Posted by Editoress on 05/30/08
MTB World Cup
Coverage brought to you with the assistance of Velirium
The Mountain Bike World Cup begins again tomorrow with round four in Andorra - a small principality straddling the Pyrenees between France and Spain on the Mediterranean coast - after a hiatus of nearly a month for cross-country and two weeks for downhill. In the evening, round two of the 4-Cross takes place, followed on Sunday by the Downhill.
Until yesterday, the weather prognosis was grim, with days of rain turning sections of the 4-Cross and Downhill into rutted out quagmires. The cross-country wasn't affected as badly, but it still would make for a slog through some sections of the circuit. However, yesterday the sun came out, and is still shining today, drying out the terrain. Organizers are working frantically to fill in rutted out sections of the gravity courses, while the cross-country gets faster and smoother as riders continue to train. Everyone has their fingers crossed that the good weather will continue, although the forecast is for the rain to return this evening.
Our live coverage starts tomorrow with the women's cross-country at 10:30 am local, 4:30 am EDT.
The 5.2 kilometre circuit is winning rave reviews from athletes. "This is a return to true mountain biking," commented Seamus McGrath (Fuji) "It has everything - singletrack, climbs, descents, roots, rocks."
Probably the biggest factor will be the altitude - from a low point at 1850 metres (6000') and topping out at 2000 metres (6500'), riders will be gasping for air as they top the climbs. The current schedule calls for five laps for the women and seven laps for the men, which could be revised depending upon the weather. There is no start loop.
>From the start the riders go almost immediately into a short steep climb, which should spread the field out before they hit the first singletrack wooded sections, with more up and down climbing among the roots and rocks. After reaching the highest part of the course, the riders dropped back down through wooded single and double track to lose most of the altitude they just gained. Rocks and roots on the trail mean that riders have to maintain their attention.
At the bottom of the descent, the trail comes out of the woods for the toughest climb of the race - a zig-zagging grunt up a grassy slope that hits 20% in places. The climb was actually straight up the slope, until organizers realized that many of the women physically couldn't ride it.
>From the top of the climb, at approximately a third of the way into the lap, the riders have a chance to recover as they descend and traverse the mountain through forest on hardpacked and rooty singletrack to the lowest part of the circuit. From there it is a series of stepped climbs on double and singletrack to the finish.
The women's race is missing at least three top riders - Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida), Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon) and Sabine Spitz (Ghost). Dahle Flesjaa is skipping the altitude as she continues her gradual return to top form, Kalentieva is ill (as she was in Madrid, missing round three), and Spitz is out because her recent heavy race schedule and desire to focus on training for the world championships next month (she plans to be at Fort William, Scotland next week).
This makes World Cup leader Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain) and Marga Fullana (Massi) the top favourites. Fullana thrives at altitude, but hasn't been able maintain top race pace for a full race thus far this year, while Premont loves the terrain but admits to feeling the effects of the altitude.
"It is a very nice course; I'm really happy with it. It is technical, with good climbs and descending. There isn't big, big climbs, but in the woods there are lots of little climbs, and you have to stay really focussed. The altitude I can feel for sure, but we will all have to deal with it. I know Marga has been staying at altitude, but usually I do okay. And if it rains, that could help me more, I think."
Other riders who have a shot at the podium include the Chinese - Ren Chengyuan and Liu Ying - American Georgia Gould and her Canadian Luna team mate Catharine Pendrel, plus Swiss riders Petra Henzi (Fischer BMC) and Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago).
North Americans looking to bolster their Olympic hopes include Kiara Bisaro (Opus), plus Americans Mary McConneloug (Kenda) and Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Gary Fisher).
The men's race has all the top contenders in attendance, led by World Cup leader Julien Absalon (Orbea), who is looking for his fourth straight win. Absalon has said that this is likely his final World Cup before the world championships and the Olympics, so he will be looking to try and solidify his lead in the series, since he will miss the next three events (Fort William, Mont Ste Anne and Bromont).
Other contenders include Absalon's team mate Jean-Christophe Peraud, Christoph Sauser (Specialized), Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), Florian Vogel and Nino Schurter (both Swisspower). On the North American side, Geoff Kabush (Maxxis), Seamus McGrath, Adam Craig (Giant), Todd Wells (GT), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Jeremiah Bishop (Trek-VW) are all here, still battling it out Olympic selections in the U.S. and Canada.
Premont will not race with the '1' plate - she was mistakenly not registered until late, and therefore issued plate number 62. She will still start on the front row. Christoph Sauser had the same problem (as do a number of men), and will also start in the front row, but wearing a high race number (120).
Unlike the cross-country riders, the downhillers are not so pleased with their course. "Too short, not technical, not interesting, rough" are comments from riders such as Greg Minnaar, Steve Peat, Nathan Rennie (all Santa Cruz Syndicate) and US Open winner Steve Smith (Cove Bikes), who also said "it's fun to ride, but not really a World Cup course."
"With all these mountains around us, why did they just run it down the side of a hill?" was another anonymous comment.
However, as the circuit dries, the ruts are beginning to smoothed out, and riders say that they are able to carry more speed and carve the corners better. "Right now the ground is perfect," says Smith.
>From 2000 metres (6500') the course drops to 1850 metres (6000'). Starting with wide sweeping turns, the riders hit a number of short tight berms before dropping into the woods for a singletrack run to the finish line with lots of ruts and roots to contend with. The winning run for the men should be in the two minute 20 second range if it stays dry.
For the men, all the favourites are here, led by world champion and World Cup leader Sam Hill (Monster). Peat, Minnaar, Julien Camellini (Chain Reaction-Intense, Matti Lehikoinen (Monster) and Gee Atherton (Animal Commencal) should be contending for podium spots.
The top North American is, without a doubt, Canada's Steve Smith, fresh off his victory last weekend against Hill in the US Open.
On the women's side, world champion and World Cup leader Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis) is favoured to repeat, but Tracy Moseley (Kona) could easily pull off an upset, as could Rachel Atherton (Animal Commencal) or Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center). There are only four North Americans on the start list, led by Canadian Claire Buchar (Intense), who will be looking to move into the top-10. Americans Melissa Buhl (KHS) and Kathy Pruitt (Jamis), plus Canadian champion Micayla Gatto (Commencal), are the other North Americans in the 33 rider list.
At this point, the 4-Cross track is under heavy (re)construction after the rain earlier in the week, and the damage that has been caused by riders hitting the jumps and landing on the soft, wet track. It has put ruts in the take off sections and, more seriously, dangerous holes in the landing spots. The organizers are rebuilding these sections as the track dries, but if it starts to rain again, there is a good chance that some sections will be removed.
Brian Lopes (Ibis) is the favourite man, however, Cedric Gracia (Commencal Oakley) is the local favourite - he owns a bar and a bike shop at the base of the mountain, and his face is plastered everywhere. Others to watch for include Maribor winner Alveraz de Lara Lu (Spain), Romain Saladini (Sunn) and possibly Guido Tschugg.
For the women, it should be a battle between round one winner Anneke Beerten (MS-Intense) and Fionn Griffiths (Norco), with Melissa Buhl looking to make it onto the podium this week.
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