Round Three of the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series will visit Houffalize, Belgium, this weekend.
Chosen six times for the prestigious Rainbow Award as the best cross-country race of the season, Houffalize is one of the true classics of mountain biking, an event that riders strive that much harder to win.
This year, Houffalize will for the first time host a 4-Cross World Cup race as well as its traditional cross country competition. Saturday evening will see the 4-Cross pros line up for their second race of the season, while the cross-country athletes will tackle their third World Cup race, one week after Round Two in Offenburg, Germany.
Leaders after the first round in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Jared Graves (Yeti Fox Shox Factory) and Anneke Beerten (Suspension Center) will need to pull out all the stops to hang onto their leader’s jerseys.
In the women’s competition, Beerten will have to front up to former World Champion and World Cup winner Jill Kintner (USA) who, after a disappointing performance in Pietermaritzburg, will be keen to get back into contention for the World Cup title. The British rider Fionn Griffiths (Norco World Team), who finished second to Beerten in round one, will also be in strong contention.
Graves, known more for his downhill skills, will have to fend off defending World Champion and World Cup winner Rafael Alvarez de Lara Lucas (Specialized Factory Team), as well as former World Champion Michal Prokop, of the Czech Republic.
The 450-metre long track drops 120 metres, for an average grade of over 25 percent, guaranteeing fast action and spectacular jumps under the Belgian night lights.
The cross-country at Houffalize always begins with a gut wrenching uphill sprint out of the center of town before funneling the riders into the dirt track. After the opening four-kilometre lap, the riders settle into the full 7.4-kilometre circuit, with the women usually completing four laps and the men five.
In the past, the conditions at Houffalize have ranged from dry, choking dust to slippery mud. The riders must await race day to know which they will confront. If it is dry, the rhythm will be furious, and numerous riders will be unable to follow the leading pace. If it is wet, the treacherous, slippery downhill passages could engender crashes, while the wheel-sucking mud will sap the strength of the riders. Either way, the victors will be true champions.
The women's race will see Austria's Elisabeth Osl (Central Ghost Pro Team) try to hold onto the leader's jersey, but it will not be easy. However, a win by either World Champion Marga Fullana (Massi) or Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon) could see one of them don the jersey, since both are only 40 points behind Osl in the standings.
The consistent Lene Byberg (Specialized Factory Racing) is also only 70 points back after two third places, and last week's winner Ren Chengyuan (China) could also take the lead with a second victory.
In the men's race, it will be more difficult to steal the leader’s jersey from Julien Absalon (Orbea). With a 110-point lead over his closest rival, Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon), and 140 points in front of third placed Burry Stander (Specialized Factory Team) Absalon should conserve his position at the head of the World Cup ranking.
But the Olympic Champion, who took a record 18th World Cup victory last weekend in Offenburg, does not have a strong history in Houffalize, where he has “only” once been victorious - last year.
While Absalon is likely to leave Houffalize with the World Cup jersey still in his possession, the bragging rights to the 2009 edition of this classic mountain bike race are wide open.
Results and photos will be found on Cyclingnews.com Monday.