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Gravity racers converge in Maribor, Slovenia for World Cup

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Andrew Neethling of Trek World Racing during downhill practice

Andrew Neethling of Trek World Racing during downhill practice (Image credit: Gary Perkin)
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The four cross track after practice.

The four cross track after practice. (Image credit: Gary Perkin)

The cross country teams get a week off in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, as the focus shifts to the first gravity-only event of the 2010 season at Maribor, Slovenia. Maribor first appeared on the World Cup schedule in 1999 and, while having hosted cross country events, it is primarily known as a downhill and four cross venue. For 2010, Maribor will host round two of the four cross series and the opening event in downhill competition.

Maribor is known for fast courses that make good use of the local terrain, particularly rough, rocky sections and rooty, twisty runs through woods. For 2010, both the four cross and downhill courses will look familiar to riders, with minor changes only.

On the 2,500-metre downhill course (448 metres total vertical drop), the riders have been re-routed to a different line through the rock garden, while the main change on the four cross circuit is the removal of the banked wall riders used to hit halfway down.

However, it has been raining, which is expected to continue through the weekend. This has turned formerly fast, tight lines into muddy, slippery ones, particularly near the finish where construction of a new gondola has transformed the area into a quagmire.

In the four cross, World Champion Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox) is once again the favourite for the men, after winning the opening round in Houffalize. Dutch rider Joost Wichman, who won at Maribor last year, will be looking to make the final he missed in the opening round, while Tomas Slavik (RSP 4 Cross Racing) and Michal Prokop (Agang Racing) will be looking to improve on their previous second and third placings.

Czech rider Jana Horakova won the first World Cup leader's jersey of her career in Houffalize, and will be aiming to extend her lead in the women's race, however, World Champion Caroline Buchanan of Australia is hoping to repeat her win in Maribor, and was fastest in qualifying. Defending World Cup champion Anneke Beerten (Suspension Centre) will also be looking to put her crash at Houffalize behind her.

In the downhill, one big name will be missing from the men's competition - defending Maribor champion Fabien Barel of France, who recently broke his leg in training. The rest of the top pros are expected to put on a fierce battle in the effort to become the first rider of the season to don the World Cup leader's jersey.

On the women's side, Rachel Atherton (Commencal) is returning to competition after missing the 2009 season due to a pre-season training accident. She will be up against World Champion Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Centre) and defending World Cup champion Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), who won in Maribor last year.

In the men's action, the Santa Cruz Syndicate duo of Greg Minnaar and world champion Steve Peat will go up against Chris Kovarik (Chain Reaction), Gee Atherton (Commencal) and the always competitive Sam Hill (Monster Energy-Specialized). Hill will be racing for the first time this year after a mysterious injury kept him out of early season competition. In timed training, in the mud, top riders were turning in 3:12 to 3:15 runs - roughly 10 seconds slower than in the dry last year.