Posted by Editoress on 04/10/14
Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, has become the traditional start venue for the Mountain Bike World Cup, only missing it last year when it hosted the world championships instead. This year, the series is back in PMB for the opening round, and the organizers did not rest on their laurels after a very successful world championships last fall, instead revising and revamping both the Downhill and Cross-country circuits.
The Downhill has seen revisions to the upper part of the track, with some bigger rock gardens added, while the Cross-country has been almost entirely rebuilt, saving only the finishing straight and a couple of features.
The action begins Friday afternoon with the qualifying runs for the Men's and Women's Downhill, which will seed the top performers for the World Cup event on Saturday. The fields for both men and women are very strong, with only one big name missing - 2013 World Cup men's champion Steve Smith (Devinci Global Racing) of Canada, who is recovering from surgery on his foot after an early season accident. Smith has a slight possibility of returning in time for second round in Cairns, Australia, but probably will not be back on the World Cup circuit until Round 3 in Fort William, Scotland.
Despite Smith's absence, the men's field will be strong, with world champion Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), who won the world title here in his home town last fall, anxious to put on a good show for his local fans. This will be Minnaar's first top level competition after tearing his ACL last fall and undergoing surgery during the off-season. He will face stiff competition from Gee Atherton (GT Factory Racing), who lost the World Cup title last year by the narrowest of margins, and Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR), who finished second to Minnaar on this course at the world championships by a scant 0.396 seconds.
On the women's side for the Downhill, Rachel Atherton (GT Factory Racing) will be looking to repeat the success she had here last fall when she took the world title by over eight seconds. However, Atherton skipped training today, after falling ill and battling a fever. The team is still optimistic that she will race, but even if she does, what impact will her illness have? Tracey Hannah (Hutchinson UR) won in Pietermaritzburg at the 2012 World Cup, and was third at the world championships, so clearly the course suits her. Another strong contender is former world champion Emmeline Ragot (Lapierre Gravity Republic), who was second to Atherton at the world championships.
Canada has only two Downhillers in the competition - Elite women Micayla Gatto (Pivot Factory DH) and Casey Brown (Bergamont Hayes World Team).
The Cross-country, which has returned to its traditional Sunday time slot, is missing two stars due to injury - Canada's Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team) is out of the women's race with a broken collarbone, and Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing XC), who recovered from a broken kneecap only to fall victim to the flu.
Catharine Pendrel says she will be following the coverage from at home, and should be back by the third round (Nove Mesto, Czech Republic): "I am rehabbing really well. I go for my second x-ray tomorrow at the 1 week mark, but definitely the break is not as bad as last year, as the crash was not as hard. The bones did not separate this time and I already have a good amount of strength and range of motion. I will sit out the first two World Cups to allow the bone to strengthen (left side this time and again in the outer 1/3), but plan to be back in Czech and hopefully outside [training] after we see the x-ray.
The opening climb
One of the numerous long climbs
Crowd favourite Rapid Rocks returns
Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa tries out one of the new jumps in Red Lipped Herald
The circuit is longer at 5.7 kilometres and has been redesigned to make it more spectator friendly, looping back into the finishing area multiple times per lap. Whereas the previous circuit saw the riders begin climbing at the end of the finish straight, now they have a long, flat leadout into a shallower, steady climb, followed by a fast, hard packed descent back to the main arena, where they tackle one of the few remaining features, the Rapid Rocks rock garden.
From here it is into the second main loop with a new steep climb, which then takes them into a long, mainly uphill wooded section to the top of the course. This leads into a long downhill twin-tracked section - two separate, side-by-side hard packed singletracks down to the new and most talked about feature - Red Lipped Herald, named after a (poisonous) species of snake found there when build the section.
Red Lipped Herald has two lines - the faster with two sizable jumps, the second with a rock garden and a wooden step-down. It is drawing a lot of commentary, since some of the more experienced riders aren't as used to this sort of feature as the newer riders.
After Red Lipped Herald, the course drops back to the main arena for the first feed/tech zone before another long climb. After this, it is another fast, swooping descent back down to another other holdover feature, the Corkscrew descent. However, while the Corkscrew was at the end of the circuit previously, now the riders head uphill again back to the final returning feature - the Treehouse rock garden descent. From here, they make a final descent back to the Corkscrew for a second time, then through the second feed/tech zone before the end of the lap.
Overall, riders are very pleased with the changes, pronouncing it a fun and much more flowing track. The expectation is that the Elite men will do six laps and the Elite women five. Under-23 men and women will do five and four laps respectively.
In the women's field, Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour-KMC) won the world title here last fall, but she will have strong competition from the 2013 World Cup champion Tanja Zakelj (Unior Tools), Eva Lechner (Colnago Sudtirol) Canadian champion Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing) and Maja Wloszczowska (Liv Pro XC), the 2012 World Cup winner here at Pietermaritzburg. Another to watch will be Jolanda Neff (Liv Pro XC), the Under-23 world champion here last fall, who will be racing in the Elite category. The only other Canadian woman in the field is Cindy Montambault (CVM 2 Vals).
The men's race should, once again, see a showdown between Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo), the 2013 world champion here, and his arch rival Julien Absalon (BMC). Schurter won two stages at the Cape Epic leading into this weekend, while Absalon has been winning in Europe. Others to watch include Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), Lukas Fluckiger (BMC), and the Cannondale Factory Racing squad of Marco Fontana, Manuel Fumic and Canada's Max Plaxton.
Cam Jette (Scott-3Rox) and Raphael Gagne (Rocky Mountain Factory) will be the only other Canadians in the men's field.
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