The RockyRoads UCI Mountain Bike World Cup presented by Shimano moves from the Czech Republic to France for round four of the cross-country series.
La Bresse, nestled in the Alsace region by the German and Swiss borders, has twice held a Downhill World Cup, but for 2012 will hold its first cross-country event.
The competition holds additional significance, since it is the final event in the Olympic qualifying period for the London Games in just over three month's time. While nations rankings for the Olympics are all but decided, there are still many riders looking to qualify for their nation's Olympic spots, so riders will be fighting for every position.
The action begins with the third and final round of the new Eliminator World Cup. The first two rounds have seen different winners for both the men and women in each event, so the race is wide open. La Bresse has routed the sub-1000m course through the spectator-friendly village, with lots of sharp corners and stairs. This race is likely to favour men's round one winner Brian Lopes more than round two's wide open power circuit, which favoured Australia's Paul van der Ploeg (Felt Oetztal X-Bionic).
The organizers have made full use of the slopes surrounding the town in designing their cross-country course. After a short start loop, riders head up the valley to tackle the major climb of the 4.9km circuit. It is a steep singletrack climb with roots and rocks that depends on both strength and technical skill. From there, the riders traverse the slope and hit the second part of the climb, a more open, gradual one to the highest point of the course. From that point the course heads downhill to the finish, on a twisting, technical run where skilled riders will open gaps.
La Bresse has a history of drawing large and enthusiastic crowds, and organizers are expecting to break records with the presence of French favourites Julien Absalon (Orbea) and Juie Bresset (BH-SR Suntour-Peisey Vallandry). This is truly Absalon's local race, since he lives barely ten kilometres from La Bresse. Organizers are expecting as many as 25,000 spectators to come out over the course of the weekend.
Bresset, who leads the women's World Cup standings after winning round three, can expect strong competition from world champion Catharine Pendrel (Luna), who won round two, as well as Irina Kalentieva (Topeak Ergon), second at round three, and round one winner Maja Wloszczowska (CCC Polkwice). A win by Pendrel could put her back in the lead.
In 21st position Australia has not qualified an Olympic spot through nation rankings, with only the top-18 awarded a place. However, New Zealand did qualify (13th), and therefore will not use their win in the Continental Championships, Australia, as the next nation (Jenni King in third, behind two Kiwis), should get one spot by that route.
The question is: who will it be? Katherine O'Shea is top-ranked, in 55th, followed by U23 rider Rebecca Henderson in 64th, who finished third in the U23 World Cup round two, and won the U23 Continental title. King has not been as successful on the World Cup circuit (89th in world ranking), but did finish third in the Continental Champs, an interesting case for the selectors.
In the men's competition, Switzerland's Nino Schurter (Scott-Swisspower) has a firm lock on the World Cup lead, with two wins and a second. However, second round winner Absalon, who did not finish last weekend after crashing, will certainly be drawing inspiration from the legions of fans who will be on hand to cheer on their hero.
World Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized), after a slow start to the season, battled Schurter until the final kilometre last weekend, and is starting to show the form that won him the World Cup title last season.
For the men, Australia has qualified one spot for London, ranking 16th coming into this final qualifying race and unlikely to change much. Daniel McConnell, ranked 44th in the world rankings, is 72 points ahead of van der Ploeg (56th), and won the Continental Championships (that spot will go to New Zealand as the next nation), so looks to be pretty secure to represent Australia in London.