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Tales from the peloton, April 10, 2009

Mountain Bike World Cup: 10 must-know cross country racers

By Sue George, Mountain Bike Editor

The 2009 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup will kick off this weekend, April 10-12, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, with cross country, downhill and four cross disciplines. It will be the first time in World Cup history that a triple event is held on African soil.

The South African World Cup is the first event of 2009 to draw all the favorites to once place to race head-to-head. While the stars have been quietly logging training time and making race appearances to test their fitness in rounds of the various national series, they have yet to see how they stack up against each other this season.

It's been a long winter; the last World Cup was held in September of 2008 in Schladming, Austria, so Cyclingnews has picked out 10 cross country riders - five men and five women - to watch as the World Cup season gets under way.

We predict you'll see their names again and again this season.


Nino Schurter (Swi) Scott-Swisspower MTB-Team

Switzerland's Nino Schurter
Photo ©: Greg Chang
(Click for larger image)

Nino Schurter is one of the youngest members of the enduring, talented Swiss mountain bike empire.

Schurter, who will turn 23 years old in May, won the Under 23 World Championships in Italy last summer.

He joined the powerhouse Swisspower Mountain Bike team of Thomas Frischknecht in 2003, and he turned professional in 2007.

Despite his young age, Schurter boasts 11 World Cup medals. He also impressed the world last summer when he won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

He has won two golds and a silver medal at the the Under 23 World Championship and was regularly mixing it up with the elite men at international races last year. He finished eighth overall in the 2008 World Cup standings.

Schurter has spent his early season training in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where many elite European riders have set up training camp during the winter months in the northern hemisphere.

Expect Schurter to start his season in good form and continue his upward trajectory toward continued success in the elite ranks.


Georgia Gould (USA) Luna Women's Team

Georgia Gould (Luna Women's MTB)
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Georgia Gould is competitive at the World Cup level not only for mountain biking, but also for cyclo-cross. In 2008, she displayed her versatility by finishing fifth overall in the mountain bike World Cup and by taking third in the Nommay cyclo-cross World Cup months after finishing a long and challenging Olympic mountain bike season.

The American visited the World Cup mountain bike podium several times in 2008 with three fifth-place finishes and one fourth place finish.

At the World Championships in Italy, she ended up ninth, as the top American finisher. She earned one of two spots on the US Olympic team and raced to eighth place in Beijing, China.

Gould is a perennial winner at North American races. Last year, for example, she won the overall National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) title for the cross country.

Last fall, she won North American Cyclo-cross Trophy overall, taking four wins along the way. In addition, she won three rounds of the US Grand Prix of cyclo-cross.

Gould showed excellent form when she kicked off her racing season with a win at the opening round of the USProXCT in Fontana, California, in late March.

In 2009, Gould will again contest a full season of mountain bike races before switching to cyclo-cross for the autumn.


Geoff Kabush (Can) Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain Bicycles

Geoff Kabush (Rocky Mountain/Maxxis)
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Canadian Geoff Kabush is coming off a banner year in 2008, in which he won the American National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) cross country title, reached the World Cup podium several times and captured fourth overall in the World Cup series.

Kabush is riding for a new UCI-registered team created by a partnership of Maxxis and Rocky Mountain bicycles.

"The new team has really got me excited about the upcoming year," said Kabush. "I can't wait to get out racing again in 2009."

Kabush started his season, guns blazing, at the opening round of the new US ProXCT series in Fontana, California, where his results matched his enthusiasm. Kabush won for the fourth time at the Fontana venue, taking the cross country win while proving to everyone that he is already in shape and ready to take on his fellow World Cup contenders.

As Canadian national champion for four consecutive years from 2005 to 2008, Kabush can mix it up on the international stage, too. Last year, he finished fourth at the Bromont World Cup, third in the Canberra World Cup and second at the Mont Sainte Anne World Cup.


Catharine Pendrel (Can) Luna Women's Team

Catherine Pendrel (Luna Women's MTB)
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Canadian Catharine Pendrel has been working her way toward the top of the elite women's peloton for several years, and in 2008, she had a stellar season, mixing it up with the more established favorites.

She finished sixth at the World Championships in Italy.

