One week after the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup began the second half of the season in Champéry, Switzerland, the circuit moves to the mountainous countryside bordering the Lombardia and Trentino regions in the northeast of Italy. Val di Sole (Valley of the Sun) was the location of the 2008 World Championships and is a fitting locale for the first triple event of the season, where all three disciplines - cross country, four cross and downhill - come together.
The organizers have made adjustments to all three courses, so the former champions here cannot necessarily count of being favourites. Plus, the close standings in almost every category means that we can expect to see some real battles in every race.
It rained heavily all day Thursday, which was actually a blessing, because it removed some of the dust that covers the dry trails. However, sun is expected for the rest of the weekend, and the circuits will be back to dry and dusty by the time racing begins.
The downhill is almost identical in length to the one last weekend in Champéry, at 1,560 metres, but the course is very different in style. Whereas Champery is the steepest course on the World Cup, with sections of over 75 percent grade, Val di Sole averages a "mere" 30 percent. The course is a favourite of many riders, making use of the natural terrain for a flowing run. The upper section is rough and rocky, while the lower portion is new since the Worlds, and riders are saying that it is very dry and loose.
Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) holds an almost insurmountable lead in the women's series, with 850 points to second placed Floriane Pugin's (Scott 11) 645 and World Champion Emmeline Ragot's (Suspension Center) 615. However, these riders will certainly be looking for individual World Cup wins, and Jonnier has shown that she can be beaten, with Ragot taking the honours in Champéry.
The men's downhill standings have a mere 13 points separating Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) and second place Gee Atherton (Commencal). Every placing will count in both the qualifying and final rounds. Atherton might hold the psychological edge, coming off his win last week and having won the world title here in Val di Sole, two years ago. Missing from the start will be Cameron Cole (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain), who broke the scaphoid bone in his right hand on his race run last week.
The four cross run is virtually unchanged from the World Championships. It is a course that requires a lot of pedalling, and the first corner is critical for a good run.
Only 20 points separate the top three women in the four cross, with Anneke Beerten (Suspension Center) at 230 points, Czech rider Jana Horakova at 220 and Austrian Anita Molcik at 210. However, Horakova is missing from the start line, attending the BMX world championships in South Africa, so this is a two-rider battle for the World Cup lead.
On the men's side, World Cup leader and World Champion Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox) has an almost unbeatable 175-point lead over second place Tomas Slavik (RSP), whose teammate Joost Wichman is the only other rider still in contention, a further 15 points back. Neither Slavik nor Wichman have won a World Cup this season, so they are undoubtably anxious to do so.
Both the men's and women's series tightened up after round four in Champéry. Incredibly, neither series has had a single rider win more than one event this year, and the women have had a different leader after every event.
The circuit by all accounts, is harder than the version used for Worlds, with steeper climbs, including an extra one thrown in the middle. It is not a particularly technical course, just the amount and severity of the climbs make it hard. The heat was also a factor in 2008 and, if it warms up as expected, will play a significant role in this race. We saw the stunning spectacle of Julien Absalon (Orbea) collapsing from the heat at the side of the course at the Worlds in 2008. We will not know the distances for another 24 hours, but the expectation is six laps for the men and four for the women.
Eva Lechner (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol), the winner of round two in Houffalize, Belgium, comes onto home soil wearing the leader's jersey in the women's series. However, Willow Koerber (Subaru-Trek) is only 15 points back, and round three winner Catharine Pendrel (Luna) is also still in contention, 61 points in arrears. Another rider who is expected to do well is the 2008 women's World Champion, Marga Fullana (Massi). Fullana excels on steep climbs and short, fast races, and this circuit is almost tailor-made for her.
The men's race is just as tight, with Julien Absalon holding a slim 24-point lead over World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower), and European Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Rubena-Birrel-Specialized) 50 points back. Florian Vogel (Scott-Swisspower) was impressive in his victory last week, on a course that also had steep climbs and said that he is again hoping to get away in an early break.
Downhill and four cross qualifying happen Friday, then on Saturday, cross country racers get their turn plus four cross racers compete in the finals. On Sunday, downhillers wrap up the action with finals.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of all the World Cup action in Val di Sole, Italy.