The world’s best downhill racers have headed to Hafjell Bike Park in Norway this weekend to battle it out for the elusive rainbow stripes. The venue may have 'bike park' in its name, but don’t be fooled – Hafjell is right up there with Méribel and Mont-Sainte-Anne in terms of difficulty, and is more than worthy of hosting the biggest race of the year.
All season long the fastest racers on the planet battle it out to be World Cup champion, but to determine who's the world champion, a one-day race is held. The days of being consistent and worrying about points are over for 2014, and what’s left is an 'all or nothing' sprint down the hill, with quite the prize. Anyone who’s seen the Steve Peat biopic Won’t Back Down will be well aware that anything but first place at the World Championships means nothing – gold is the only thing the top contenders are worried about. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who’s got a chance of leaving Norway with a rainbow jersey...
Proving time: The Juniors
Winning a Junior World Championship is often the precursor for a successful Elite career, with many of today’s top riders having won this title, such as Josh Bryceland, Troy Brosnan and Loic Bruni. This year’s race will be hotly contested, with the top three Juniors in the World Cup series all having one last shot at glory before moving into the Elite category.
France's Loris Vergier is the obvious favourite after winning the World Cup overall two years in a row, along with the last round. America's Luca Shaw is next in line and has something to prove after losing the series title in the very last minutes of the season. Coming on strong towards the end of the season is the Athertons' protégé, Taylor Vernon. GT Factory Racing have more than enough experience of winning world championships – can the young Brit bring them home another and steal it from the two favourites?
And there are always a few wild cards in the junior category – Britain's Laurie Greenland is showing signs of peaking after a second place finish in Méribel, and then there's maybe the biggest unknown of them all, Martin Maes. Could GT’s enduro star really turn up and walk away with the title? His Fort William result would suggest it's possible.
Britain's new Junior national champ Laurie Greenland will be one to watch
Not letting go of the stripes: Elite women
The top three women this year, Britain's Manon Carpenter and Rachel Atherton, and France's Emmeline Ragot, have elevated themselves to another level, and barring some freak set of events, one of these three will be the 2014 world champion by the end of the week. Although Carpenter is the World Cup champion, it’s hard to bet against Atherton. She put on a dominating performance in Méribel, winning both qualifying and finals, and is strong on the technical tracks. And in the two visits the World Cup series has made to Hafjell, Atherton has won both. Having said that, Carpenter and Ragot have both beaten Atherton convincingly more than once this season so they're both very much threats for this title. Will we see a British world champion?
After a World Cup season beset by health problems, Rachel Atherton will be determined to hang on to the rainbow stripes
Old-school vs new-skool: Elite men
Back in 2007 when Australia's Sam Hill was dominating the field, winning both the World Cup series and the World Championships, a young Josh Bryceland was just starting out racing his first year of World Cups. Seven years later, Hill is back winning races and Bryceland has grown up into a race winner too. This weekend we’ll see the two of them battle it out for the title of world champion. Bryceland has more confidence than ever and Hill knows he can win when the tracks get technical. It’s too close a race to call but these two are certainly the top contenders.
But it’s far from a two-horse race. Specialized's American duo, Aaron Gwin and Troy Brosnan, will be keen to raise their stock after a disappointing end to the World Cup season. Could Gwin’s string of bad luck at the World Championships finally be over? And what about Loic Bruni? The French have a way of getting it done at these races – remember Nicolas Vouilloz? He’s certainly got what it takes. Don’t count out rising UK star Matt Simmonds either – only 0.3 off a win in Méribel, there's no reason why he can’t find that margin again in Hafjell.
Sam Hill has made no bones of the fact he's intending to add another World Champs win to his tally
The World Championships are responsible for some of the best stories in our sport: Steve Peat’s win in 2009, Sam Hill’s last-corner crash in 2008 and Shaun Palmer losing by 0.15 seconds in 1996 while refusing to wear a skinsuit. Will we see Hill become a four-time senior world champion? Can anyone stop Bryceland? Here's a helmet cam run down the course from the Santa Cruz Syndicate crew to whet your appetite...
Catch the race live on Red Bull TV at 11.05am BST this Sunday, and come back next week for our take on what went down. Check out our interview with course designer Snorre Pederson for more information about the venue.