By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
For the sixth year in a row, and ninth time in 14 years, the NORBA National Championship Series kicks off Friday on the wooded slopes of Snow Summit Resort in Big Bear Lake, California. Day one will feature the men’s and women’s cross country races, with the ladies set to go at 11 a.m., followed by the men at 2 p.m.
All the pros will face a revamped 7.25-mile circuit that includes two new hike-a-bike sections and more single track than in years past. The course remains one of the five-race series’ biggest lung-busters. With a starting altitude of 6951 feet above the nearby Pacific Ocean, a peak of 7800 feet, and 1800 feet of climbing per lap, only those with strong early-season form will be near the front at the finish.
The favorite on the men’s side is unquestionably reigning world, World Cup and NORBA cross-country champion, Roland Green (Trek-Volkswagen). Already Green has picked up where he left off a year ago, taking the overall title at the Sea Otter Classic back in March.
Green’s Canadian countrymen Ryder Hesjedal (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Seamus McGrath (Haro-Lee Dungarees) should also contend for spots on the podium. Hesjedal won the NORBA cross-country at Deer Valley last year, and was runner-up to Green in the final overall standings.
The top American threat will likely come from last year’s cross-country national champion — and Snow Summit winner two years running — Kirk Molday. The SunRace-Santa Cruz rider was one of the few people to put the hurt on Green in 2001, beating the British Columbian by 2:39 in last year’s 25.4-mile race here in Big Bear Lake.
Other U.S. hopefuls include Todd Wells (Mongoose-Hyundai), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (RLX-Polo Sport) and Travis Brown (Trek-Volkswagen). Brown, the 1999 overall NORBA champion, will be looking to rebound from a sub-par 2001 campaign that saw the Boulder, Colorado resident fail to step onto the podium.
The field will be without the top European riders, who’ve opted to stay on the other side of the Atlantic in preparation for the opening round of the World Cup series next weekend in Madrid, Spain.
In the women’s race expect the podium members to include some combination of Mary Grigson and Chrissy Redden (both Subaru-Gary Fisher), Susan Haywood (Trek-Volkswagen), Alison Dunlap (Luna Chix) and Jimena Florit (RLX-Polo Sport). That fivesome consistently pulled away from the rest of the women’s field last year, and there’s no indication anything will change in 2002.
Grigson was the overall NORBA champ in 2001 and won three of the five races. Redden ended up second and won the NCS finals at Mount Snow. Dunlap is the reigning world champion and took the overall at Sea Otter this March.
If there is a surprise ride turned in, look for it to come from SoBe-Cannondale’s Shonny Vanlandingham, who finished strong in 2001 with a ninth-place effort at the world’s in Vail.
The cross-country riders will finish their racing weekend on Saturday with the shortrack (women at 3 p.m., men at 3:30). The gravity gang takes over from there, with dual slalom finals set for 4:30 Saturday. Sunday is downhill day with the women heading out at 1:30 p.m., followed by the men at 2.
Saturday’s dual slalom will be the last pro side-by-side gated race this year. The ensuing four stops — Alpine Valley, Snowshoe, Durango and Mount Snow — will all be running mountain cross. That means the winner of the Snow Summit slalom will also be crowned 2002 national champion. Eric Carter (Mongoose-Hyundai) is the defending dual slalom series champ; Aussie Mick Hannah (Haro-Lee Dungarees) won here last year; and Brian Lopes (GT-Fox) is the all-time slalom king with 19 wins to his credit. A twentieth for Lopes would be no surprise.
— The European cross-country riders may not be here, but with Volvo-Cannondale’s Anne-Caroline Chausson in town, the NORBA series opener will be graced by four of the five reigning elite rainbow-jersey holders: Chausson (dual, downhill), Lopes (dual), Green (cross country) and Dunlap (cross country). The only one missing is Nicolas Vouilloz (downhill).
— The buzz from the first manager’s meeting was the complaining some of the cross-country riders were doing about the two hike-a-bike sections. Molday was among the riders to take issue with the new sections, saying his carbon-bottomed road shoes were not suited for trekking though the woods. Oh well…
— For those of you lucky enough to make it up to Big Bear for the weekend, come by the benefit party for Kelli Turcotte on Friday at Mozart’s Nightclub. The former UCI delegate is battling cancer and needs some help with her medical bills. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets can be picked up at the Mavenn Clothing booth at the event expo, or at the door.
Check back to VeloNews.com all weekend for race reports, results and photos.