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A wintery blast of wet and bitterly cold weather has thrown down more challenges for New Zealand gravity riders in tomorrow’s UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Austria.

The weather cleared slightly for the timed practice runs after a day of rain but the weather remained extremely cold with new snow on the mountains surrounding the Leogang Bike Park in the Alps.

Three New Zealand elites were in the top 11 in the official time practice with Wanganui’s Sam Blenkinsop leading the way in 3m32.400s, followed by Brook MacDonald ninth in 3:33.084 and Cameron Cole 11th in 3:34.652. National champion Justin Leov, in his final Worlds before retirement, was 22nd and an injured George Brannigan, riding with damaged ribs, was 65th.

“The conditions were tough, very slippery with the mud turning quite sticky which made pedalling heavy and hard,” Cole said.

The 23-year-old Cole, the 2006 World Junior Champion, is facing a major test after a serious crash at last year’s World Champs sidelined him for six months.

“I didn’t get back on the bike until April and pretty much went straight back into the World Cup series and no time to prepare for each race,” the Lapierre International rider said. “It’s been good to have three weeks without racing to work on our bike and myself physically and mentally.

“I feel I am a lot better prepared for this race than I have been all year so I am excited.”

Blenkinsop, from Wanganui who also rides for Lapierre International, is the only Kiwi male downhiller to finish on a World Championship podium, finishing third at Champery last year.

Like Cole he has come back from a serious off-season injury with three top-10 World Cup finishes this year.

“My form is pretty good although I have been struggling working on small things with the bike, so a bit of time off has been good to fine tune,” said Blenkinsop.

“I feel strong now and that I’ve done everything I can do to come into this race.

“The track is more hard packed than in previous years and with the rain it has made it more slick and harder. It will roughen up a little bit.

“The key is getting some good lines and then holding your speed in the flat sections. Everyone will be the same in the woods because it’s not really technical so whoever has the smoothest lines in the flat sections and can maintain speed will be the best.”

Australian Michael Hannah was fastest ahead of in-form Canadian Steve Smith with favourite Aaron Gwin (USA) fourth fastest.

Coatesville’s Sophie Tyas was eighth fastest in the junior women’s timed training run although that included a crash which broke her seat off and she is confident she can push for a podium in racing tomorrow.

Best of the junior men were Reece Potter (Nelson) in 27th and Louis Hamilton (Rotorua) in 33rd, although both said they rode within themselves with the tough conditions.

Auckland’s Sophie-Marie Bethell was 27th fastest while Nelson’s Veronique Sandler had a flat tyre to finish 32nd fastest in the elite women with both riders also taking the conservative approach in the wet and muddy conditions.

The racing for junior men and women starts at 9pm (NZ time) with elite women and elite men overnight.

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