One of the abiding memories of the 2011 UCI MTB World Cup in Pietermaritzburg remains the manner in which Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower) flew over the rock garden, while other riders struggled to negotiate it, on his way to victory in the elite men's cross country event. He's back in 2012 and determined to defend the title he won in such style last year.
The Swiss ace, who is ranked number two in the world behind the Czech Republic's Jaroslav Kulhavy, views the season-opening race as vitally important and says that's a common feeling among all the riders.
"The first one is always the most important. The starting order of the following races depends on the first round," he said. "And it is important to find the confidence in the opening round. The tension is always higher than in other rounds."
Last season, Schurter's only World Cup win came in Pietermaritzburg, but he regularly challenged for titles and finished runner-up to Kulhavy in the final four races, at Monte-Sainte-Anne in Canada, Windham in the United States, Nové Mìsto na Moravì in the Czech Republic, and Val di Sole in Italy. He also placed second behind Kulhavy at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.
Returning to the scene of his victory is a big boost for the Scott-Swisspower MTB Racing star. He knows the cross country course will be very different in 2012, but is positive about racing at the Cascades MTB Park.
"I like to race in Pietermaritzburg. Even though the course will be different, I'm sure I'm going to like it. The terrain will remain the same," he said.
Schurter expects to be in top form when he arrives in the KwaZulu-Natal capital and says he has put in the hard yards in training. "I worked hard all winter long to be ready for this one. My main goal will be the Olympics this year. But this does not mean I'm coming for a training ride to Pietermaritzburg," he said.
One of the leading challengers Schurter is sure to face at Cascades is his teammate Florian Vogel, who is ranked fourth in the world, and who beat Schurter to win the Swiss National cross country title last year. With seven riders ranked inside the top 21 in the world, Switzerland undoubtedly possesses the greatest depth of any nation at the elite level.
"It's great to have such a strong training partner," said Schurter. "Even though we are racing as individuals, we work well together in the Scott-Swisspower team.
The 25-year-old is a former cross country world champion, having lifted the title in 2009 in Canberra, a year after placing third at the Beijing Olympic Games, and he is keen to add another world championship crown at Cascades, which has treated him so well previously.
"I'm very motivated this year because I won here last year. It would be the best possible situation if I could come back to world championships (in Pietermaritzburg in 2013) as the 2012 winner of the World Cup," he said.
The UCI MTB World Cup Pietermaritzburg will take place at the Cascades MTB Park from March 16-18, 2012.