Mountain biking: Cooper, Cole expected to star on Bluff Hill

World junior champion Anton Cooper and former world champion Cameron Cole headline the stars on display for the opening round of the national series in Southland this weekend.

Riders are braving the unseasonal weather as Bluff Hill plays host venue for the national round of the championship for the first time.

Both Cooper and Cole will ride with their new team colours and new machines for the 2013 season.

Cooper, who won the junior world title last year, has moved to the Cannondale Factory Team for 2013, while Cole, the 2006 downhill world champion, will line-up for Yeti Cycles.

Cole, who was 11th overall on the world cup circuit last year, recently signed a two-year deal with his US-based team, although this weekend is more about some fun for him.

''I've only just received the new frame and don't have the full kit yet so have borrowed some bits to get me racing,'' the Christchurch rider said.

''My aim is later in the year but I like to support the New Zealand races and it's a chance to have a ride on the new bike in competitive racing.''

The downhill riders had their first look yesterday at the 1.37km track that was rebuilt by the club in 2011 and upgraded late last year, in readiness to host its first national event. It features a 218m descent from a rock drop-in at the top of Bluff Hill.

Main competition is likely from Oceania champion Matt Scoles (Alexandra) and the trio of Zerode riders Kieran Bennett, Nathan Rankin and Reuben Olorenshaw.

Women's racing is wide open, though Nelson's Veronique Sandler is a favourite after her top-30 placing at the world championships. Sophie Tyas, of Methven, and Christchurch's Amy Laird will provide strong opposition.

The racing has also attracted some international riders from Great Britain, the United States and Canada.

Local fans will get to see the remarkable Cooper in action for the first time in his new colours. The Christchurch teenager signed for Cannondale last month and is preparing for his first full season on the world cup circuit in the under-23 division.

Cooper is likely to dominate on the testing cross-country course on Bluff Hill, featuring nearly 300m of vertical climbs at more than 7% average grade on each of the 6.76km laps.

Rotorua's Dirk Peters, a top-30 performer at the world championships, is expected to be prominent.

It could be a double for young riders with junior star Mary Gray, of Dunedin, who was eighth at the world championships, a favourite in the women's racing.

The under-15, under-17, senior and masters riders are set to race from 10.30am tomorrow, with the under-19, under-23 and elites from 2pm.

Cross-country riders will face three rounds in the series at Bluff, Mt Victoria (Wellington) on February 1-3 and Hunua (Auckland) on February 8-9, before the national championships in Rotorua from February 15-17.

Downhill rounds are set for Bluff, Mt Hutt next weekend, Wellington, Levin on February 1-2 and Hunua, as well as the national finals.

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