A 20-strong New Zealand team has grouped in South Africa today in readiness for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, which begin tonight.
Many consider the squad one of the strongest for the championships held in the KwaZulu-Natal city of Pietermaritzburg, which hosted the BMX World Championships two years ago.
New Zealand will field a combination in tomorrow's cross-country team event for the first time since Rotorua hosted the world championships six years ago.
World junior champion Anton Cooper, Dirk Peters, Sam Gaze and London Olympian Karen Hanlen comprise the New Zealand team.
"It looks a particularly strong combination and we are hopeful of a good result which will make the mountainbike world sit up and take notice of our riders over this week of racing," said manager Jeremy Christmas.
Cooper, 19, has stepped up to the under-23 cross-country ranks this year, fighting back from a serious illness to record his first World Cup victory in Canada earlier this month.
Hanlen and Gaze both won their Oceania titles and, while the Olympian has prepared at home in Whakatane this year, the young Te Awamutu rider impressed with a World Cup victory in Italy recently.
Peters enjoyed top-10 finishes in the World Cup in Europe and was third behind Cooper in the Oceania Championships.
Gaze will be well supported in the junior cross-country field by North Canterbury brothers Ben and Craig Oliver, while there are high hopes for the Oceania junior women's champion Amber Johnston (Rotorua), who had a top-20 World Cup finish in Europe earlier in the season.
The cross-country ranks are missing Wellington professional Samara Sheppard, who withdrew after the effects of a debilitating virus brought a premature end to her first season in the elite ranks.
The team again boasts a classy array of downhill riders, with three ranked in the world's top 25.
They are led by the national champion and current world No 10-ranked Brook MacDonald (Trek World Racing) from Napier, No 11 ranked Sam Blenkinsop (Lapierre International) from Wanganui and Havelock North's George Brannigan (Trek World Racing), who is back to 23 in the world list after recovering from serious injury.
Taranaki's Wyn Masters has enjoyed some solid and consistent form in recent World Cup action.
They are without former world junior champion Cam Cole (Yeti) who is back in New Zealand after suffering a serious accident in a recent world cup.
"This is a particularly strong New Zealand team with podium potential in several of the races," Christmas said.
The Kiwi contingent had grown to nearly 40 at Pietermaritzburg with support staff, helpers and family supporters, he said.
"Most of the team went for light rides yesterday or relaxed at our hotel away from the 31 degrees Celsius heat.
"Tuesday will be the first day the riders can inspect and train on the courses. In the morning is foot inspection of the downhill course for the juniors followed by an afternoon practice session on the course.
"For the cross-country riders have designated practice sessions for the grades throughout the day followed by an official opening ceremony."
The race schedule is cross-country team relay on Wednesday (local time), junior men and junior women on Thursday, under-23 cross-country and junior men's downhill on Friday, elite cross-country on Saturday and downhill on Sunday.
- © Fairfax NZ News