US Pro XCT racers prepare to battle Texas heat at Mellow Johnny's Classic

Round four of USA Cycling's US Pro XCT series will happen at Lance Armstrong's ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, this coming weekend, April 30. Many of the top pros in the country will be attending, including those who have just flown in from the opening World Cup race in South Africa.

Max Plaxton (Specialized) tops the men's leader board and is off to his best season start ever. A resurgent Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) sits in second place just 10 points behind Plaxton. Todd Wells (Specialized) is in the hunt, just 30 points off Plaxton.

All of the men's podium finishers from the 2010 edition of the race are expected. Todd Wells is coming off an impressive top 10 finish at the World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa last weekend. He will likely be battling his new teammate Plaxton as has been the case in every domestic race this season. Plaxton may have the advantage since he did not make the grueling trip to and from South Africa.

Geoff Kabush (Team Maxxis) is winless for the first time in many years at this point in the season. There is no doubt that he hopes to change that. The Subaru-Trek duo of Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Sam Schultz will be on hand as well.

What riders remember about last year's event was the searing heat. Most of them looked shattered at the finish, and 17 of the 48 starters were DNFs. "Sometimes with the heat you can't push yourself that hard," said Wells. "Well, you're pushing but you're not going anywhere."

Kabush, who finished second, commented "It felt dangerous the first lap. I could hardly ride my bike. The heat was oppressive. I was trying not to accelerate," he had said after the race. I didn't pay attention to anyone else and just rode my own race." 

On the other hand the race winner Plaxton didn't seem to have any trouble last year. He wore an ice vest to the starting line and raced with another under his jersey. "I felt good right from the start. I wasn't overheating. I can't say enough about the ice vest."

The weather forecast for this year's race is similar with temperatures as high as 93 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity.  The race organizers moved the race a month earlier in the year to avoid the heat, but apparently Mother Nature may not cooperate.

The women's race is going to be a wide-open affair as none of the top six finishers from last year will be attending. This includes the entire Luna Pro Team. However, US Pro XCT series leaders Emily Batty (Trek-Subaru) and Lea Davison (Specialized) will be racing. They are tied in the standings with 530 points. Chloe Forsman (BMC) who sits fifth in the standing will also be there. Heather Irmiger (Trek-Subaru), who did not finish last year's event, could also pull off a surprise this weekend.

The lower attendance this year is largely due to scheduling issues. Many of the World Cup racers are choosing to take a break. Others including Catharine Pendrel (Luna), Kelli Emmett (Giant), Pua Sawicki (Sho-Air/Specialized), and Andy Schultz (Kenda) will be competing for lucrative prize money at the Whiskey 50 in Prescott, Arizona. A few racers have noted that the lack of a short track event on Sunday makes the race a bit less attractive for making the trip to Texas.

While the weather may not have been optimal, many racers gave the course on Armstrong's ranch thumbs up. The six-mile loop is a combination of rolling Texas hills, grassy fields, and semi-shaded groves of trees. On the back of the course, there are some moderately technical rock and drop-off sections. The final climb back to the start/finish area is not that high, but was plenty difficult due to the heat.

"I hope we can race on more courses like that," Katerina Nash had said after last year's race. "It's really good mountain biking. Somebody put a lot of work into that course. I think anytime someone opens up their private property for racing instead of putting up no-trespassing signs, it's really great."

In addition to professional racing, over 1,000 amateurs will be racing on both Saturday and Sunday.

Update: Since the posting of this preview, Cyclingnews had learned that Georgia Gould will in fact be racing the elite women's cross country.

Cyclingnews will be on site at Armstrong's ranch on Saturday. Stay tuned for full coverage.

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