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Pietermaritzburg round has cross-country, four-cross and downhill

The 2009 UCI mountain bike World Cup kicks off this weekend in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The race marks the first time in the series’ 19-year history that an event featuring cross-country, downhill and four-cross racing will be held on the African continent. A gravity-only World Cup was held in the winemaking city of Stellenbosch on the Western Cape from 1997-98. “Mountain biking is taking on a new dimension,” said UCI president Patrick McQuaid.

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By Fred Dreier

Last year the World Cup opened at the familiar course in Houffalize, Belgium. This year it's a new venue in South Africa

Last year the World Cup opened at the familiar course in Houffalize, Belgium. This year it’s a new venue in South Africa

Photo: Fred Dreier

The 2009 UCI mountain bike World Cup kicks off this weekend in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The race marks the first time in the series’ 19-year history that an event featuring cross-country, downhill and four-cross racing will be held on the African continent. A gravity-only World Cup was held in the winemaking city of Stellenbosch on the Western Cape from 1997-98.

“Mountain biking is taking on a new dimension,” said UCI president Patrick McQuaid.

Pietermaritzburg, which is located inland, just west of the city of Durban, is the hometown of Greg Minnaar, the 2008 World Cup downhill champion. Minnaar was instrumental in bringing the event to South Africa, and served on a board of organizers for the race.

Competition begins Saturday. The first event to be held is a new addition to the UCI World Cup — a juniors-only cross-country race for men and women. That race will feature competition between riders ages 17-18.

Next up are the men’s and women’s elite cross-country races. In the women’s race, reigning Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (Ghost International) will look to start her season off against perennial rivals Irina Kalentieva (Ergon-Topeak), Poland’s Maja Woczloczska and world champion Marga Fullana of Spain.

Noticeably absent will be ’04 Olympic champ Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå. The Norwegian just gave birth to a baby boy, and will miss most of the early season. Also absent will be reigning World Cup champion Marie-Héléne Prémont of the new Rocky Mountain-Maxxis team.

North Americans expected to take the starting line are Olympians Mary McConneloug (Seven-Kenda-NoTubes), Georgia Gould and Catherine Pendrel (Luna), as well as Heather Irmiger and Willow Koerber (Subaru-Gary Fisher).

In the men’s race, all eyes will be on Olympic champion Julien Absalon (Orbea) and world champion Christoph Sauser (Specialized). The two duked it out on the World Cup last year, with Absalon taking the overall. But Sauser recently raced the Absa Cape Epic alongside teammate and South African Burry Stander, and could have the legs to topple the Olympic champion. Also challenging for the win will be the Swisspower-Scott duo of Florian Vogel and Nino Schurter, and the new Trek Global team of Liam Killeen, Mattias and Lukas Flukiger.

North Americans Geoff Kabush (Rocky Mountain-Maxxis), Todd Wells (Specialized), Adam Craig (Giant), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Sam Schutlz (Subaru-Gary Fisher) and Michael Broderick (Seven-Kenda-NoTubes) will also look for top results.

Four-cross finals concludes Saturday’s racing.

The event will mark the return to the four-cross format for a handful of Olympic BMX riders, including Jared Graves (Yeti), Michal Prokop (Author) and American Jill Kintner. Kintner, who grabbed bronze in Beijing, will be racing her first World Cup since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery at the end of 2008.

Minnaar’s star presence in Pietermaritzburg will make the downhill the fan favorite event. The race kicks off at 2pm on Sunday, and pits Minnaar (Santa Cruz Syndicate) in a three-way battle against reigning world champion Gee Atherton (Animal-Commençal) and 2007 champ Sam Hill. Hill and teammate Brenday Fairclough will be flying the colors of the new Specialized-Monster Energy team.