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MTB World Cup XC #6 & DH #5 - CDM
Maribor, Slovenia, September 14-16, 2007
By Rob Jones
One week after the mountain bike world championships in Scotland, the final event on the World Cup schedule is taking place September 14-16 in Maribor, Slovenia. Maribor is a new venue for the cross-country, but it held a gravity World Cup for four years previously: 1999 - 2002. The downhill World Cup was well attended in the past, attracting upwards of 25,000 spectators, and the weather forecast is excellent for the entire weekend - sunny and mid-20s Celsius. Organizers are predicting 30,000-plus spectators.
The venue is to the south of Maribor, at the ski slopes of Pohorje, that face north towards the city in the valley. Maribor is in the northeast corner of Slovenia next to Austria, and is the second largest urban centre in the country (after the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana). Originally an industrial centre, it is reinventing itself as an academic and cultural city.
The cross-country takes place Saturday, on a circuit that is just under five kilometres. Unlike the world championships last weekend - with groomed trails and one long climb/descent - the Pohorje course is highly technical, with lots of roots and tight, twisty turns.
For the opening lap, the riders are sent up a gravel fire road to spread them out - on the regular lap it is a rooty, singletrack climb for much of the main ascent, so not many opportunities to pass. At the top, the riders immediately lose all the altitude they gained. The first part of the descent is technical and wooded, before moving out to open grassy slopes. At the bottom the riders pass through the feed/tech zone and do a second short, sharp technical climb and descent, before making a slight uphill run to the finish line.
The top riders are all in attendance from the Worlds, and the racing should be intense, since it is a final chance to score high UCI points for world (and Olympic) rankings.
Julien Absalon (Orbea) has already mathematically won the men's World Cup, however, he is scheduled to race a full suspension bike for the first time in a World Cup, and his sponsor is likely very anxious for a dually win. Christoph Sauser (Specialized) was one of the strongest riders last week, but a broken shoe put him out of contention for a medal, so he is likely very hungry for a win. Sauser's team-mate Liam Killeen is also here - after a respectable 44th place last week (he started 112th). Killeen was encouraged by his returning form following an illness.
The Belgians and the Germans are set up for an interesting battle in the men's race - cyclo-cross star Sven Nys stated earlier that the Worlds would be his last mountain bike race, but then he finished 15th, meeting Olympic qualification criteria. Belgium is also only a few points ahead of Germany for the final three starting spots in Beijing, so Nys is back on a mountain bike this weekend. Italian road star Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval) is also here, making his bid for an Olympic spot.
On the women's side, newly minted world champion Irina Kalentyeva (Topeak-Ergon) has all but clinched the women's title, so might be expected to take it easy, however, she is anxious to show off her new rainbow stripes, and the course suits her.
Marga Fullana (Spiuk) is still missing due to her "unfit to race" status after a high haematocit test reading at the Worlds, but Sabine Spitz (Ghost), the three Chinese (Lui Ying, Ren Chengyuan and Jingjing Wang) women and the Canadian contingent (Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain-Haywood), Catherine Pendrel (Norco) and Kiara Bisaro (Opus)) are all here.
The Chinese took gold and silver in U23 and bronze in elite women's race last weekend, while the Canadians all finished in the top-11 in the elite race, so this is a very stacked field. However, the Chinese have struggled on the technical climbs, and may be less of a factor here in Maribor.
The downhill is somewhat changed from previous editions - longer and more technical. Except for the upper portion with one rock garden, the majority of the run is in the woods and features lots of roots and soft loamy, off-camber turns. It will be fine in the dry, a crash fest if it rains (there is a small forecasted chance of rain for the downhill on Sunday). Top dry runs are expected to be in the four minute range.
No surprise, the repeat world champions Sam Hill and Sabrina Jonnier (both Team Monster) are the favourites. Neither Greg Minnaar (G Cross-Honda) nor Cedric Gracia (Commencal) will be racing, although both are here.
Gracia crashed in the 4-Cross at Worlds, breaking his right wrist and suffering ligament damage - he had surgery this past Wednesday. Minnaar continues to rack up "Iron Man" accolades. After racing much of the season on a dislocated shoulder (which has popped out during race runs), he taped up and won the seeding run at Worlds, only to finish fourth in the final, just outside the medals. However, the story is actually more gruesome: he hit a tree on the way down during the Worlds final run and, because his shoulder was strapped so securely, broke his scapula (!) from the impact yet he still managed to finish fourth.
More than 500 racers are expected to compete, and Slovenia will field 40 riders of its own. Blaa Klemencic is expected to do well in the elite women's cross country, and under 23 riders Nina Homovec and Tanja akelj are also hoping for success. Local four cross Maribor racers Tilen Frank and Matej Stapic will be favorites in the gravity event.
"The city is thankful to the people who brought the mountain bike World Cup back to Pohorje mountain. For us, it is not just about the exposure in the international media, it is a fact that sports events like this one are stimulating the economic growth in the city and in the region," said Maribor Deputy Mayor Mr. Andrej Verlic at a recent press conference.