By Bardy the Action Scribe

Christoph Sauser, one of the world’s biggest mountain bike racing stars, will head up a strong international challenge at the opening round of the Mazda MTN South African Cup in Stellenbosch this weekend.

Christoph Sauser at Logwood Bike Haven

Sauser is a former two-time World Cup champion in the cross-country discipline and is the current world champion in the marathon discipline. But with cross-country being the only mountain biking discipline at the upcoming Olympic Games, most leading riders, including Sauser, have shifted their focus to the lap-racing format this year in search of Olympic glory.

Sauser, who is Swiss, but spends much of the European winter in the Western Cape, got the bronze medal at the 2000 Games and was listed as a DNF at the 2004 Games. At 31, the Beijing Games are likely to offer his final realistic shot at the coveted gold medal. Other top international riders currently training in the Western Cape have also shown an interest in racing at the Jonkershoek circuit on Saturday, including former Olympic champion, Bart Brentjens.

The 39-year-old Dutch star won the inaugural Olympic mountain bike gold medal in Atlanta in 1996 and followed it up with bronze at the 2004 Games. He is also a former world champion and World Cup champion and is in the country for a training camp. Also in the country taking advantage of the warm weather is the German Olympic team, which is likely to enter riders for Saturday’s race.

African and South African champion, Burry Stander (Mr Price GT), is a confirmed starter and will welcome the international competition. Stander is South Africa’s mostly likely qualifier for the Beijing Games and the more intense the level of competition he faces in the build-up, the better.

Heading up the women’s challenge is African cross-country champion, Yolande Speedy (IMC Racing). Ranked 40th in the world at the end of 2007, Speedy is intent on improving her ranking and gaining Olympic qualification.

“I’ve been doing a lot of base training so I’m not too race sharp but I think most of the other riders will feel the same,” said Speedy. “It’s an early start to the national series, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Other top women expected to contest the Elite Women’s title on Saturday are South African cross-country champion, Amy Jane Mundy (Jeep), top Western Cape rider, Sara Muhl (Jeep) and KwaZulu-Natalian Tania Raats (Maverick). Ronel van Wyk (Cycle Lab), the current South African road race champion, will be making her cross-country racing debut.

Riders can expect hot conditions with the Elite Men’s race starting at 13h30 and the temperature predicted to be at least 32 degrees Celsius, although most of the race circuit is within the forest. The 7.5km circuit has 130 metres of climbing per lap. The Elite Men will complete six laps and the Elite Women four.

On Sunday, the country’s top descenders will contest the first leg of the 2008 Mazda MTN SA Downhill Cup at Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch. Leading the charge for the title will be current SA champion Andrew Neethling (Mongoose) and former national champion, Johan Potgieter. Both competed in the Western Province championships on the same course last weekend with Neethling edging out Potgieter for the win.

This Sunday, however, the stakes are higher with a bigger field. Jonty Neethling returns from injury to challenge for the win on the 2.3km course that’s regarded as technical due to the high number of off-camber sections and the development of ‘braking bumps’ following last weekend’s event. The Downhill racing starts at 10h00.

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