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Following last year's highly successful debut in the US Pro XCT series, the Wisconsin Off-Road Race Series (WORS) will again host the North America's best talent in round five of USA Cycling's cross country series. The Wisconsin race last season laid claim to having the biggest and most vocal crowds of the year, a fantastic course, and a well-greased race organization.
Young Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek) rocked the off-road cycling world at last year's race by winning his first-ever pro event. Throughout the race he battled with Todd Wells (Specialized), Max Plaxton (Specialized) and his own teammate Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Trek). Nothing was certain until the last lap when Schultz made the winning move.
"I'm pumped for the Wisconsin race" Schultz recently told Cyclingnews. "It's been nice to have some time at home to get a bunch of training in, and I'm motivated for this next block of races. I have been feeling really good and I can't wait to defend my win. I'll give it everything I have out there."
The race dynamic this year will be quite different now that Wells and Plaxton are teammates. Racers who find themselves in a breakaway with Wells and Plaxton have found that they are tag-teamed unmercifully. On paper, the same four riders appear to be the favorites this year, so it may turn out to be a Trek-Specialized war.
Both Horgan-Kobelski and Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) seem to be off to a slower than average start this season. In fact, this is the first time in many years that Kabush is win-less at this point in the season. Whether age is catching up with these venerable racers, or if they simply have not hit their stride yet is not yet known. While JHK is confirmed to be competing in Wisconsin, Kabush's intentions are not known.
Plaxton currently leads the US Pro XCT series with 770 points over Wells who has 730 points. Each has one victory, with Wells winning the Sea Otter Classic and Plaxton winning at the Mellow Johnny's Classic. Schultz currently sits in third position, followed by Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) and Horgan-Kobelski.
The course at Mt. Morris got rave reviews from the racers last year. As a small ski area, the climbs are punchy but not long. Racers are treated to a ride through "Fern Valley", a cool green paradise that is shockingly beautiful. The descent off the mountain has some interesting rock gardens and drops that will keep riders alert and well behind their saddles.
A dark horse in the race is Adam Craig (Rabobank-Giant). In any given year it is almost impossible to predict when Craig will come onto form, only that he eventually will. As one of America's most talented racers, he is capable of laying down the law if the fitness is there.
Bishop (Cannondale), who just won the seven-day Tran-Sylvania stage race, and had impressive early season victories at Bonelli Park and Fontana, will be absent due to competing at the marathon world championships in Italy.
Georgia Gould (Luna Pro Team) was the class of the women's field last year and is certainly the favorite coming into this year's race. She won the Teva Games two weeks ago in Colorado and now trails Lea Davision (Specialized) by only 10 points in the US Pro XCT Series. Davison, still a threat to win, seems to have been surpassed by Gould in recent head-to-head competitions.
"I am really looking forward to racing in Wisconsin. The course is awesome," said Gould. "It's fun, challenging and very spectator-friendly. Last year I was very impressed with the spectator turnout and the enthusiasm of the local community. I have no doubt it will be bigger and better this year! "
Chloe Forsman (BMC) currently owns third place but is just 20 points ahead of Emily Batty (Trek-Subaru). Batty has been a brilliant signing by Trek Team Manager Jon Rourke, who lost Willow Koerber due to her transfer to the Trek World Team.
A very consistent Batty has scored a podium placing at ever Pro XCT that she had attended this season and she's earned three top-20s at all three World Cups thus far.
"Emily has assimilated to the new bikes (29er) and team very well and I think it shows in her confidence and performance," said Rourke. "I think her results and podiums have really surprised everyone, especially so soon in the season. I definitely didn't think her success would be so immediate."
"While this will be Batty's first Subaru Cup race, she just scored a victory a the Hardwod Hills Canada Cup race which is on similar terrain."
Katie Compton (Giant-Rabobank) could be a factor in the cross country race as well. Her mountain biking results have been improving as highlighted by her podium ride at the Val di Sole, Italy World Cup last season. If she can stay with Gould on the short climbs, she has a chance. Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Trek) is normally in the mix at this time of year and can be expected to come out with all guns blazing.
The other two stars of the Luna Pro Team; Catharine Pendrel and Katerina Nash will not be competing in Wisconsin.
At last year's race, Adam Craig (Giant-Rabobank) had just been cleared to ride after completing rehab for serious ACL surgery. As such it was a shock to see him riding in the top 10 during the short track race. At the mid-race point he seemed to will himself to move forward, powering his bike in his familiar upright style, but with a somewhat uneven pedal stroke due to his injury.
Over the past several years, Craig has developed a distinctive racing style. He often starts slowly, picks off riders who are tiring, and then appears to go totally anaerobic as he chases down the leaders. It is not uncommon that he will have the fastest recorded lap time in the process. In 2009, Craig employed this pattern of riding to win the short track national championship at Sol Vista, Colorado.
Craig has yet to notch his first win this season, nor has current US National Champion Todd Wells. Max Plaxton has been on fire, winning the last two US Pro XCT short track events. In what has become "the year of Max Plaxton", all eyes will be on the Canadian as the race favorite.
Lea Davison and Georgia Gould have put on quite a display of fireworks in this season's short track events. Gould, the current US National Champion, has to be considered the favorite based on her impressive mid-season form. Chloe Forsman (BMC) won the short track event at Fontana, California, and will certainly be looking for a podium finish as well. Emily Batty may be the dark horse in this race. She has been improving rapidly, and proved at the 2010 Sea Otter Classic that winning at short track is within her reach.
Nobody will be surprised if Katie Compton, winner of the 2010 Subaru Cup Short Track race, does it again. Compton is one of the very best cyclo-cross racers in the world, and as such can lay down massive power and speed in short contests. It is not hard to imagine Gould and Compton participating in the biking equivalent of a heavyweight-boxing match this coming Sunday.
Katerina Nash, who has dominated North American short track racing for years, will be absent. She intends to do some local events near her home in Truckee, California. Nash, now one of the top cyclo-cross racers on the planet, appears to be tailoring her season for a fresh run at a world championships in 2012.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for updates and photos coming from the races in Wisconsin.