Sparks to fly at World Cup warm-up in South Africa

World champion Christoph Sauser, heads up the strongest field ever assembled

World champion Christoph Sauser, heads up the strongest field ever assembled (Image credit: Gary Perkin)

Just one week before the opening mountain bike World Cup in South Africa, many racers are getting over the jet lag and testing their legs at round five of the 2009 MTN National Mountain Bike Cup in Pietermaritzburg.

Racing was set to kick off with the first-ever 4X in South Africa on Friday evening. There have never been any international-level 4X courses in South Africa until early this year, when the Pietermaritzburg course was completed in order to host next week's UCI World Cup. The UCI's official 4X course builder, Phil Saxena, flew in from England last November and spent two weeks designing and overseeing the construction of the Pietermaritzburg course. At 820m long and dropping 120 metres, it's the most extreme World Cup 4X course, which should prove a spectator favourite.

Until now, the longest World Cup 4X course has been 650m long and the biggest drop has been 105 metres. The Pietermaritzburg course has 13 corners and 26 obstacles, which make it one of the most challenging courses in the world.

Cross country racers were scheduled to get their turn on Saturday. A star-studded field of international riders, headed up by Swiss cross-country world champion, Christoph Sauser, added unprecedented depth to the event. Joining Sauser (Specialized) were current Under 23 World Champion Nino Schurter (SCOTT Swisspower), who won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympic Games and Florian Vogel (SCOTT Swisspower), silver medalist at the 2008 world championships.

Also in the talent-heavy mix is another Swiss rider, Ralf Naef (Multivan Merida), the 2006 marathon world champion, Great Britain's, Liam Killeen (Trek), the current Commonwealth Games champion and Spain's Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), the Athens Olympic Games silver medalist.

"It's great to be able to have such a strong field at a home race. Great for the event, great for local riders and great for the sport as a whole in this country, said an upbeat Stander on Thursday. "I've not ridden much this week after last week's Cape Epic, so am using the race to warm up the legs for the World Cup next weekend."

Stander will by no means be out of his depth. He is the 2008 Under 23 World Cup champion and World Championships silver medalist and showed (along with partner Sauser), that he is in superb form with five stage wins from a possible eight at last week's Absa Cape Epic.

Speedy, the current South African elite women's champion, will face by far her stiffest home-based challenge ever. Confirmed to start Saturday's race are Russian ace, Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), the 2007 World Champion, 2007 World Cup champion and bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics, and Slovenia's Blaza Klemencic, the 2005 World Championships silver medalist.

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