Final preparations are underway for what will be the first ever UCI Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships on the African continent. The host of the Championships is Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, who is well qualified after organizing World Cups in three of the past four years. Pietermaritzburg is in the KwaZulu-Natal region on the eastern side of South Africa.
Rainbow jerseys will be awarded to a total of 18 riders across the Trials, Cross-country, Downhill and Eliminator disciplines, in the Junior, Under-23 and Elite men and women categories.
Team relay: game of strategy
The first world title will be awarded on Wednesday in the Team Relay, a cross-country event contested between nations, with each team consisting of a Junior Man, Under-23 Man, Elite Woman and Elite Man. Each rider has to complete one lap of the cross-country circuit, with the first team to complete four laps being awarded the title. Italy are the defending champions and the current European champions, but France, Switzerland and Canada usually field strong squads also.
Teams can send out the riders in any order they wish, so there is considerable strategy involved; do you send out your fastest riders first to build up a lead and try to hang on, or do you keep them to last and hope you can catch the early leaders. The winner usually isn't known until the final straightaway.
Trials: competitions throughout the week
The Trials competition takes place throughout the week, and is one of the most popular events with spectators. Consisting of a series of extremely challenging obstacle courses, riders hop, jump and ride through each section, with the goal of avoiding putting a foot down. Each 'dab' results in a penalty point, and the rider with the lowest number of points wins. Riders advance through qualifying rounds to reach the medal finals in each category.
The cross-country begins on Thursday with the Junior categories, and culminates with the Elite races on Saturday. This is the Olympic event, and every top star of the World Cup circuit is in attendance. This season, the Elite men's category has been a battle between defending champion Nino Schurter of Switzerland and Julien Absalon of France, and we can expect to see the same here at the world championships. Schurter holds the edge, with wins in the past two years at Pietermaritzburg, but Absalon decisively won the last round of the World Cup leading into these championships.
Olympic cross-country: womenâ€™s race wide open
The Elite women's race is wide open, with five or six strong contenders for the title. Defending champion Julie Bresset of France has returned strongly from a broken clavicle early in the season. Slovenia's Tanja Zakelj leads the World Cup after winning two events and is the most consistent rider. Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) is coming off the first World Cup win of her career, and Maja Wloszczowska (Poland), third in the World Cup standings, can never be discounted.
Second year of Eliminator racing
On Sunday morning, after the Cross-country races have finished, the riders will line up again for the Eliminator, the newest world championship discipline, only in its second year. The top 32 riders in the men and women from qualifying runs will race in heats of four riders at a time on a short, very technical course, with the top two riders moving on to the next round. The top four in the men and women will race for the world titles.
Alexandra Engen (Sweden), the defending women's champion, has been the most consistent rider all season, but she will face stiff competition from her team mate Jenny Rissveds, as well as Eva Lechner (Italy) and Jolanda Neff (Switzerland).
The men's Eliminator should come to a showdown between the two most consistent riders of the season, Daniel Federspiel (Austria) and Miha Halzer (Slovenia). Others sure to be in the battle for medals include Simon Gegenheimer (Germany) and Mels Fabrice (Belgium).
Downhill: one of the most demanding courses
The final event of these world championships will be the Elite Downhill, and the course at Pietermaritzburg is one of the most physically demanding on the circuit. To do well here requires both technical skill and endurance for the long pedaling sections.
Rachel Atherton (Great Britain) has been the most consistent woman on the circuit this season, with three wins in four World Cup races, but she was beaten in the last round by former world champion Emmeline Ragot (France). Others to watch include Manon Carpenter (Great Britain) and defending world champion Morgane Charre (France).
In the men's Downhill, all local eyes will be on Pietermaritzburg's own hero Greg Minnaar, the defending world champion. Minnaar is locked in a tight battle on the World Cup with Gee Atherton (Great Britain) and Steve Smith (Canada). The South African also has two wins in three years on this home course.
The action begins on Wednesday at 1600h (local and Central Europe time) with the Team Relay. Fans from around the world can follow the UCI MTB World Championships via live streaming at www.redbulltv.com/bike, starting with the Cross-country Elite Women on Saturday at 12:30 pm (local), 11:30 am (GMT).
Photo: South Africa's own Greg Minnaar will be looking to defend his downhill world title in front of his home crowd