Photo gallery: US cross country national championship course preview

The US Mountain Bike National Championships are happening this weekend in Sun Valley, Idaho. Racing got underway on Thursday with category 2/3 cross country events for riders of all ages. On Friday morning, the Under 23 and junior women will kick off their racing, followed by the Under 23 and junior men. Elite cross country races will happen on Saturday, and the short track and super D are on for Sunday for all categories.

On Thursday evening, after the amateur racing had concluded, Cyclingnews took a walk around the pro cross country course which starts at a ski area at the base of Baldy just on the edge of the town of Ketchum. It includes a sub-four mile track that after a very brief few twists and turns at the bottom of the mountain, climbs a gruelingly (dare we say soul-crushing?) steep fireroad climb before turning into fast, flowy singletrack all the way back down the mountain. The big climb up and subsequent big descent are reminiscent of the old days of ski area mountain bike racing and are rather unlike current more rolling, up and down World Cup courses except in overall course length.

The course includes two notable rock gardens. One comes just after the start/finish and is rather long, but on level ground. Momentum will be key to carrying speed through it. The other rock garden comes at the very end of the lap. It's downhill and drops steeply (though not as steeply as drops on the Offenburg World Cup). What makes it tricky is that it's hard to see the end of it from the top, and many amateur riders were out Friday evening spending time getting up the courage to ride it and then practicing their line. There is a go-around that adds time but is required for some of the non-elite categories. Both rock gardens are well placed near the start/finish for spectators to watch.

Conditions are extremely dry and loose and organizers were irrigating portions of the fireroad climb on Friday evening in an attempt to keep down the dust. If their efforts are successful, traction may also be improved, but we still expect to see lots of racers walking up sections of the relentless climb as they fatigue. Those competing during the heat of the day will also struggle with the constant sun exposure on the uphills.

The descent could be a textbook example of how to build flowy, fun, wooded, smooth singletrack. The ribbon of trail winds down the mountain. It's so much fun to ride that parts of it will also feature in the six-mile super D course.  The downhill is included in both the pro and amateur courses, so it is seeing a lot of use.

What will make the downhill tricky is the absence of passing opportunities and the continual loosening of the main trailbed and its edges, especially in tight corners, as more and more riders race down it. Riders with experience on loose, dry terrain will have an advantage here.

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