relatively light bikes. Racers then ride some technical downhill singletrack, a long flat fire road, and finally a bit of singletrack through the trees.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews this weekend for all the latest results, reporting, and photos coming from Fontana.