This preview is based on an article originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
The 2012 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series hits Nove Mesto na Morave in the Czech Republic this weekend after a one-month break since the last round in Houffalize, Belgium.
Once again, it'll be skinny-tyred action only, with cross-country and Eliminator racing but no downhill – you'll have to wait until next weekend's World Cup in La Bresse, France for your fix of 'gravity' action.
The next two weekends of racing are crucial as they're the final opportunities for nations to score valuable ranking points for Olympic qualification (and for riders to meet Olympic standards), so the level of competition will be more intense than ever, with riders fighting for every position.
Nove Mesto is hosting the World Cup for the second time, after last year's race was chosen by the riders, teams and press as the top cross-country event of 2011. Held in the scenic Vysocina region southeast of Prague, the event is headquartered at the Czech Nordic and Biathlon centre, providing a superb stadium (doubled in size from last year) for fans to watch the start and finish of the racing, and cheer on their countryman, defending men's champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized).
The action begins today with the eliminator, an exciting short course event that has riders sprint around a course filled with obstacles, with the top two moving on to the next round after each heat. Usually, the eliminator runs heats of four riders at a time but Nove Mesto will run six on the track at once, to make the racing even more exciting.
The course has been totally redesigned from last year and will take place mostly on asphalt, meaning that spectators are likely to see multiple bunch sprint finishes. Britain's Annie Last (Milka Brentjens) and American Brian Lopes (Ibis) won the first round in Houffalize last month, but the tight racing and crashes mean that they're by no means assured of repeating.
The cross-country circuit is similar to last year, with long climbs through the surrounding forest requiring tremendous fitness, plus technical descents demanding concentration and skill to do well. However, organisers have lengthened the course to 4.46km with the addition of a BMX-style technical section at the far end. This will require both speed and technical skill – a rider could easily open a gap here, or drop out of contention with a mistake.
On Sunday, it's expected that the elite men will do six laps (plus a start loop) and the elite women one lap less. Currently, it's sunny and in the low 20°Cs. However, a cold front is moving in for the weekend, with frost expected tomorrow night, and it could be as low as single digits for the start of the women's race.
World champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna) leads the women's World Cup standings after her dominating performance in Houffalize, but she's tied on points with Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkowice) at 410. The 2011 World Cup champion, Julie Bresset (BH-SR Suntour-Peisey Vallandry), sits in third place with 340 points, just 20 ahead of Emily Batty (Subaru-Trek). Pendrel and Bresset finished one-two in Nove Mesto last year, so expect them both to be contenders, along with Wloszczowska. One other rider who's sure to be in the mix is Pendrel's teammate Katerina Nash, a local rider who began her international sports career here as a Nordic skier.
For the men, it should be an exciting battle between defending champion and local hero Kulhavy, current World Cup leader Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) and round two winner Julien Absalon (Orbea). Kulhavy dominated the World Cup last year, including his home win in Nove Mesto, however, this year he's been building his fitness slower and is currently ranked seventh. This trio finished one-two-three last year, and it'll be interesting to see if the influx of 20,000 local fans will inspire Kulhavy to new levels and a repeat win.