The 2012 Mountain Bike World Championships resume on Thursday with the Cross-country and Eliminator events, after moving six miles from the Gravity headquarters in Leogang, to the neighboring town of Saalfelden, Austria.
The Team Relay leads off the competition. Each country enters a team of riders from four categories - Elite Men, Elite Women, Under 23 Men and Junior Men - with each rider doing one lap of the 2.8-mile cross-country circuit. The lead can change every lap, as teams decide whether to send out their fastest riders early or late in the event. Strategy always plays a role, as teams have to decide whether to send out their fastest (Elite Man) first to build up a lead early, or wait until later in the race and hope they can reel in the other teams. Traditionally, the strong countries in the Team Relay have included Switzerland, Canada, Germany, defending champions France and the Czech Republic. Teams will not be announced until just before the race.
On Friday, the Cross-country competition begins with the Junior and Under 23 categories and culminates on Saturday afternoon with the Elite categories. The 2.8-mile circuit offers a mix of fast, open terrain and tight, technical singletrack, with two lengthy climbs per lap. It is likely to be fast and relentless racing, favoring riders with lots of power over the pure climbers. Of course, if rain appears - as it did for the Gravity events - this will change the course significantly, making many sections slippery and treacherous. The lap - and race - will end with a steep drop into a stadium and half lap around a running track to the finish line. The drop has a shorter A-line, but the turn onto the course is extremely tight, so there is a good chance we might see a last desperate attempt to pass here.
The top riders are coming off the Olympic Games, so it is always a question of whether they can hold their conditioning after the emotional and physical release following the Games. Julie Bresset (France) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) are the Olympic champions, but will they be able to complete the double of Olympic and World champions after facing media obligations since the Games? Kulhavy, for one, has spent much of the intervening time off the bike.
In the Elite women's race, expect to see defending champion Catharine Pendrel (Canada) wanting to avenge her poor showing in London. Others to watch for the podium include Olympic silver medalist Sabine Spitz (Germany), Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould (USA), Emily Batty (Canada), Katerina Nash (Czech Republic), Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Norway) and, of course, Bresset.
For the Elite men, Olympic champion and defending world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy will face Olympic sliver medalist Nino Schurter (Switzerland), Burry Stander (South Africa), Olympic bronze medalist Marco Fontana (Italy), Jose Hermida (Spain) and four time world champion Julien Absalon (France). Schurter will be looking for revenge after losing the Olympic title by inches, and two-time Olympic champion Absalon will want to make up for his DNF in London, and add a record fifth rainbow jersey to his collection. The U.S. hopes will rest on Todd Wells, who finished 14th in London. However, Wells admits that he is also recovering from the Olympics, and is not sure of his form.
The World Championships conclude on Sunday with a new event for men and women - the Eliminator. Racing in heats of four on a short urban circuit in Saalfelden, two riders will advance each round until the final four battle for the world title. With both flat out sprinting, tight corners and technical obstacles, the Eliminator could be a thrilling conclusion to the 2012 World Championships.
Registration for the Eliminator will not close until Friday afternoon, but already we know that all three of the men's Olympic medalists have signed up, as have Jose Hermida, Florian Vogel (Switzerland) and Canada's Geoff Kabush, who dominates the U.S. short track circuit.