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Absalon’s uphill task

Double Olympic gold medallist and four-time world champion, Julien Absalon of France, will have to contend with one of the strongest fields ever assembled when he tackles the season-opening men’s cross-country race at the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.

The 28-year-old Frenchman, who races for the Orbea team, is also four-time World Cup champion and has stated that one of his goals for 2009 is to extend his record in the world’s most prestigious series to five.┬á With so much depth in the men’s cross-country category, it’s become vital for riders to compete in each of the eight events in the series in order to secure enough points. And Absalon’s rivals are well aware of this.

Standing at the front of the queue to topple the mighty Frenchman as the discipline makes its World Cup debut on African soil, is current world champion, Christoph Sauser (Specialized). The 32-year-old Swiss rider has made South Africa his second home in recent years and will have a legion of fans cheering him on around the 4.7km course, which has been described as a climber’s delight.

ÔÇ£It’s a very good course because it’s not boring,ÔÇØ said Sauser. ÔÇ£It’s very bumpy too and hard to find a rhythm. The second climb is quite long ÔÇô about six minutes of a 16-minute lap ÔÇô which makes you work constantly, physically and mentally.ÔÇØ

A total of 134 riders from 26 countries will be required to complete seven laps of the course, which has been designed to give spectators full value-for-money as the route criss-crosses, itself ensuring riders pass the main spectator areas twice on each lap.

Another favourite on Saturday is Spain’s Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida), the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and third-place finisher in the 2008 World Cup Series (behind Absalon and Sauser). Hermida finished second in the test event held on the same course last Saturday, displaying impressive early season form.

Winner of the test event, Germany’s Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon) jettisoned himself from relative obscurity with a powerful display of consistency that surprised his rivals and will have them marking him for certain on Saturday.

Others favoured to be in the podium hunt include South Africa’s current Under-23 World Cup champion, Burry Stander (Mr Price Specialized), current Under-23 World Champion and Beijing Games bronze medalist, Nino Schurter (SCOTT Swisspower) and World No. 3 Florian Vogel (SCOTT Swisspower), both of Switzerland, Canadian star, Geoff Kabusch (Maxxis Rocky Mountain) and Americans Todd Wells (Specialized) and Adam Craig (Giant).

On Wednesday, Schurter, who finished fourth at last week’s test event on the same course, was upbeat, but said that the heat was a challenge for him and his fellow Europeans.

ÔÇ£We have been in snow back home with maximum temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius. At the test event last Saturday it was more than 30 degrees which affected my performance. But I hope by Saturday I am more accustomed to this hot weather because it is a very good course.ÔÇØ

Sauser says the formbook isn’t yet open for the 2009 season, so it’s hard to predict with any precision who will be in contention for the win, but he ventured a mention of who he thought might be at the sharp end of the race come the final laps.

ÔÇ£Absalon will not race if he does not have very good form so I expect he will be a certain contender. Hermida has showed he is also very strong now. I believe my Swiss compatriots Schurter and Vogel and of course my teammate Burry will be among the front riders. And because it is about six months since the last major cross-country event, there will always be one or two surprises.ÔÇØ