It seems like only yesterday that Jaroslav Kulhavy clinched gold in the 2011 World Championships to cap a perfect season which also saw the Czech rider top the overall World Cup standings, winning five of the seven rounds.
And with the mountain bike community waking from its winter hibernation, the World Cup heads south to the sunny climes of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa for the first round of the 2012 series on March 16-18.
Friday March 16
World Cup Downhill – Qualifying Round
Saturday March 17
World Cup Olympic Cross-Country – Men U23
World Cup Olympic Cross-Country – Women Elite
World Cup Olympic Cross-Country – Men Elite
World Cup Olympic Cross-Country – Women U23
World Cup Olympic Cross-Country – Women Juniors
Sunday March 18
World Cup Olympic Cross-country – Men Juniors
World Cup Downhill – Final – Women
World Cup Downhill – Final – Men
Who’s turning up?
Pietermaritzburg will host the first cross-country and downhill events of the season, although the cross-country eliminator format will not make its World Cup debut until next month’s round in Houffalize, Belgium.
The World Cup has a different slant to it in 2012 – an Olympic year – with most cross-country riders looking to arrive at the London Games in peak form.
The World Cup remains a vital component of the season, however, and 2011 Pietermaritzburg winner Nino Schurter insists it’s important to get off to a strong start.
“The first one is always the most important. The starting order of the following races depends on the first round,” Schurter, who would finish the World Cup series second overall, told CyclingNews. “And it is important to find the confidence in the opening round. The tension is always higher than in other rounds.”
The cross-country course has been updated after last year’s event to help technical crews assist the riders in the feed zones. Each lap is approximately 5.4km long and starts with a singletrack climb, with a little room for overtaking.
The track then drops into a new feature called Pick Up Sticks before heading through the Rapid Rocks rock garden. The course then rolls past the first feed station before starting the main climb up to the resurfaced Amphitheatre area, where riders will experience a new technical feature which, according to the course designers, “has been unashamedly modelled on a drop-off at Champery.”
The lap then heads into Shaka’s Playground, made up of a spiral staircase and large logs with three different lines. “This is a place where time and positions can be made or lost, depending on which options the riders choose, with an estimated seven seconds difference between the tough bull line and the slowest chicken run line,” reads the course description.
The course then heads downhill to the Tree House rock garden and into a corkscrew which leads into the second feed zone and the end of the lap.
The Pietermaritzburg downhill course is one of the most physical on the circuit and has long pedal sections which favours powerful riders in the mould of last year’s victor Aaron Gwin.
“Although not the steepest track on the circuit Pietermaritzburg is by far the fastest, with average speeds of 48km/h and top speeds reaching 78km/h through ‘The N3 highway’.”
What happened in 2011?
Nino Schurter’s only World Cup victory of 2011 came in Pietermaritzburg, with the Scott Swisspower rider crossing the line 16 seconds ahead of Julien Absalon, with Jaroslav Kulhavy a further 47 seconds adrift.
And Schurter is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to ride this year’s updated course after a big winter’s training.
“I like to race in Pietermaritzburg. Even though the course will be different, I’m sure I’m going to like it. The terrain will remain the same,” he said.
“I worked hard all winter long to be ready for this one. My main goal will be the Olympics this year. But this does not mean I’m coming for a training ride to Pietermaritzburg.”
As for last year’s downhill spectacle, Aaron Gwin edged Greg Minnaar to the title by just 0.241 seconds, with Great Britain’s Gee Atherton completing the podium.
Where can I watch it?
And the good news is that you can watch it all online in high definition after Red Bull became the official media partner, with Gary Foord and Rob Warner set to commentate. Read all about that here.