A world class field is descending on Kitzbuhel in Austria this weekend for the third leg of the 2011 Dextro Energy ITU World Championship Series.

Triathlon Races - ITU Kitzbuhel PreviewThe Alpine town of Kitzbuhel is a stunning setting for one of the most hotly-contested races of the year. The twin conundrums of altitude and one of the most undulating bike courses on the circuit can often throw up a surprise or two, and Britain’s Stuart Hayes and Canada’s Paula Findlay will be looking to defend the titles that they won here in 2010. Throw in the presence of current Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack (AUS) and it’s easy to see why excitement has reached fever pitch in this quaint corner of the Alps that is most renowned for it’s association with professional skiing.

Findlay is in the middle of a hot streak that has made her the most talked about Olympic distance athlete in the world, a streak that has seen her win four of her last five WCS starts including both legs in 2011. Her victory in Madrid two weeks ago, together with her win in Sydney back in April, has given her a commanding lead in the standings and, having already proved herself over the course by winning last year, you won’t find many punters willing to bet against her. A win here will make her the most successful female athlete, in terms of WCS wins, in the history of the series – she is currently tied at the top of the list with reigning double world champion Emma Moffatt (AUS).

Once again she will have to defeat the very best athletes around, and will most likely face her stiffest competition from Andrea Hewitt (NZL), who has finished on the podium here for the last two years; Helen Jenkins (GBR), who pushed Findlay hard in Madrid a fortnight ago; and Barbara Riveros Diaz (CHI), who is Findlay’s nearest pursuer in the world championship standings. Moffatt and Laura Bennett (USA) will also have Findlay looking nervously over her shoulder.

But it’s the turn of the elite men first, and despite the absence of Javier Gomez (ESP) and Jonathan Brownlee (GBR), who occupy the first two places in the 2011 standings, and current Olympic Champion Jan Frodeno (GER), there is huge interest in Saturday’s race due to the presence of McCormack and Britain’s Alistair Brownlee, who roared back to form two weeks ago in Madrid by winning and putting in arguably the finest performance of his career to date.

McCormack is the reigning (and double) Ironman World Champion, having lifted his second title at Kona last autumn. In the build up to that race he announced his intention to return to the ITU circuit in 2011 in an attempt to qualify for the Australian team for the 2012 London Olympics. McCormack is no stranger to the this format of the sport, having won the ITU World Championship in 1997, but this is his first appearance in an ITU event for seven years.

At 38 years old, he is Brownlee’s senior by almost exactly 15 years and will surely have his work cut out to keep up with the pace of his British rival over this shorter distance. Brownlee was a winner on this course in 2009 and will be highly favoured to win again. However, McCormack has forged a reputation for pushing boundaries and overcoming the odds over the course of his glittering career and he should be written off at your peril.

Brownlee’s compatriot Stuart Hayes (pictured) was the surprise winner of last year’s event and will be hopeful of another decent showing, as will fellow Brit Tim Don and the other leading European Steffen Justus (GER), Alexander Brukhankov (RUS) and Laurent Vidal (FRA).

START TIMES

Elite Men – 18 June at 13:31 UK Time

Elite Women – 19 June at 11:36 UK Time

Live coverage on triathlonlive.tv and the BBC Red Button

Image: Janos Schmidt/ITU