New Zealand motocross star Courtney Duncan is gearing up for a potentially season-defining weekend in Spain as she chases a third straight women's world championship title.
The 25-year-old Dunedin rider has a nine-point lead in the standings over six-time world champion Kiara Fontanesi of Italy, heading into the penultimate round in Madrid.
It's been six weeks since the fourth round in Turkey and the season is coming to a rapid climax this weekend in Spain before the finale in Trentino in Italy next weekend.
"It's going to be an exciting couple of weeks on the cards and it's really close in the standings, and I am excited about the opportunity," Duncan said.
The defending world champion has come under immense pressure from 27-year-old Fontanesi who won the first of her six world titles in 2012 and finished fourth last season.
She edged Duncan in the last round in Turkey to set up what is shaping as a two-horse race for the overall title. Third-placed Dutchwoman Nancy Van De Ven is 28 points adrift of Duncan in the standings.
Duncan acknowledges she can't afford any slip-ups with a rider of the quality of Fontanesi breathing down her neck.
"Yeah, for sure Kiara is riding really well this season and she showed in the previous round that she's a title contender. She's a six-time champion so you are always going to expect big things out of her. She continued to lift again so that's good as it keeps me on my toes and keeps the season exciting. We've got a pretty big battle on our hands and are ready to get out after it."
Duncan who finished second in both races behind Fontanesi in the last round is planning to change her strategy slightly this weekend in a bid to gain an edge.
"I think looking back at Turkey I brought the heat on a little bit too late in the races so potentially trying to bring a bit more intensity into the early parts of the races but that's also a lot easier said than done," Duncan said.
"For me, I tend to come on strong in the end so I'm going to put a big emphasis on being strong for the first half of the race and setting my own pace as well as getting a good start and trying to get away from the field. But at the same time, anything can happen, so you just deal with the situation as it comes."
The six-round world championship spans from late July to late October and Duncan has used the big break between the last round and this weekend to mentally refresh.
"I took a little bit of a break; a kind of a forced break actually with Turkey being in the red zone for the UK. We had to stay away so I had a 10-day break in Italy which was nice. But since then, I have been training pretty hard and getting as much bike time as I can and gym time, so I am feeling ready to try to deliver this weekend."
The two races are timed to go at 12.20am and 2.20am NZT on Sunday.
Like most New Zealanders overseas, the continuing issue of securing an MIQ spot to return home after the season is lingering in the back of her mind.
"Yeah, I guess it's playing on my mind a wee bit, but I wouldn't say a huge amount. I've been kept pretty busy here training and I also have a job to do here which is most important. So, I've been focusing on the task at hand.
"But at the same time, I think every week I've been logging into the MIQ system with the desperation to try to get a spot to come home and unfortunately four times I have come up short each time so it's a little bit frustrating. But at the same time, it's not in my control so there's no point worrying too much about it until at least after the season anyway."