New Zealand mountain biker Anton Cooper will hope his hard work in the off-season will pay dividends when the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup heads up to high altitude in Andorra this weekend.
The small principality of Andorra, perched high in the Pyrennes between France and Spain, will host the first combined World Cup of the year for both cross-country and downhill.
The tracks around the ski resort of Vallnord stretch to 2600m in altitude, which has not been a friend for Cooper who was 22ndlast year and 18th in 2017. The Trek Factory professional spent several weeks training in the mountains near Wanaka over summer, to improve his abilities racing at altitude.
Currently 12th in the UCI World Cup rankings, he will be looking for a top-10 performance, buoyed by a close second placing behind current World Cup leader Gerhard Kerschbaumer in a Swiss Cup race last weekend.
The cross-country races take place on a 3.8km track set at high altitude, which will be a real factor in deciding who wins, with athletes who regularly train at high altitude having a distinct advantage. The course itself is a mix of steep, rocky, punchy climbs and loose switchback descents.
Back after a challenging few months is Commonwealth Games champion Sam Gaze, who enjoyed a win in the Sea Otter race in Girona six weeks ago after missing the early part of the season after suffering concussion from a fall at Cape Epic in South Africa.
His win has given him renewed energy, although he will start well down on the grid unless he can pull off some heroics in the short track race on Saturday which determines the front of the grid for Sunday’s main race.
Subway Performance Hub rider Ben Oliver is enjoying an impressive first year in the elite category, coming in ranked 39th.
Otago University student Josh Burnett, the national under-23 champion, is the sole Kiwi rider in this category at Vallnord.
Meanwhile the gravity brigade will compete in a key round of the world cup on one of the steepest tracks on their circuit at Vallnord.
Now 2.5km in length, the track is steep and drops 626m vertically. Many technical challenges lie in wait for the riders, with hidden roots, sharp rocks, high-speed drops, berms and off-camber sections.
It holds good memories for the MS Mondraker professional, Brook MacDonald, who finished third last year. The world number 11 will be keen to continue his solid early season form with another podium this year elevating him into the top-10 overall.
There are eight Kiwis competing in the elite men including 13th ranked Ed Masters and Sam Blenkinsop who returns from New Zealand after welcoming the birth of his daughter Indie.
National champion Kate Weatherly has climbed to sixth overall on the World Cup standings, moving ever closer to a win at this level.
The New Zealanders competing at Andorra are:
Cross-country, elite male: Anton Cooper, Ben Oliver, Sam Gaze. Under-23: Josh Burnett.
Downhill, elite male: Brook MacDonald, Ed Masters, George Brannigan, Sam Blenkinsop, Matt Walker, Charles Makea, Jake Vink, Jonty Vink. Elite female: Kate Weatherly. Junior male: Sam Gale, Blake Ross (Subway Performance Hub) Jayd Adlam-Kennedy, Alex Barke (Subway Performance Hub) Ethan Blanchard, Finn Hawkesby-Browne, Albert Snep, Louis Vuleta.