Cowbell Preview – XCO World Champs 2016

It’s time to race for the rainbow jersey.

Nové Město na Moravě has been host to a World Cup race every year since 2011.  The feature-laden course is a racer favourite and the fans turn out in the tens of thousands to watch them take on iconic elements like Rock’n’Roll, Midas Choice, AC/DC and the formidable Expert 1 and Expert 2 climbs – both steep and riddled with roots and rocks lying in wait to force riders  off their bikes.

The course had been dry and dusty until the heavens opened ahead of the team relay on Thursday.  It drains well but surface moisture can and does lead to costly mistakes, and the forecast is for showers through the weekend.  But if it gets a chance to dry out completely it’ll produce some fiercely fast racing!

The only Kiwi representatives this year are in the U23 and junior men categories, which means some of us will be glued to live timing in some small hours over the next few days!

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Elite Men

Over the last five years victory has been shared among three men, and there are no prizes for guessing who.  Schurter won in 2012 and 2013, Absalon in 2014, and Jaroslav Kulhavy has book-ended it winning his home world cup in 2011 and 2015.

Absalon has won the world champs title five times since 2004, with the first four in consecutive years before waiting seven years to add the fifth in Hafjell in 2014.   Three of the six rainbow jerseys in between reside with Nino Schurter, the defending world champ.  One other belongs to Kulhavy.  While Kulhavy lacks the consistency of his two greatest challengers this weekend his form has been improving after an injury earlier in the year and the Czech crowd will rival the support the French received in La Bresse last month.

Also representing the host country, Ondrej Cink will be looking to produce the kind of form that won him the bronze medal last year.

Stand out rider of the season so far is Frenchman Maxime Marotte.  His best result on the NMNM course is a 10th place back in 2013, and his best Worlds result is 4th, in the same year.  But the form he has shown so consistently this year makes him a strong medal contender.

One of the youngest riders in the field is Swissman Lars Forster.  After two U23 World Cup wins in 2015, including the NMNM round, as a first year elite he already has a top five result (Albstadt).  Could he be the second man ever to take top honours at Worlds as a first year elite?  Countryman Nino Schurter became the first in 2009 and hasn’t slowed down since.

The top spot is most likely to go to one of the ‘big 3’.  But the rest of the top 5, and particularly the order of it, is a lot more open.

Elite Women

Where to begin?  Over five years there have been five different winners at NMNM.  Catharine Pendrel, Julie Bresset, Tanja Zakelj, Pauline Ferrand Prevot, and Jolanda Neff.  Pendrel and Neff are among my picks for this year.

If she is on the start line, you can never count Jolanda Neff out as a favourite.  Between her severe leg speed on the climbs, her point-to-point no matter what is in between style of descending, and ability to ride back in to a top position after seeming to lose all power to the engine, you’d be brave to put all of your money on her but it could definitely pay off.  She’s chasing her first elite XCO rainbow jersey to match the one she won in the marathon discipline last week.

The form rider of the season so far, Annika Langvad, is also a former marathon world champ (twice even).  Barring mishap or misfortune, she’s likely to achieve a personal best result having a handful of top 20 results at worlds but never cracking the top 10.  She has a solid history of results on the Czech course and she’ll seek out the front of the race early on.  If her relay lap time is anything to go by, she’ll find it too.

Defending champion PFP hasn’t looked like herself on the bike for some time.  Her wardrobe sure would have been colourful, but it is as if the weight of all those rainbow jerseys (road, CX and XCO) slowed her down.  She retained the lead for France during her lap of the relay but lost a lot of time to the chasing elite and U23 women, including Langvad and Katerina Nash.

Katerina Nash is based in the US but has always raced for Czech and her home crowd are going to go crazy.  She’s ‘semi-retired’ from world cup racing and for the last two years has only raced in North America.  Thing is, when she does, even with 4th and 5th row starts she almost always rides her way in to the top 10.  She looked fierce whilst clocking the fastest women’s lap in the relay and with the start lap providing plenty of passing opportunities, and a home crowd, expect to see her make up plenty of positions early on and challenge for a medal.

Katerina’s Luna team mate, Catharine Pendrel, has won the rainbow jersey twice and looks the most likely of former winners to challenge for it this year.  She’s not nearly as well known for her creative passing moves as she is for getting swamped off the start, but if the cameras catch it it’s a spectacular thing to watch, and there are a number of sections on the NMNM course that provide the opportunity.  If she can get that elusive clean start she will be hard to beat.  If not, she’ll pick her way through the first lap and still be a threat.

Other riders to watch include Lea Davison who lead in the early stages in La Bresse last month, and has a career best 3rd at worlds; Emily Batty who has appeared to be pacing her form well so far this year; Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa who remains as hungry as ever; and Irina Kalentyeva – she hasn’t been a feature in 2016 but but the 2009 world champ hasn’t finished out of the top 5 at worlds in at least 6 years!

In case you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Jenny Rissveds it’s because she’ll be competing in the U23 race.

U23 Men

As a Kiwi it’s impossible to not get excited about this one!  Last year Anton Cooper added the U23 men’s rainbow jersey to the U19 one he won in 2012.  And just outside of the medals, Sam Gaze was in 4th place.  Health issues prevent Anton from representing this year.

Sam’s history on the NMNM course include a third and a fifth place.  The shorter, technical climbs, tight singletrack sections and technical man-made features suit his strong and powerful style to a tee.  And his evolution to also be able to take charge of races with longer climbs won’t have done him any harm.

The strongest competition facing Sam so far this year has been the French duo of Romain Seigle and Titouan Carod.  Together the three of them have filled 8 of the 9 top three spots in the world cup.  Marcel Guerrini of Switzerland and Dane Simon Andreasson skipped Cairns but placed 3rd and 4th in Albstadt, and 4th and 5th in La Bresse, so they are likely to be aiming to stay with the leaders.

Frenchman, Viktor Koretzky, 2015 world champs silver medalist and world cup podium regular (including a win in Windham) will race his peers for the first time this year as he has been racing up in the elite category.   He skipped Cairns but finished in a respectable 12th place in Albstadt and followed that up with 3rd in La Bresse placing him ahead of some of the biggest guns in XCO.  Although course conditions sometimes vary between races, the average speed at the front of the U23 races is right in the range of Koretzky’s results in the elite field, so he will certainly be looking to secure a medal.

Also wearing the Fern in U23 are the Oliver brothers, Ben and Craig, and Jack Compton.  Ben has earned the best result of the three in in the world cup so far with a 9th place in Cairns and recently finished 8th in the HC Bike the Rock event.  Meanwhile Craig will be relishing a course that suits his style of riding.    Jack hasn’t yet fired on all cylinders this year so will no doubt want to put it all together this weekend.

Kiwi Junior Men

Paul Wright (whose family farm was the venue of the highly rated Wanaka round of the national series this year) and Jack Wilson will represent NZ in the U19 men’s race.  This is Jack’s first world champs, and what a course for it!  Paul DNFd out of world champs last year so while he is familiar with the spectacle, this is also his opportunity to cross the finish line for the first time.

How to watch

You can find live timing for the U23 and U19 races here.  U19 men race at 3am Saturday morning NZ time and U23 men are up at 9pm NZ time on Saturday.

Watch the elite races on Sky, Fanpass or RedBull TV.  The women race at 1am Sunday morning NZ time with the men 24 hours later.


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