Madrid is the final cross country of the UCI World Cup spring campaign and the last chance for riders to shine at this highest level of competition for two months, so the competition will be intense.
Madrid is rare in that it offers the highest level of competition in the centre of a major capital city. Held in the 1,800-hectacre Casa de Campo park, the event brings out tens of thousands of spectators, who can easily access the site by subway right next to the course.
The seven-kilometre course does not feature the long climbs of some of the more mountainous venues, but is by no means easy. Multiple short, sharp climbs and fast, hardpacked straightaways mean that there is nowhere to rest on this circuit. Add in the usual blazing sun, high temperatures and dust, and this becomes a race of attrition.
But this year may see the first ever wet world cup in Madrid. Rain moved in Friday evening, and continues to fall sporadically through training on Saturday, with temperatures falling over ten degrees (Celsius). While the hardpacked dirt is not likely to turn into mud bogs, it is making some downhill sections slick, and the formerly fast singletrack surprisingly slow.
"It was surprising how much extra effort it takes," said Georgia Gould (Luna). "You can feel it just dragging you back."
World champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized) agreed, "The ground doesn't become really soft, but it pulls on the tires, making it that much harder. Burry [Stander, Sauser's Specialized teammate] and I found that the steepest climb wasn't rideable on our first lap, but by the end of the ride it had already dried up enough to ride it."
The weather forecast calls for it to stay cooler, with the possibility of rain again for race day.
For the men, World Cup Julien Absalon (Orbea) is the clear favourite, coming off two straight victories and as the defending champion in Madrid. However, he can be beaten, as number two ranked Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon) discovered last week in a German national series event. The course doesn't suit Kurschat as well (he prefers longer climbs), and the German rider is suffering from a cold, but he will still be a podium contender.
Look also to round one winner Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), who has stated that winning here in front of his home crowd is a major goal for 2009. Of course, the Team Specialized duo of Stander and world champion Sauser can never be counted out – Sauser is particularly hungry, because he is without a win so far this season in World Cup action.
On the women's side, defending champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida) is missing after having had a baby this spring. This by no means suggests that the competition will be any less fierce. World champion and World Cup leader Marga Fullana (Massi) stated as early as round one in South Africa that her goal was to build up to peak form for her home race in Madrid. She showed that she is well on her way, after winning the last World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium.
Looking to score the second World Cup win of her career will be Canada's Catharine Pendrel (Luna), who finished a close second to Fullana in round three, and is also moving into top condition. The rain and mud could suit Pendrel more than Fullana. Other contenders include Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), round one winner Elisabeth Osl (Central Ghost Team), 2008 World Cup champion Marie-Helene Premont (Maxxis-Rocky Mountain) and China's Ren Chengyuan. Any of these riders could prove to be the winner.
In the World Cup rankings, Absalon holds a strong 160 point lead over Kurschat, so it is unlikely we will see a change in the men's jersey holder. The women's race is much closer, with Fullana only 70 points in front of Osl....