Junior World champion Anton Cooper and former World Champion Cameron Cole headline the stars on display for the opening round of the BikeNZ Mountain Bike Cup series in Southland starting today.
Riders are braving the unseasonal weather as the iconic Bluff Hill plays host venue for the national round of the championship for the first time.
Both Cooper and Cole will also be on-board with their new team colours and new machines for the 2013 season.
Cooper, who won the junior world title last year, has moved to the Cannondale Factory Team for 2013 while Cole, the 2006 junior downhill world champion, will line-up for Yeti Cycles.
Cole, who was 11th overall on the UCI World Cup last year, recently signed a two-year deal with US-based Yeti Cycles although this weekend is more about some fun for him.
“I’ve only just received the new frame and don’t have the full kit yet so have borrowed some bits to get me racing,” said the Christchurch rider.
“My aim is later in the year but I like to support the New Zealand races and it’s a chance to have a ride on the new bike in competitive racing. And it’s fun catching up with the riders.”
The downhill riders have practice today on the 1.37km track that was re-built by the club in 2011 and upgraded late last year in readiness to host their first national level event. It features a 218m descent from a rock drop-in at the top of Bluff Hill.
Main competition is likely from Oceania champion Matt Scoles (Alexandra) and the trio of Zerode riders Kieran Bennett, Nathan Rankin and Reuben Olorenshaw.
The women’s racing is wide open with Nelson’s Veronique Sandler a favourite after her top-30 placing at the world championships, along with Methven’s Sophie Tyas, eighth in the juniors at the Worlds in 2012, and former Oceania champion Amy Laird (Christchurch).
The racing has also attracted some international riders from Great Britain, USA and Canada.
Conditions are forecast to improve for practice today, with the timed runs for qualification tomorrow ahead of racing that is scheduled to start at 1pm.
Meanwhile local Southland fans will get to see the remarkable Cooper in action for the first time in the new colours of his Cannondale Factory Racing team. The Christchurch teenager signed for the new team last month and is preparing for his first full season on the UCI World Cup scene in the under- 23 division.
Cooper is likely to dominate on the testing cross-country course on Bluff Hill, featuring nearly 300m of vertical climbs at over seven per cent average grade on each of the 6.76km laps.
Rotorua’s Dirk Peters, top-30 at the World Championships, is expected to be prominent while it could be a double for young riders with junior star Mary Gray (Dunedin), eighth at the World Championship, a favourite in the women’s racing.
The under-15, under-17, senior and masters are set to race from 10.30am on Sunday with the under-19, under-23 and elites from 2pm.
Cross country riders will face three rounds in the Mountain Bike Cup series at Bluff, Mount Victoria in Wellington on 1-3 February and Hunua in Auckland on 8-9 February ahead of the national championships in Rotorua on 15-17 February.
Downhill rounds are set for Bluff, Mt Hutt next weekend, Wellington, Levin on 1-2 February and Hunua as well as the Nationals.