After 18 years, the international mountain bike circuit returns to Cairns, Australia, this weekend for the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup presented by Shimano. Cairns was the site of the 1996 UCI World Championships, and will be again for the 2017 World Championships, with this year's World Cup the first of a series building to the championships.
This weekend, Round two for both the cross-country and downhill will take place in Cairns, while the Eliminator competition will get underway with its opening round.
A week prior to the event, Cairns was hit by massive tropical storm, but the courses survived remarkably well, a testament to construction skills of the organiser. The 4.9 kilometre cross-country circuit will favour climbers, with a long climb on the main loop and a shorter one on the second loop. The course is full of rocks and roots, and is expected to remain wet and slippery, so technical skills will be very much required. Organisers have managed to incorporate some of the technical sections from 1996, including the 'Crocslide', smooth rock slab descent. One new section of note is the 'Rodeo Drop' dropoff, which will also be used in the eliminator.
Elimnator opens competition
The eliminator course is just over 800 metres long, starting with some BMX-style berms and jumps, followed by a climb into the woods and over the Rodeo Drop and into a fast descent back to the finish.
The eliminator will open the competition on Friday afternoon. The women's field will see World Champion and defending World Cup champion Alexandra Engen (Ghost Factory) go up against Eva Lechner (Colnago Sudtirol) and Jolanda Neff (Liv Pro XC), the winner of the first round of the Cross-country World Cup. Another to watch will be Jenny Rissveds (Scott-Odlo). For the men, Australian hopes will be on Paul van der Ploeg, but he will have to face defending World Cup champion Daniel Federspiel (Oetztal Scott), Thomas Litscher (Multivan Merida), German national champion Simon Gegenheimer and Mels Fabrice (Salcano Alanya), all top performers last season in the Eliminator.
Cross-country: leaders Neff and Absalon looking to confirm
The cross-country will see women's Under-23 World Champion Jolanda Neff try to replicate her first round victory from two weeks ago in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. She faces strong competition from the legendary Gunn Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida), who came close to catching Neff in the final laps of the Round One. Others to watch include Neff's team mate Maja Wloszczowska and 2008 Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (Sabine Spitz Haibike).
On the men's side, Julien Absalon (BMC), the winner of Round One, will be missing his usual rival, Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo), who is taking a brief hiatus to race the WorldTour road event, the Tour of Romandie. Absalon will be looking for his 28th World Cup victory, putting him on par with American Julie Furtado for the most World Cup wins in cross-country. However, Absalon was pushed in Round One by Manuel Fumic (Cannondale Factory), who is looking for his first-ever World Cup win.
Downhill: slick and slippery after rain
The Downhill also incorporates sections of the 1996 course with updates to reflect modern course design. The 1.9 kilometre run is, like the cross-country very slick and slippery due to the wet conditions which, combined the with roots and rocks, will force the riders to balance between going for maximum speed and sliding out and crashing. After a couple of short rock gardens near the top, riders hit some jumps, then a brief uphill section that will test their fitness, before tricky 360-degree wraparound turn into a drop. After this, it is mostly narrow, rooty and slippery all the way to the bottom. However, the riders have to save some energy for the long pedalling section to the finish line.
The Cairns course will suit the same type of powerful and fit rider who did well in Pietermaritzburg, so we can expect to see a renewal of the competition between British rivals Manon Carpenter (Madison Saracen) and World Champion Rachel Atherton (GT Factory) on the women's side. Atherton was just coming off illness in Pietermaritzburg, and Carpenter was able to take her first ever World Cup win there, but the defending World Cup champion is sure to be anxious to take back the lead in the standings here in Cairns.
For the men. it will be a chance to see if Round One winner Aaron Gwin (Specialized Racing DH) is truly back at the top of his game. Gwin dominated the sport in 2011-12, but struggled in 2013, before returning to the top step of the podium at Pietermaritzburg. Local hopes will be on Mick Hannah (Hutchinson UR), who finished second to Gwin in Round One, and World Champion Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), third in Pietermaritzburg. Another to watch will be Gee Atherton (GT Factory), runner up in the World Cup last season.
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Photo: Julien Absalon will be looking to confirm after winning the first round