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World Cup XC, Four-cross Head To Houffalize, Belgium

The UCI mountain bike World Cup heads to the Ardennes region of Belgium this weekend as the town of Houffalize adds four-cross to its popular off-road menu.

Houffalize’s history in the World Cup dates back to 1992, and the venue has become a favorite among riders and spectators. Each year tens of thousands of fans fill the small town, which sits in a deep valley 25 miles northeast of Bastogne, to drink beer, ride bikes and cheer for their favorite pros.

This year, in addition to hosting round three of the cross-country series on Sunday, Houffalize will serve up some gated racing on Saturday with the second event in the 2009 four-cross series. The track, which got a test drive during a national-level four-cross last year, drops from the top of the cross-country course’s longest climb back into town. The weather has been wet lately, and many are predicting precipitation on race day, which may transform dirt into mud.

Sunday’s brutal cross-country course begins in the heart of town and sends riders sprinting up a kilometer-long paved ascent, which is featured in Liège-Bastogne-Liège as the Côte de Saint Roch climb.

The course quickly bottlenecks into a tight section of singletrack followed by a steep descent. For the remainder of the lap, riders climb and descend through the tight valley surrounding Houffalize, making the village center the best seat in town for spectators.

Absalon stays strong

Last year saw Frenchman Julien Absalon open his season with a career-first win here. The Frenchman attacked with Swiss rider Nino Schurter, then held off the U23 world champion for the victory. It kicked off a dream season for Absalon, who won his second Olympic gold medal and the World Cup overall.

Absalon is once again the man to watch in Houffalize. He leads the World Cup standings and won the second round of the series last weekend in Offenburg, Germany. It was Absalon’s 18th World Cup victory, surpassing the great Thomas Frischknecht’s mark of 17 career wins.

A few riders are nipping at the Frenchman’s heels, among them Jose Hermida (Multivan-Merida) — who won the World Cup opener in South Africa — Burry Stander (Specialized), Schurter and Florian Vogel (Scott-Swisspower).

Ren again?

In women’s racing, last year’s champion Chengyuan Ren of China is off to a strong start with a victory last weekend in Offenburg. Her start here last year was a slow one, but she surged in the final quarter of the race to catch Irina Kalentieva (Ergon-Topeak) and Marga Fullana (Massi) for the victory.

Fullana and Kalentieva will likely challenge for the win alongside Ghost International teammates Sabine Spitz of Germany and Elisabeth Osl of Austria.

Luna teammates Georgia Gould and Catherine Pendrel will lead the North American charge alongside Mary McConneloug (Seven-Kenda-No Tubes), Emily Batty (Trek Bicycle Store) and Subaru-Gary Fisher teammates Heather Irmiger and Willow Koerber.

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