A brutal challenge faces riders in the final Olympic showdown for mountain bikers in the fourth round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in La Bresse, France this weekend. It is the last event that can earn qualifying points for London with riders from virtually every nation fighting for Olympic selection.
That is the case for New Zealand where Whakatane mother Karen Hanlen and Beijing Olympian Rosara Joseph are locked in a duel for the solitary spot available for kiwis in the elite women's class.
La Bresse, which is in the Alsace region of France, borders both Germany and Switzerland, adjacent to the Rhine. It is the first time a cross country World Cup has been held in the region, which seems fitting given that the French superstar Julien Absalon lives nearby.
The 4.9km cross country course features a steep climb on rocky and uneven singletrack, with a second higher climb before a steep downhill technical descent.
Hanlen, 32, who had a taste of World Cup action last year, has been in superb form throughout an unbeaten New Zealand summer. She took this form on to this year's World Cup with an eighth placing in South Africa, 18th in Belgium and 26th in the Czech Republic last week where she had mechanical issues after being caught in a crash.
"I really hope to have a good race in La Bresse, and I've never ridden there before so not sure what to expect but it is going to be testing," Hanlen said.
"After I got caught behind the crash it made it really hard to pass slower riders once you hit the single track. A good start will be important this weekend."
Joseph, the Rabobank Giant professional, has been aiming for her best form at this part of the season. She was 11th in South Africa, 38th in Belgium and edged Hanlen for the first time at the 2012 World Cup for 22nd at the Czech Republic, where she too was dogged by a mechanical issue with a flat front tyre.
"I tried hard last week and couldn't have done much more in the circumstance," Joseph said. "I've had a couple of weeks of hard training and racing and so this week has been cruisy and I feel fresher and stronger."
Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour), who leads the women's World Cup standings after winning round three, can expect strong competition from Catharine Pendrel (Luna), who won round two, Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon) and round one winner Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkwice).
In total, five New Zealanders will be in action over the weekend, including the Rotorua's pair of Dirk Peters and Sam Shaw and Rotorua-based Wellingtonian Samara Shepperd, all in the under 23 division. Shepperd, riding for the Wheelers IXS team, was in brilliant form to finish fourth last weekend in the Czech Republic.
The under 23 racing is on Saturday with the elite women and men on Sunday. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage from La Bresse.