This weekend, Europe's fastest cross country racers are meeting up in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands, for the European Championships. The team relay was set to kick off the action on Thursday, with junior races on Friday, Under 23 races on Saturday and elite races on Sunday.
The 5.3km circuit has been described as fast and without much climbing. The course is built around three man-made hills, the first and second are about 15m high, and the final one is 20m high. Riders will climb the hills multiple times per lap, but the climbs will only take between 15 and 25 seconds each. The downhills are described by organizers as "loose gravel", but "never very technical". Each lap should take about 13-14 minutes to complete, and racers have been commenting that they are expecting a tactical battle.
In the elite races, the man to beat would be Frenchman Julien Absalon of Orbea. He's proven his form already this year at the World Cups with several wins; however, he'll be sitting out this weekend's racing to prepare for the upcoming World Cups. Therefore, Massi's Jean Christoph Peraud, also of France, will be looking for a good result for France as will a third Frenchman Stephane Tempier, who was runner up to Absalon in last weekend's Coupe de France round.
Another man to watch will be Jose Antonio Hermida, who will be racing for the Spanish team. The Multivan Merida rider said, "I feel good and very motivated, but I would prefer that the race would fall later on the calendar. If you are already strong at this race, it's difficult to keep your form for Worlds (in September). For me, the European Championships are very important; it is a competition that I always prepare for intensively."
Hermida has won three European titles and finished as a runner-up once. He'll be joined by fellow Spaniard Ivan Alvarez Gutierrez, who races for Team Giant Italia.
"My aim is not the European Championships, because there's not a lot of climbing," said World Marathon Champion Roel Paulissen. "However, I"d like to ride a tactical race and help Sven Nys. I've never ridden in Zoetermeer so I don't know what to expect."
The Swiss team always fields a strong contingent and it could include World Champion Christoph Sauser, Swiss Champion Florian Vogel, Nino Schurter and Ralf Naef, just to name a few, and the German's could pull off a win with Moritz Milatz or Wolfram Kurschat.
The favorite in the women's race is current cross country World Champion Marga Fullana of Spain. The Team Massi rider has been in Zoetermeer since Wednesday. She and teammate Anna Villar will be two strong contenders in the women's race.
"The European Championship is between two World Cups, somewhat isolated on the calendar, which is why I haven't prepared to my maximum - although I've trained hard," said Fullana. "I have to think about what objectives will come later, especially the World Cups and the World Championships. In any case, I hope to give everything in the race."
Sabine Spitz, Elisabeth Osl and Irina Kalentieva are just some of the women who could pull off a podium, too.
At the the time of publication, a start list was not available.
Zoetermeer is also considering putting in a World Championships bid, something which may become possible for the relatively flat city since the UCI said two years ago that it would become possible to organize the various disciplines of the mountain bike World Championships separately.
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.