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South African National Cup Series #4 - 2
Cascades, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, April 4-5, 2009
South Africa's Beijing Olympians Burry Stander and Yolande Speedy won the men and women's events comfortably at round three of the 2009 MTN National Mountain Bike Cup in George last month. However, round four, which takes place in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday will be completely different.
A star-studded field of international riders, headed up by Swiss cross-country world champion, Christoph Sauser, will add unprecedented depth to the event, which they're using as a "leg-loosener"' ahead of next week's opening round of the Nissan UCI World Cup at the same venue.
Joining Sauser (Specialized) on the early pre-entry list are a pair of his Swiss compatriots, current Under 23 World Champion Nino Schurter (SCOTT Swisspower), who won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympic Games and Florian Vogel (SCOTT Swisspower), silver medalist at the 2008 world championships.
Also in the talent-heavy mix is another Swiss rider, Ralf Naef (Multivan Merida), the 2006 marathon world champion, Great Britain's, Liam Killeen (Trek), the current Commonwealth Games champion and Spain's Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), the Athens Olympic Games silver medalist.
"It's great to be able to have such a strong field at a home race. Great for the event, great for local riders and great for the sport as a whole in this country, said an upbeat Stander on Thursday. "I've not ridden much this week after last week's Cape Epic, so am using the race to warm up the legs for the World Cup next weekend."
Stander will by no means be out of his depth. He is the 2008 Under 23 World Cup champion and World Championships silver medalist and showed (along with partner Sauser), that he is in superb form with five stage wins from a possible eight at last week's Absa Cape Epic.
Speedy, the current South African elite women's champion, will face by far her stiffest home-based challenge ever. Confirmed to start Saturday's race are Russian ace, Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), the 2007 World Champion, 2007 World Cup champion and bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics, and Slovenia's Blaza Klemencic, the 2005 World Championships silver medalist.
After some steady rainfall over the past few days, the forecast is for a clear, warm day on Saturday. Racing will take place on the exact 4.km course as next week's World Cup event. The venue is adjacent to the Cascades Shopping Centre on the northwest perimeter of the city
Former two-time world champion, Fabien Barel (Subaru) of France and former World Cup champion, Tracy Moseley (Trek) of Great Britain, top the early entry list for round four of the MTN National Cup Downhill Mountain Bike Series which takes place in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday.
It will be the strongest field ever to contest a round of the national series as international stars from around the world gather in the capital city of KwaZulu-Natal ahead of next week's Nissan UCI World Cup, presented by Shimano.
With registration still open on Friday and Saturday, it's expected that the depth of the field will increase further ahead of Sunday's big showdown.
Other top names confirmed to be in action include World No. 11 Australian Chris Kovarik, World No. 10 France's Julien Camelini, World No. 7 New Zealand's Justin Leov, women's World No. 4 Emmeline Ragot and top Austrian female racer Lene Fruhwirth.
"It's gonna be like a mini World Cup," said South African star Andrew Neethling (Trek), who will be one of the big names on the start list. "I've just returned from two Maxxis Cup races in Europe where our team used the events to fine-tune our bike set-up and sharpen our form ahead of the World Cup next week. Sunday's race is another opportunity to sharpen and also get us familiar with the course."
Neethling, the 2008 national champion, finished 11th overall in the 2008 World Cup Series and won the first two rounds of the MTN National Series in January and February this year. Other top South Africans confirmed so far for Sunday are Jonty Neethling (Fox Morewood) and Hayden Brown (Mongoose).
More top local and international riders, including the likes of Australia's two-time World Champion and former World Cup winner Sam Hill (Monster Energy/Specialized) are expected to join the entry list before the start of racing on Sunday.
South Africa's top downhill racer, Greg Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate), who lives in Pietermaritzburg, has opted to sit out this weekend's event, but will be primed to begin the defence of his World Cup title on the same course at next week's World Cup race.
At 2.8km, the downhill course is relatively long, with a quick drop early on followed by a relatively mildly sloping section in the middle, which contains some jumps and tight turns and then a fast plunge in the final third, incorporating the last 500 metres of the 4X course into the finish arena. The total descent is 368 metres.
From the top section of the course, which winds its way through a eucalyptus forest, much of the City of Pietermaritzburg is visible in the valley below. One spectator magnet is likely to be the six-metre drop, about 500 metres from the start, with a couple of road-width jumps to follow before the flatter, pedal-heavy middle segment.
Official practice take place on Saturday and final practice and the racing will happen on Sunday.
4X makes South African debut
South Africans will get to see live 4X racing for the first time on Friday and Saturday.
4X was added to the International Cycling Union's (UCI) World Cup Series in 2002 as an evolved version of Dual Slalom, which was introduced in 1998. There have never been any international-level 4X courses in South Africa until early this year, when the Pietermaritzburg course was completed in order to host next week's UCI World Cup.
The UCI's official 4X course builder, Phil Saxena, flew in from England last November and spent two weeks designing and overseeing the construction of the Pietermaritzburg course. At 820m long and dropping 120 metres, it's the most extreme World Cup 4X course, which should prove a spectator favourite.
Until now, the longest World Cup 4X course has been 650m long and the biggest drop has been 105 metres. The Pietermaritzburg course has 13 corners and 26 obstacles, which make it one of the most challenging courses in the world.
Among the early entrants in the men are World No. 16 Sascha Meyenborg of Germany, World No. 12 Jurg Meijer and World No. 7 Joost Wichman both of The Netherlands. In the women's event, World No. 15 Lene Fruhwirth of Austria and World No. 5 Fionn Griffiths of Great Britain are among the pre-entries.
4X practice and qualifying will be run on Friday with finals scheduled for Saturday.