One week from now, mountain biking superstars from all over the world will take to the Rotorua Trails for the first event on the Crankworx world tour.
From March 19-24, the best in the world in speed, style, endurance, grit, skill, and all-round radness will compete in a range of disciplines. As in 2017, Crankworx Rotorua will also play host to round one of the Enduro World Series.
There are a number of riders to watch as they begin their campaigns to be named King and Queen of the Crankworx World Tour, as well as the battles for individual discipline supremacy.
Masters of many
The names you will hear most throughout the week are those who take to the start line in multiple events.
Canada's Casey Brown was the Queen of Crankworx in 2014 and finished second last year. Known for her skill, style and adaptability she stood on nine Crankworx podiums in 2018. Watch for her in the Dual Slalom Rotorua, the Rotorua Air DH, the Official Oceania Whip-Off Championships, the Crankworx Rotorua Downhill and the Rotorua Pump Track Challenge.
Among those challenging Brown for the title will be fellow Canadian Vaea Verbeeck and Kialani Hines, of the US, who were next in line for the overall title in 2018.
Noticeably absent this year will be the US's Jill Kintner who has consistently dominated Crankworx competition in previous years. Kintner has opted to shift her focus in 2019, leaving the door open to the racers who have been nipping at her heels.
The battle for King of Crankworx came down to the wire in 2018, with Frenchman Tomas Lemoine and Kiwi Sam Blenkinsop battling for the top. Blenkinsop ultimately claimed the crown, but his French challenger's diverse skill set certainly made its mark.
In addition to strong finishes in Slopestyle, including three fourth places, Lemoine topped two Speed & Style podiums, as well as taking the win on the Rotorua Pump Track.
Others to watch will be Kyle Strait, of the US, whose Dual Slalom results helped push him to the top last year and Rotorua's own Keegan Wright, who raced in 14 Crankworx events across the tour last year and bagged two first-place finishes.
Another Kiwi, Matt Walker, will also be one to watch, being the only pro male athlete to register for seven of the eight events at Crankworx Rotorua.
Crankworx Rotorua is the unofficial launch of the international downhill season, an opportunity for many of the best riders to get their first glimpse of how their times stack up against each other for the season ahead.
Tracey Hannah (US) has earned the distinction of Crankworx Downhill Champion four years running. In fact, while Hannah missed the downhill events in Rotorua in 2018 with a concussion, she still managed to take the overall win thanks to first-place finishes in Innsbruck and Whistler.
Great Britain's Tahnée Seagrave will be back to defend her Crankworx Rotorua Downhill title, along with Emilie Siegenthaler, of Switzerland, who finished one step down from Seagrave last year.
Sam Blenkinsop's success says it all about his consistency across the Crankworx World Tour. Five Downhill podium finishes in 2018 enabled him to clinch the victory in the overall Crankworx Downhill Championships, as well as helping secure him the overall King of Crankworx title.
Rainbow stripes-clad Loic Bruni, of France, the current Downhill World Champion, will also be one to watch, as will Australia's Mick Hannah who took home a one, two and three in the three downhill events in Rotorua last year.
The 14 best Slopestyle athletes in the world are set to leave their respective training grounds and show the world, and each other, what they've been working on.
Some familiar names are returning to the Rotorua Slopestyle course, including Brett Rheeder, of Canada, current world champion and winner of last year's season-opener, and Nicholi Rogatkin, of the US, who ended the 2018 season on a high, winning Red Bull Joyride and claiming the Triple Crown of Slopestyle.
One rider, potentially less familiar to Kiwi fans, is getting ready to show them what he's got. Emil Johansson, of Sweden, stormed the scene as a Crankworx rookie in 2017, taking second place at Red Bull Joyride. He was sidelined for much of 2018 due to health issues, but returned to Whistler and earned fourth place in his first contest in a year.
The Giant Toa Enduro, round one of the Enduro World Series (EWS), will see the top-ranked riders in the world get amongst the trails of the Whakarewarewa Forest.
2018 was a breakout season for Belgian rider Martin Maes. The 22-year-old accomplished an unheard of feat, taking back-to-back wins in August in two different disciplines. After winning the Canadian Open Enduro in Whistler, he went on to win the UCI World Cup Downhill in La Bresse.
Always a crowd and race favourite, current EWS overall champion Sam Hill, of Australia, will surely get some of the loudest cheers from the crowds. Hill finished fourth in the event last time he raced in Rotorua. Another crowd favourite is sure to be Kiwi Wyn Masters, of New Plymouth, who got his first EWS win on home soil in Rotorua in 2017.
Scotland's Katy Winton is ranked third in the world and has cited Rotorua as one of her favourite places to race. She finished fifth in the 2017 EWS in Rotorua and has been getting her feet wet on Southern Hemisphere dirt training in New Zealand since February.
Other top women to watch will be Isabeau Courdurier, of France, who finished second overall last year, with second places across the board in every single one of her races and Noga Korem, of Israel, who finished her season in fourth behind Winton.
Noticeably absent from the Enduro list is Cecile Ravanel, of France, who has consistently dominated the Enduro world for the past three years. The reigning champion sustained injuries on a training ride in February.
Other key athletes sidelined with injury are Poland's Szymon Godziek (recovering from ACL surgery), Great Britain's Kade Edwards (broken leg), Great Britain's Sam Reynolds (wrist injury), and the US's Cam Zink (recovering from shoulder surgery).
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