After a fourth place podium finish at the Andorra World Cup and two top ten finishes earlier in the season, in August she went on to win her first World Cup in Bromont, Canada. A few weeks later, she finished just off the podium, in fourth place the Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Pendrel ended up second overall in the women's World Cup rankings.

The 28-year-old Pendrel has been a member of the Canadian National team since 2003, after she moved to British Columbia and got more serious about mountain bike racing.

Pendrel kicked off her 2009 season in Chile at the Pan American Games, where she became champion after defeating everyone else, including her teammate and runner-up Gould. She was also the Pan-American champion in 2007, when the event was held in Brazil.

A week later, Gould and Pendrel reversed their places, with Pendrel taking second at the USProXCT cross country opener in Fontana, California.


Burry Stander (RSa) Specialized Factory Racing

South African champion Burry Stander
Photo ©: MTN National Series
(Click for larger image)

The young Burry Stander describes himself as "just old enough to drink a beer in the US," but that doesn't mean he is inexperienced mountain bike racer.

He won his first South African and African titles in the Under 13 category in 1999. He made the trip to the US in 2005 to compete in the American national series and found success in three races, which he won. That got him some attention and a contract with GT Factory Racing for 2006.

In 2009, Stander joins World Champion Christoph Sauser on the Specialized Factory racing team.

In 2008, Stander was the runner-up at the Under 23 World Championships (behind Nino Schurter). He logged some impressive elite World Cup finishes including second in Vallnord, fifth at Fort William and third at Mont Sainte Anne. His consistent performances netted him a fifth overall in the elite World Cup rankings and a win in the Under 23 World Cup rankings.

Stander started off his 2009 season by dominating the South African National Series rounds and also winning all but one of the Cape Epic stages with partner Sauser.


Sabine Spitz (Ger) Central Ghost Pro Team

The German national anthem plays for Sabine Spitz
Photo ©: Casey Gibson
(Click for larger image)

German Sabine Spitz achieved her goal of becoming the Olympic Games champion last August in Beijing, China, after a 2008 season set up to focus on that objective. Spitz knew just what it would take to win that gold medal, and she executed her plan perfectly. In 2004 at the Olympic Games, she won bronze.

The 37-year-old finished second at the 2008 World Championships, but she has been a perennial favorite for making the worlds podium. She was the World Champion in 2003 and won silver in 2007 and bronze in 2001 and 2002.

Last summer, Spitz also finished second at the marathon World Championships and won the European and German championships. Though she ended up ranked on tenth in the World Cup standings, she was number one in the UCI rider rankings.

Spitz has been gradually building up her fitness this spring by racing a few national series races throughout Europe.

This season, Elisabeth Osl has joined Spitz on the Central Ghost Pro Team. Look for the two riders to work together at the World Cup and other events, especially as the young Osl picks up some pointers from the veteran Spitz.



Christoph Sauser (Swi) Specialized Factory Racing

World Champion Christoph Sauser
Photo ©: www.flipper.co.za
(Click for larger image)

Long or short, it doesn't matter. Swiss racer Christoph Sauser is fast.

The reigning cross country World Champion is the man who broke Julien Absalon's four-time World Championship winning streak. It was a long track to glory; he'd previously finished second (in 2005 and 2006) and third at the worlds (2001).

Second in 2008, he won the marathon World Championship in 2007.

Sauser counts 14 World Cup wins during his career. In 2008, he was second to Julien Absalon in the final rankings. He's won the overall World Cup twice in the past - once in 2004 and again in 2005.

The six-time Swiss national champion has found a second home in Stellensboch, South Africa, where he goes to escape the Swiss winters and get more consistent, "winter" training. Racing the opening World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, will be almost like racing at home.

Sauser showed excellent form already for this season. In late March, he partnered with teammate and training partner Burry Stander to race the Cape Epic stage. The two won all but one of the stages and would have won the overall were it not for an unfortunate and severe mechanical, for which they were penalized after accepting outside mechanical assistance in order to complete the stage.

In recent years, if Absalon hasn't won a major event, Sauser has. Look for him again atop podiums throughout this year's World Cup season.


