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Can anyone stop Aaron Gwin?
Over the past two seasons, the American downhiller has won 9 of 13 World Cup races, and never finished off the podium. He’s been consistent, and—at times—downright dominating. He won a World Cup on a very similar Leogang track last year, and has given few reasons to doubt that he could repeat. The course is smooth, fast and favors riders who can pedal hard and carry their speed. That plays to Gwin’s strengths, but opens the door to several other contenders, including Greg Minnaar (RSA), Gee Atherton (Great Britain), Brook MacDonald (NZ) and Steve Smith (Canada). Anything’s possible, but you’d be a fool to be against Gwin.
Where are all the women?
Sadly, many of the top female racers are sidelined due to injuries and won’t compete this weekend. Among the bruised are Myriam Nicole (France), Emilie Siegenthaler (Switzerland), Tracey Hannah (Australia) and Jill Kintner (USA). However, the top two contenders are ready to battle for the world championship title. After three years of injuries, Rachel Atherton (Great Britain) is finally healthy and has put together a string of victories. She’s currently the World Cup points leader. But defending world champion Emmeline Ragot (France) has ridden strong all season and could very easily repeat if Atherton bobbles.
Rachel Atherton, finally recovered from a three-year string of injuries, will be tough to beat in Leogang.
What’s the course like?
Compared to the world championship course in Champery, Switzerland, the track in Leogang is pretty tame. The 2011 venue was steep—nearly vertical in parts—and monsoon levels of rain made it as slippery as ice. The Leogang course is less vertical and demands greater fitness from the racers. The 1.5-mile-long track begins with a high-speed section with banked turns and 45-foot tabletop jumps. Here riders need to carry speed and sprint across several relatively flat stretches. Then they dump into the woods. In the past, the course included a couple of rooty sections, but this year many of those roots have been cut out, though a few technical spots remain that could derail tired riders. But the crux is the long traverse midway through. The winner will be the rider who can pump, pedal, and maintain speed in that traverse.
Will weather play a role?
Heading into the weekend, it has been warm and sunny in Leogang. The course, which rides like something you’d find in a manicured bike park, has held up well. It’s fast and smooth without too much technical difficulty. Forecasts, however, call for rain throughout the weekend. All bets are off when riders start reaching for their mud tires, but Gwin has proven he can win on a wet course. Still, unpredictable conditions open the door for a dark horse: Remember Danny Hart’s (Great Britain) incredible World Championship run last year? Could Brook MacDonald (New Zealand) pull off a similar feat this year, or might Sam Hill return to World Championship form? Anything’s possible.
Though most of the track is smooth, a few root clusters could trip up tired riders.
What about Four-Cross?
Before the start of the 2012 race season, the UCI announced it would drop four-cross from the World Cup schedule. Strangely, cycling’s governing body left the event on the World Championship docket. Without an international calendar (there’s still a pro series in Europe) some of the discipline’s top racers have turned their focus to downhill. That said, the course in Leogang is impressive and many dedicated four-cross racers are motivated to showcase their talents on the World Championship stage. Anneke Beerten (Netherlands) is a heavy favorite among the women, and the men’s race looks to be a toss up among three Czech riders: Michal Prokop, Tomas Slavik and Lukas Mechura. If anyone can spoil an all-Czech podium, it is Joost Wichman from the Netherlands.
How Can I Watch?
Unless you’re lucky enough to be standing on the sidelines, go online to redbull.tv, which is streaming the races. The four-cross competition kicks off Saturday at 11:20 a.m. (EDT) and the downhill competition airs Sunday at 6:50 a.m. (EDT).
While few would bet against Gwin, the high-speed course means times will be tight.