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World champions Cooper and Cole headline New Zealand series opener

Anton Cooper in action

Anton Cooper in action (Image credit: BikeNZ)

Junior World champion Anton Cooper and former world champion Cameron Cole headline the stars on display for the opening round of the New Zealand Mountain Bike Cup series in Southland starting Friday.

Riders are braving the unseasonal weather as the iconic Bluff Hill plays host venue for the national round of the championship for the first time.

Both Cooper and Cole will also be on-board with their new team colours and new machines for the 2013 season.

Cooper, who won the junior world title last year, has moved to the Cannondale Factory Team for 2013 while Cole, the 2006 downhill world champion, will line-up for Yeti Cycles.

Cole, who was 11th overall on the UCI World Cup last year, recently signed a two-year deal with US-based Yeti Cycles although this weekend is more about some fun for him.

"I've only just received the new frame and don't have the full kit yet so have borrowed some bits to get me racing," said the Christchurch rider.

"My aim is later in the year, but I like to support the New Zealand races and it's a chance to have a ride on the new bike in competitive racing. And it's fun catching up with the riders."

The downhill riders have practice today on the 1.37km track that was re-built by the club in 2011 and upgraded late last year in readiness to host its first national level event. It features a 218m descent from a rock drop-in at the top of Bluff Hill.

Main competition is likely from Oceania champion Matt Scoles and the trio of Zerode riders Kieran Bennett, Nathan Rankin and Reuben Olorenshaw.

The women's racing is wide open with Nelson's Veronique Sandler a favourite after her top-30 placing at the world championships, along with Methven's Sophie Tyas, eighth in the juniors at the worlds in 2012, and former Oceania champion Amy Laird.

The racing has also attracted some international riders from Great Britain, USA and Canada.

Conditions are forecast to improve for practice on Friday, with the timed runs for qualification Saturday ahead of racing that is scheduled to start at 1:00 pm.

Meanwhile local Southland fans will get to see the remarkable Cooper in action for the first time in the new colours of his Cannondale Factory Racing team. The Christchurch teenager signed for the new team last month and is preparing for his first full season on the UCI World Cup scene in the under 23 division.

Cooper is likely to dominate on the testing cross country course on Bluff Hill, featuring nearly 300m of vertical climbs at over seven percent average grade on each of the 6.76km laps.

Rotorua's Dirk Peters, top-30 at the world championships, is expected to be prominent while it could be a double for young riders with junior star Mary Gray, eighth at the world championship, a favourite in the women's racing.

The under 15, under 17, senior and masters are set to race from 10:30 am on Sunday with the under 19, under 23 and elites from 2:00 pm.

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