It’s a good thing there was a week between World Cups – how exciting was last week??? During the week the points table was updated by the UCI, confirming how many spots each nation has earned through the race for points (if you missed it, catch a breakdown of how it all works here).
Selection to determine who will fill those spots continues for a few more weeks for most nations, but for some (including NZ) the World Cup in La Bresse tomorrow is the last major event that selectors will be looking at. The cameras will be focused on the front of the races, but bear a thought for those in the field for whom it’s now or never.
La Bresse last featured on the World Cup circuit way back in 2012 – funny old thing, that was an Olympic year too. It’s the home race for Julien Absalon, Maxime Marotte and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. They’ll all be targeting the Olympics, but it would be surprising if this isn’t also one of their targeted races for the season, as it was for Julien when he won back in 2012.
In the elite men’s race…
To win, first they must beat Nino Schurter. His form is so dominant right now that he has won the last 5 world cup races – it’s across two seasons, but it’s the longest winning streak since before 2005. His closest competition is long time rival Julien Absalon. After being beaten by half a wheel last week, combined with the support of the French crowd and winning in 2012, there is no doubt that he’s fired up. He’s worked on his skills and runs a dropper post now and it was clear in Albstadt that Nino wasn’t pulling the gaps he used to on the downhill. To win, Julien needs to make a move with plenty of time to break the elastic, or make sure he is in to the final singletrack first.
Fellow Frenchman Maxime Marotte scored his first ever top-3 world cup results in Cairns and Albstadt. He’ll also have the support of a home crowd. He was with Nino all the way in Cairns, and though he dropped off after lap one in Albstadt he rallied in the later laps and was riding faster than the leaders.
Yaroslav Kulhavy won two world cups last year and he’s the only rider apart from Schurter and Absalon to have claimed a win since 2013. Sporting a carbon brace and obviously still suffering some discomfort from a broken bone earlier in the year, he was with Marotte until late in the race last week. In 2012 he was only 7 seconds behind Absalon, do don’t count him out.
Also watch out for Lars Forster, Fabian Giger, Matthias Stirnemann, and Mathias Fluckinger – 4 Swiss riders in the top 8 of the world cup standings battling it out to fill the 2nd and 3rd Swiss Olympic spots.
Anton Cooper has withdrawn from the race due to illness. Expect him back in action later in June when he will race to defend his U23 world champion title.
Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the women’s race last week was the conspicuous absence of Jolanda Neff, who was a late withdrawal due to a virus. She’s on the entry list this week, and the start grid rules* ensure she is still on the 3rd row despite not racing in the world cup yet this year.
Annika Langvad was quick to capitalise on Neff’s absence and dominated in Albstadt from start to finish to complete a hat trick of world cup wins. Can she make it three in a row in one season? She’s certainly got the form, and her confidence has grown with each win. Let’s not forget it was Neff she beat to win her first world cup in Val di Sole last year!
Amongst the surprise of Neff’s absence, and the dominance of Langvad, it was 21 year old Swede Jenny Rissveds creating a whole lot of excitement. Narrowly avoiding taking out a camera-man when she crashed spectacularly early in the race, she regained her focus in the last two laps. With no respect for her elders, she lined up Gunn-Rita (winner of the most women’s world cups with her 29th coming as recently as last year), Sabine (retiring this year at 44, she also has an Olympic medal of every colour), and Catharine (2 time world champ and 2 time world cup overall winner) and picked them off one by one to finish in second place, leaving many wondering what might have been had she not crashed early on. She also knows what it’s like to win in La Bresse – she won the XCE in 2012!
Catharine is picking up her form with each round so far, with a 4th place followed by a 3rd. To continue that trend she’ll not only have Jolanda,Annika and Jenny to contend with, but you can never count GRD out in the world cups. She won in La Bresse in 2012 and only needs one more world cup win to match Julien Absalon for most wins ever.
PFP pulled out of the race last week following a sub-par performance in the team relay and withdrawal during the elite women’s race of the European Championships. She’s been plagued with injury since this time last year but if she is fit and well she will challenge the leaders.
We haven’t seen Emily Batty or Lea Davison firing on all cylinders yet this year, while a young trio of Linda Indergand, Helen Grobert and Alessandra Keller add to the depth of the women’s field. A dark horse pick for the minor placings is Katerina Nash. She hasn’t raced MTB outside of the US since 2013. She’s placed 10th at both rounds so far this year and came oh-so-close to winning her first world up in La Bresse in 2012, instead having to settle for 2nd and waiting more than a year for that first world cup win (Mont St Anne 2013). With World Champs in her home country next month she will be aiming to move up.
Kate Fluker will relish the course which is predominantly one long climb and one long descent. But she’ll need to be at 100% mentally and technically. Even if it stays relatively dry as forecast, the natural course demands full attention.
Can he make it a hat trick??? He’s got the form, he’s got the confidence. The long climb could be considered against him, but a lot of people thought that last week – himself included, so he worked on it and it paid off. Sam Gaze has ensured that it was never going to be an easy choice to fill the men’s Olympic spot.
It’s 2 Frenchmen he has been fending off so far this season so this is likely to be his most difficult race yet.
Ben Oliver still has a second row start despite finishing out of the top 30 last week. Brother Craig withdrew after 1 lap due to illness but his healthy balance of UCI points* saves him from falling further back than a 5th row start in a field of 145 riders. If you haven’t seen it already, the boys posted a sweet vid of the La Bresse course earlier in the week:
Rounding out the Kiwi riders this week is Jack Compton. He’ll start on the same row as Craig but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help each other out once the washing-machine-like start takes its toll.
*The top 16 riders in the world cup overall are gridded in order of world cup ranking, ensuring them a spot on the first or second row. After that, order is based on overall UCI ranking, so as the #2 ranked rider in the world, Neff will start in 18th (the #1 ranked rider Yana Belamoina is also outside of the top 16).