Marie-Hélene Prémont (Can) Team Maxxis-Rocky Mountain Bicycles

Marie-Helene Premont (Rocky Mountain/Maxxis)
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Marie-Hélene Prémont had planned to retire at the end of 2008 and start a family, but she then changed her mind and decided to continue racing in 2009.

The six-time and current Canadian National Champion is no stranger to World Cup success. She made her World Cup debut in 1998 in Canmore, Canada. In 2008, she won the overall World Cup title.

The 31-year-old won the Fort William and Mont Sainte Anne rounds of last year's World Cup. She also finished in the top three at the Houffalize, Offenburg, Madrid, Vallnord, Bromont and Schladming rounds.

The French-speaking, Québec resident, Prémont, had an unfortunate Olympic Games, from which she withdrew due to hyperventilation. At the 2004 Olympic Games, she had won a silver medal.

She began competitive mountain biking in 1995 and volunteered her local World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne. A former Canadian National Snowboard Team member, Prémont took up mountain biking as a way to train for snowboarding in the offseason, but she found she enjoyed competing in a sport where she could stay warm while racing.

According to her website, Prémont has never let a mechanical prevent her from finishing a race, and she has only DNF'ed twice in her career, both times due to health reasons. She balances training and competition with the pursuit of an advanced degree in pharmacology.

It will be interesting to see whether Prémont extends her career still one more year, into 2010, so that she can race the World Championships on her home course in Mont Sainte Anne.


Julien Absalon (Fra) Team Orbea

Julien Absalon (Orbea)
Photo ©: Team Orbea
(Click for larger image)

There is no other man on the cross country circuit who has so consistently been at the top of his game, and for so long.

The Frenchman has won every major title in mountain biking. In 2004, in Athens, Greece, and in 2008, in Beijing, China, he was crowned Olympic champion.

In between, he earned himself four World Championship titles (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), and he's been the World Cup Champion in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Last year, he won the first two rounds of the World Cup, in Houffalize and Offenburg. He also won in Madrid, Mont Sainte Anne and Bromont.

Absalon has tested his legs a few times early this season with some national series races in France, Spain and Italy. He is the master of peaking for his objectives and has proven he can cope with the highest levels of pressure in the sport.

In 2009, Absalon will be without his long-time teammate and fellow Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud, who made the off-season switch to the Massi Team.

Don't expect that to slow down Absalon; however, at the pinnacle of the sport, it's every man for himself.


Marga Fullana (Spa) Massi

Margarita Fullana (Massi)
Photo ©: Sergio Suarez
(Click for larger image)

Spaniard Marga Fullana is a favorite at every cross country race she attends. The reigning World Champion regained her title in 2008 that she had previously won in 1999 and 2000.

Last season she finished third in the UCI's World Cup rankings, and she won the round in Andorra.

She has been European champion six times (1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), and from 1999 to 2002, she won 12 World Cup events.

Although she won bronze at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, she pulled out of the 2008 Olympic race part-way through the race due to stomach problems.

Fullana, 37, has been tearing it up so far this season with convincing wins in the Spanish Superprestigio Massi series.

The World Cups will be her first opportunity to race against the rest of the elite women's field.

In 2007, Fullana was pulled from the World Championship competition due to a high hematocrit reading. She blamed a broken arm and subsequent healing and treatment for causing the high reading. She has never tested positive for any banned substance.

There are so many talented racers on the World Cup circuit that it's impossible to pick just ten. Therefore, honorable mention also goes to the following men: Adam Craig (USA), Ralf Naef (Swi), Florian Vogel (Swi), Lukas Flückiger (Swi), Jose Antonio Hermida (Spa) and Todd Wells (USA); and the following women: Irina Kalentieva (Rus), Lene Byberg (Nor), Mary McConneloug (USA), Tereza Hurikova (Cze) and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Nor). Cyclingnews predicts you'll also see these riders logging outstanding performances at or near the front of the World Cup field in 2009.


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Greg Chang/Photosport International

Images by Team Orbea

Images by MTN National Series

Images by www.flipper.co.za

Images by Dave McElwaine/www.trailwatch.net

Images by Casey Gibson / www.cbgphoto.com

Images by Sergio Suarez

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