Two weeks ago at the Bonelli Park US Cup Triple Crown opener, the world of American cross country was set ablaze. All off-season chatter and speculation about who was and wasn't fit was put to rest.
A demanding World Cup style course left nowhere to hide for the riders, and it became obvious who had done their winter homework and who had not. The course profile turned the men's cross country race upside down on the last lap, during which there were multiple position changes.
On the men's side, the most notable news was the return of Cannondale's Jeremiah Bishop to cross country racing. Bishop had a two-year absence from focusing on cross country racing; instead the Virginian was otherwise occupied with endurance and stage race events.
Bishop took a gutsy win with a last lap charge in Saturday's cross country races, and then the former US Short Track National Champion let it be known he means business in 2011 by taking Sunday's short track race over Specialized's Max Plaxton. JB drew first blood in 2011 to take round one of the US Cup Triple Crown Series.
In the women's race, Luna's Georgia Gould laid waste to the women's field in Saturday's cross country race, showing she is still the woman to beat.
But the story of the first US Pro XCT weekend was the return of Specialized's Lea Davison, who took second in the cross country, and then went out and won the super D and short track races. With Davison taking two of the three races on the weekend, she marked a brilliant return following a year off due to a hip injury.
Going into round two in Fontana, don't write off the other racers. With a couple of weeks since the Bonelli Park opener, racers have shaken off the winter cobwebs and head into the Fontana national series round guns blazing. With the Sea Otter US Pro XCT and the World Cup opener less than a month out, Fontana has traditionally been the measuring stick on how a rider's form is progressing.
For those who remember, Fontana in 2010 was where Todd Wells (Specialized) - affectionately nicknamed "Uncle Sam" for his wardrobe of "Stars and Stripes" kits - took a cross country win that set the tone for a season that went on to include three 2010 US National titles in cross country, short track and cyclo-cross. It was a feat never previously performed by any other male American rider.
Others, lurking in the background, are ready to pounce for a victory, including Tasmanian privateer Sid Taberlay (Kenda/H2O Overdrive), who showed brilliant form at Bonelli before faltering with just a lap and half to go in the cross country race, ending up fourth. An injury in the short track proved less severe than originally thought, and the Aussie said he is ready to go this weekend.
Canadian Plaxton showed that he was on form at Bonelli and said he is feeling good for Fontana. Plaxton will be joined by the Canadian Mafia including "Mr. Fontana" Geoff Kabush, who has more Fontana wins than any current rider, Derek Zandstra, Adam Morka and Peter Glassford, all of whom will be looking to make the podium a Canadian affair.
On the subject of Canadians, Raphael Gagne (Rocky Mountain) had a breakout ride with a top five on the Bonelli weekend, and the young rider is looking to back up his performance or even better it coming into this weekend's race.
Giant/Rabobank rider Adam Craig is aiming to ramp up his game, coming off a winter of skiing, ice fishing and other extreme activities for which the Bend, Oregon, resident is known.
"Sudden" Sammy Schultz and long-time racer and teammate Jeremy-Horgan-Kobelski will be trying to get their Subaru-Trek team back to its traditionally podium-winning ways.
On the women's side, third place rider Krista Park (Cannondale/No Tubes) will aim to repeat her career best. But former US national cross country champion Heather Irmiger has shaken off her Hawaiian vacation daze and seems ready to bounce back onto the podium along with her new teammate Emily Batty.
Chloe Forsman of the BMC development team showed signs of new life as she consistently rode to podium finishes at Bonelli, and the week off may give her that extra time to become a top three threat.
Luna's Catherine Pendrel and Rocky Mountain's Marie Helen Premont, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games silver medalist, were missing from Bonelli, but will be in action in Fontana.
If Bonelli was any indication, this weekend's race at Fontana could reshuffle the deck again in a big way.
The Fontana pro cross country course won't see any major changes for 2011. Racers will be faced with one of the longest, steepest climbs on the circuit, known to insiders as "National Hill", where legends like Tinker Juarez, Johnny Tomac and others used the Fontana venue for winter tune ups in the early 90s. With pitches up to 30-plus percent, it's a real leg breaker.
Recent rains have left the soil super tacky, so the dust in year's past won't be a factor. The loop is expected to be 4.2 miles with over 700 feet of climbing per lap. A mixture of fire road, twisty singletrack, the rock "elevator" drop and a paved climb will make this course very tactical as seen in years past. Riders can sit on, draft and use team tactics more than was seen at the Bonelli Course just two weeks ago.
"With the weather forecast calling for a slight chance of rain during the week, the course is going to be unreal," said US Cup Vice President Ty Kady. "The deposed granite just soaks up the water so well out here in Fontana that I think we will see some really fast racing this weekend."
Three times the fun
The US Cup Triple Crown All Mountain Pro Series will also offer additional racing for pros who wish to stick around and race more than just the UCI-inscripted, US Pro XCT cross country race on Saturday.
Late Saturday afternoon, the pros will race the second Triple Crown discipline: the Super D. On Sunday, they return to action in the short track race.
The rider with the best two scores on the weekend will win additional prize money, on top of Saturday's UCI C1 cross country. In the Triple Crown format, a rider can drop his or her highest score from either the super D or short track. It's combined with a rider's cross country result. Together, the two lowest total scores win on the weekend.
"We have a set payout based on rider turnout for the Triple Crown overall," said Kady. "For example, Tier 1 payout puts another US$400 in the Triple Crown winner's pocket and pays 10-deep. We then are offering an additional $2,500 to the male and female series winner which finishes June 4-5 at Santa Ynez, for a total of $10,000 to the top three series riders."