Four years after hosting the alpine skiing world cup, the Spanish mountain range of Sierra Nevada is welcoming top cyclists to the world mountain bike championships. For Swiss riders the event will also decide Olympic places.
Swiss medal hopes in Spain seem to rest with the cross-country riders, most notably Thomas Frischknecht, Christoph Sauser and Barbara Blatter. Blatter and Chantal Dacourt already occupy two of the three Olympic places available to the women. The men's coach, Andy Seeli, is yet to decide which three male riders will represent Switzerland in Sydney.
As far as the world championships themselves, the Swiss are looking to improve on poor recent performances in the cross-country category. Despite the country's strong interest in mountain biking, there hasn't been a Swiss medal win at the senior level for four years. Frischknecht won gold in 1996, but only had his achievement recognised after the supposed winner, France's Jérôme Chiotti, had been disqualified for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Switzerland's best hopes in the downhill events are expected to be the women riders Sari Jörgensen, Marielle Saner and Sarah Stieger. This year's world championships will also, for the first time, feature a dual downhill competition in which riders are paired against each other in a head-to-head format.
The high altitude of Sierra Leone (2100 metres above sea level) is unlikely to favour either the Swiss or their foreign opponents, given that adaptation to the low oxygen levels requires long-term acclimatisation. Nevertheless, Spain's cross-country biker, José Antonia Hermida, will be keen to impress in front of his home crowd. Last year's winner, Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, is also among the favourites - despite poor showings in recent events. France's Miguel Martinez could also go one better than his silver in Sweden.
Following Wednesday's opening events, the Sierra Nevada championships reach their climax at the weekend with the senior downhill races on Saturday followed by cross-country on Sunday.
swissinfo with agencies