Baku, June 25, AZERTAC
France, the Netherlands and Denmark will be among the favourites when the Baku 2015 European Games BMX competition gets under way at the city's Velopark on Friday.
A strong field in the women's event includes the Netherlands' London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist Laura Smulders and seven more of Europe's 10 best riders in the UCI world rankings.
"I have no idea where I stand compared to the other competitors," Smulders said. "When everything goes well, I might be able to get a medal."
The 21-year-old is nevertheless a pre-race favourite among a strong group that includes her compatriot Merie Van Benthem and world no.9 Simone Christesen of Denmark. She has, however, had to overcome serious injury.
"I had a torn knee ligament and a torn meniscus (knee cartilage)," Smulders said. "I was out for months. I did a few Dutch races and one on a European level before I came here, but they were not as big as this event."
In the men's competition, only Maris Strombergs of Latvia is missing from Europe's top-10 riders. That could potentially clear a path to the podium for world no.4 Joris Daudet, one of five French BMX riders in Baku.
"The European Games are important and to be the first one winning would be good, so it's a big race for us," said Daudet before training at the Velopark on Tuesday. "We're here for the win, but the Netherlands and Latvia are pretty good, too."
Leading the Dutch charge will be Jelle Van Gorkom and Twan Van Gendt, while Latvia's main hope without Strombergs is Edzus Treimanis, their only other rider in the world's top 40.
All competitors will ride qualifying runs along the 395-metre course on Friday afternoon, followed by motos on Saturday and the semi-finals and finals on Sunday. The frenetic pace of the action can make for exhilarating viewing, but it also puts the athletes on the line.
"You have a lot of crashes (and) I have broken a lot of bones – nine, I think, and five in one year," said Christensen at training on Wednesday. "Sometimes it's your own fault because maybe you are pushing too hard, and sometimes you're just unlucky. Sometimes it happens in racing because we are very close to each other and it is a tough sport."