The 2016 mountain bike season is well underway, but the action gets all hot and humid this weekend as Cairns, Australia plays host to the first round of the XC UCI World Cup. On Sunday afternoon in Tropical North Queensland, Stephen Ettinger, riding for Team USA, will line up against the top riders in the world at the Smithfield Mountain Bike Park. This iconic venue played host to the 1996 UCI World Championships and the second round of the UCI World Cup in 2014 and will once again host the UCI World Championships in 2017.

Nestled tightly into a rainforest with ridges overlooking the Great Barrier Reef, this Olympic-style cross country course offers up high speed technical descending and technical climbing. Racers are given a unique opportunity to shred trails that are carved out of volcanic clay as they twist and turn their way through jungle vines. No other UCI World Cup course provides such an exceptional and unparalleled experience.

“This bike park is a really cool place to go ride,” says Ettinger. “That it is a ton of fun makes the racing here even more enjoyable. World cup racing is super fun, but when you’re on a course that you really love to ride, it makes it even more redeeming.”

The 4.31 kilometer course is characterized by a fast opening loop, a tough, punchy climb that will likely define the race and switchbacks on the descent of Jacobs Ladder. Racers must be switched on mentally and physically to be best prepared for the challenges of this technical course.

“There are a ton of really fun technical features, but it is a really fast course,” says Ettinger. “The main climb has dozens of different lines – there are A lines, B lines, inside lines, high lines and low lines around the corners. There’s always a ton of input that goes into what you’re doing and where you need to put your wheel next. It’s super engaging so it’s not just about grinding it out on a big climb.”

“Some of the most technical bits are on the climb when you’re at race pace,” adds Ettinger. “Out of every corner there’s a technical feature or double line. The more speed you can carry through it the better, but that means you have to be really on point cornering at a pretty high speed. The climb will be one of the hardest parts of the race.”

“The descents are technical in places so you have to be on point for them, too,” adds Ettinger. “But then there are sections that are total flow trail with doubles, big gaps and berms. It makes the whole thing really fun.”

Looking ahead to Sunday’s XC race, Ettinger is feeling good about his chances on a course that is well-suited to his strengths.

“This course is definitely suited to me,” says Ettinger. “The climb is a power climb – it’s punchy. There’s acceleration after acceleration after acceleration out of the corners. It’s not a steep, long climb where it’s about power to weight.”

In 2014, Ettinger found himself on the bottom side of a massive pile-up off the start line. He was 500 meters off the back of the field from the gun, yet he managed to claw his way back to a credible 12th place. Two years later, Ettinger hopes to go better than his last crack on this course.

“My goal is a top 10,” says Ettinger. “Last time I was here I was knocking on that door. I can get automatic qualification to Rio with a top 10. However, that is not a protected spot if another American goes a place better than me here in Cairns or another UCI World Cup. If I get a top 10 here, I would feel very confident. It would be an amazing ride for me – it would be my best result at a world cup in an Olympic year – that would be pretty sweet.”

Having raced mainly in the U.S. so far this season, Ettinger has yet to face his stiffest competition. In Cairns the field will be representative of the best in the world. The 26 year-old American will line up against the likes of two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion Julien Absalon, four-time world champion Nino Schurter and third ranked rider in the world Manuel Fumic.

“Everyone is here,” says Ettinger. “It’s an Olympic year and everyone’s Olympic selection is chosen off world cups, so you have to be here if you want to make the Olympics.”

“I’ll be starting 37th, which I feel good about,” Ettinger adds. “There’s definitely space to move up in the start lap, and it would be nice to be on the sharp end right away. I’ve been having good starts lately so knock on wood I can carry that on here.”

Days away from his 27th birthday, Ettinger is in a happy place. He’s been doing the work, he has garnered solid results and now he’s ready to see where the last couple of months will land him in Australia.

“It’s fun to be down here,” Ettinger says. “Everyone is excited to get going. We’ve been racing, we’ve been having fun, it’s been going good but this is where it counts – this weekend. A lot of hard work has come down to this. I’m not going to walk away from here disappointed if I’m inside the top 20, but it would be nice to be knocking on that door.”

The pro men start at 2:20pm Sunday, April 24 in Cairns. In the U.S. you can catch the action live on Red Bull TV at 10pm MDT Saturday, April 23 here: http://www.redbull.tv/videos/event-stream-639/cross-country-men

For more information on the Cairns UCI World Cup, visit the website here: http://www.mtba.asn.au/mtbworldscairns/