KwaZulu-Natal's capital Pietermaritzburg is the centre of the world mountain biking community's attention as the fastest cross country and downhill stars gather in Pietermaritzburg ahead of the 2014 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup season opener at Cascades MTB Park on April 11-13.
It is the fourth time that the venue that played host to last year's UCI Mountain Bike World Championships has been on the World Cup series' calendar, having previously hosted World Cups in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
The 2014 'Maritzburg leg of the World Cup will bring a combination of unique African flavour and world class standards to mountain biking's top international circuit.
After partnering South Africa's Phillip Buys (Scott Factory) to finish fifth place overall in the recent Cape Epic marathon, Scott-Odlo Racing's Nino Schurter - who won Pietermaritzburg's 2011 and 2012 elite men's cross country clashes - will make a welcome return to his preferred cross country discipline when he takes to the start line on Sunday.
The Swiss star will undoubtedly go into the World Cup season opener as favourite, especially after Specialized Racing's Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic was forced to with draw at the last minute due to illness.
BMC MTB Racing's Julien Absalon from France and Trek Factory Racing's Daniel McConnell of Australia will however be hoping their off season efforts will be enough to overcome Schurter's Pietermaritzburg dominance.
Schurter's fellow 2013 Pietermaritzburg-staged world champs podium finishers, Cannondale Factory Racing's Manuel Fumic and Multivan Merida Biking Team's José Hermida Ramos will be hoping they, too, will be in the mix once more as they look to get their 2014 World Cup seasons off on a positive note.
The women's cross country battle is set to be a fascinating one as 2013 World Cup overall winner Tanja Zakelj (Unior Tools Team) will undoubtedly have the likes of Contago Südtirol's Eva Lechner, 2013 World Champion Julie Bresset (BH Suntour KMC) and 'Maritzburg superfan Maja Wloszczowska (Liv Pro XC) breathing down her neck.
South African downhill sensation and triple World Champion Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) will be hard-pressed to re-enact his 2013 Worlds heroics when he famously clinched the sport's greatest title in front of thousands of screaming home fans at Cascades MTB Park.
Minnaar tore his ACL in his left knee during training at the final round of 2013 World Cup in Austria and, after undergoing surgery and intensive rehabilitation, will need to pull the proverbial rabbit out the hat if he is to soar to glory once more.
GT Factory Racing's Gee Atherton is, as always, expected to be a factor again in the seven-leg 2014 World Cup series as will 19-year-old Loic Bruni (Lapierre Gravity Republic) whilst the likes of Sam Hill (Chainreactioncycles.com), Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing DH) and Brook Macdonald (Trek World Racing) look to make a return to top flight racing after a disappointing 2013 season.
Gee's sister Rachel (GT Factory Racing), who dominated last year's Worlds despite it being her first 'Maritzburg appearance, will again be the woman to catch in the women's downhill competition on Saturday with Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen Factory) and Tracey Hannah (Hutchinson UR Team) likely to be her nearest rivals.
With cross country course designer Nick Floros having made significant changes to the cross country course and Nigel Hicks' subtle tweaks to downhill's stage, riders can look forward to heightened mountain biking paradise at this weekend's UCI Mountain Bike World Cup whilst spectators will have even greater opportunities to get up close and personal with their mountain bike heroes.
Action gets underway on Thursday with downhill training taking place during the morning before the gravity discipline's official timed training session unfolds that afternoon with training for both cross country and downhill competitors set for Friday morning before downhill qualification commences at 12:30.
A curious switch in the schedule from previous years sees the cross country and downhill finals swap days with Minnaar and his fellow downhillers set to scorch the hill on Saturday from 12:30 onwards and Schurter's cross country stars taking to their stage from 9:00 onwards on Sunday.
Clear blue skies and warm temperatures are expected for much of the weekend, with a slightly cooler, overcast day forecast for Sunday - ideal for the gruelling cross country clashes - which should see thousands of KwaZulu-Natal's cycling enthusiasts heading for Cascades MTB Park this weekend.
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