Twelve New Zealand riders are on the start list for the opening round of the World Cup, staged for the first time at Albstadt, a ski resort nestled in the Swabian Alb mountains between Stuttgart and Lake Constance.
Cooper leads the way for his new Cannondale Factory Team, buoyed by some excellent form in lead-up races. The 18 year old has placed second in two elite races in the D Italia Series at Montichiari and Nalles and won an under-23 race in the German national competition.
It will be all-but a home race for Cooper, who is based at Esslingen near Stuttgart in his first full year on the UCI Mountain Bike circuit.
“I’m pretty happy with the lead-up rides,” Cooper said. “The World Cup season is starting in and it is the priority and where my focus lies. It is going to be a fun year.”
There may be some additional expectation from his Cannondale Factory Team after their star elite Michael Fumic was forced out of his home World Cup with injury.
There’s a strong contingent of Kiwi in Germany with the Albstadt hosting cross country racing only. Whakatane’s Carl Jones, the 2011 national champion, has returned to Europe to chase his Olympic dream after spending last year based in New Zealand.
Wellington’s Samara Sheppard makes her elite debut for the Toka Print Mountain Team after her outstanding season in the under-23 ranks last year, including a World Cup victory. She will be joined by Rotorua’s Katie O’Neill and Queenstown’s Kate Fluker.
Rotorua’s Dirk Peters, who ran Cooper so close for the national honours earlier in the year, will start alongside the World Champion in the under-23 race along with another Rotorua rider Sam Shaw and Auckland’s Adrian Retief, looking for a top-20 finish to boost his claims for selection for this year’s World Championships in South Africa.
Outstanding Rotorua prospect Amber Johnston has already been named in the junior team for the worlds and is top seed for the under-19 field this weekend, while in the under-19 men, the Rangiora brothers Ben and Craig Oliver are joined by Wellington’s Simon Lawson.
They can expect a tough challenge on the new course, that some believe could be the toughest of the circuit.
"The technical sections should be very challenging, but they won’t be too extreme,” said bike park owner Holger Blum. “There are some strong jumps, but we have not exaggerated it. We wanted the course to have a nice flow, that’s the most important criterion,” she said.
The junior and under-23 women race starts at 11pm Saturday and men under-23 from 1.30am on Sunday. Junior men race at 7.30pm Sunday, elite women at 9.30pm and elite men from midnight (all NZ time).