April 10/09 14:08 pm - Pietermaritzburg World Cup: Preview, DH qualifier report, photos
Posted by Editoress on 04/10/09
For 2009, the Mountain Bike World Cup is proving to truly be a "World" Cup, with the season-opener taking place in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa - the capital of the Zulu Nation, and home to 2008 Downhill World Cup champion Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz). The event boasts a couple of firsts: first Olympic Cross Country World Cup in Africa, and first World Cup Triple in Africa.
The vast majority of the top pros have made the long trek down here, with the defending World Cup titleholders in four of the six classes of competition are here to wear the Number 1 plates on the start line. In total, seven medalists from the Beijing Olympics are in attendance, including cross country gold medalists Julien Absalon (Orbea) and Sabine Spitz (Ghost).
Many of the Olympic riders are describing the circuit here as having similarities to Beijing - fast and relentless. From the start line the circuit radiates out in two loops, each with a long climb. However, the descent doesn't offer much chance to rest, with tight and narrow switchbacks requiring complete attention from the riders.
"The climbs are longer than Beijing," commented Absalon "but the heat and the hard dusty track are very much like China."
Besides Absalon - who is also the defending World Cup champion - the men's favourites have to include:
World champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized) - coming off Cape Epic
Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan-Merida) - looking leaner and fitter than previous years
Canada's Geoff Kabush (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) - fresh off his Fontana win
South African favourite Burry Stander (Specialized) - partnered Sauser in Cape Epic
Olympic silver medalist Jean-Christophe Peraud (Massi) - an unknown quantity on a new team
Olympic bronze medalist Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) - rode very strongly in the test event, along with team mate Florian Vogel
Kabush's team mate Raphael Gagne is also racing, as is Kris Sneddon (Kona).
Missing from the men's roster are Jakob Fuglsang (moved to the road), Ralph Näf (Multivan-Merida) who is sick and 2000 Olympic champion Miguel Martinez who, earlier in the week, was fired by his team - Felt - after being convicted of assault against his wife in a French court, is also out.
The women's field is suffering the most gaps in the starting line up, with the number one and number two ranked Canadian riders Marie-Helene Premont (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Catharine Pendrel (Luna) are both absent - Premont decided to not make the long trip to South Africa to defend her title and will focus on individual race wins this season, while Pendrel, along with team mates Georgia Gould and Katrina Nash have stayed in California for Sea Otter next week, a very important event to their sponsor. Also missing are Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan-Merida), who recently had a baby, the U23 champion Tereza Hurikova (Cze) with a broken collarbone and the Chinese duo of Ren Chengyuan and Liu Ying. However, Spitz will face tough competition from world champion Marga Fullana (Massi), and Olympic silver and bronze medalists Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkowice) and Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon). Wloszczowska won the test event on the circuit last week.
This will be the first World Cup in memory where there are no Canadian women on the start line.
The course is the longest ever for a World Cup, at 850 metres, so fitness will be a factor. Last year's breakthrough rider, Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Specialized), took both the World and World Cup titles in the 4-Cross, so it will be interesting to see if Guido Tschugg (Ghost ATG) and Dan Atherton (Animal Commencal) can mount a challenge to the Spaniard. All of the top-10 ranked men are here, so it is a very strong field.
Women's defending champion Anneke Beerten (Suspension Centre) will go up against two strong challengers - world champion Melissa Buhl (USA) and Jill Kintner (Red Bull-Intense), a former World and World Cup champion returning to the sport after leaving for a year to go and win the Olympic bronze medal in BMX, and now hungry to win again. Numbers two and three ranked Anita Molcik (Cze) and Mio Suemasa (Jpn) are not here - victims of the shrinking sponsorship pie and the cost to come all the way down here.
The Downhill has not inspired wild enthusiasm from the riders. At nearly four minutes long,not especially technical, and with a flat section in the middle, to do well requires a strong and fit rider who can pedal. The top portion sends the riders through sweeping turns amid rocks, before they hit bumps that should see some substantial air action. From here they enter the flat section before dropping into the final descent that spills them out onto the 4-Cross course.
On the women's side, world champion and defending World Cup champion Rachel Atherton (Animal Commencal) is out due to injury, which leaves the opportunity for former champions Sabrina Jonnier (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and Tracy Moseley (Trek) to battle it out for victory. Both are on new teams.
Moseley won the first round, in qualifying today, with Jonnier well back in 8th place. Jonnier crashed heavily in training, which may have slowed her down in qualifying. Former Junior champion Emmeline Ragot (Suspension Center) took second to Mosely in qualifying, over nine seconds back, while Canada's Claire Buchar (Chain Reaction-Intense) could score her first ever podium at a World Cup, after finishing third in qualifying.
The Men's Downhill is the final event of the weekend, and the one most likely to hold the interest of local fans, with hometown hero Greg Minnaar under immense pressure to deliver a victory. Defending World Cup titleholder Minnaar has the ability, however, he will face strong competition from perennial favourite Sam Hill (Specialized), as well as world champion Gee Atherton (Animal Commenc al) and another former World Cup champion, Steve Peat (Santa Cruz). Other potential spoilers include fellow South African Andrew Neethling (Trek) and Chris Kovarik (Chain Reaction-Intense), who won last week's test event on the course.
In qualifying, Minnaar made it clear that he is here to win - first out of the gate, he delivered a stunning 3:50.31, six seconds faster than Kovarik's winning time the week before. Kovarik was the only one among the top contenders to come close to Minnaar at 3:53.49, with Steve Peat (Santa Cruz) at 3:56.09 . It appeared that Minnaar had qualifying all sewn up, until Mick Hannah (GT) took over a second and a half off of Minnaar's time. Hannah is a former top contender, but took the previous season off. Clearly, it has not hurt his form.
Canada's Steve Smith (Evil) qualified 39th, after going off course part way through his run. "It was a spot where I had hit a pointed rock in two training runs, flatting both times. So I think I was focussed too much on missing the rock, and ended up off the course."