Just ahead of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Cross-country Olympic (XCO) World Cup, we provocatively asked, “Who can catch the Swiss?” That wasn’t about wanting to see the best racers of the day taken down, more about the excitement of enjoying the next wave of riders push the established figures further and further. And that’s precisely how the season has started, with new faces hitting the front.
After the first two rounds in Germany and the Czech Republic, it looks like we’re in for the most open and exciting XCO season for some years, both in the Men and Women Elite. This time last year, Swiss multiple champions Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff had already enjoyed victories. This year, however, while we do have a Swiss winner, it’s not who many expected. And with another three rounds before we hit the Swiss home venue of Lenzerheide in early August, the race is on!
In the first round in Albstadt, Germany, in mid-May, 30-year-old Mathias Flueckiger of Switzerland – buoyed by his victory in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, last year – won the Men Elite XCO by more than half a minute from Mathieu Van der Poel.
"I just rode my own race," said Flueckiger. "I was right on my limit, but never beyond. Once in the lead, I felt I had wings! I had tunnel vision riding to the finish line. In those conditions you just have to ride your own race."
Multiple UCI Cyclo-cross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel was second overall in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, continuing the fine form shown in this spring’s UCI WorldTour road racing’s Classics, not least his victory in the Amstel Gold Race. Right behind the 24-year-old Dutchman in last year’s Mountain Bike World Cup was France’s Jordan Sarrou, who rode strong but may not put in a full XCO campaign.
In the Women Elite XCO in Germany, UCI World Champion Kate Courtney enjoyed a brilliant win. The American was almost 50 seconds ahead of multiple UCI World Cup winner Jolanda Neff, with 26-year-old Ukrainian Yana Belomoina in third. Neff and Courtney
broke away during the first lap, but by the end of that loop, the American Courtney was ahead of the Swiss and stayed there.
A week later the protagonists reassembled to go again at Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic.
In the Men Elite, the faces on the podium were the same, just in a different order. Van der Poel and Schurter broke away to go head-to-head, with the younger rider ultimately victorious this time, taking a 19 second advantage at the line. Flueckiger took third, 1:34 further back.
"It was a battle
between the greatest mountain bikers, so it was so sweet to win," said Van
der Poel. "Two laps before the finish it was in my mind to attack at that
point on the course, so I went all in. I'm really happy to finally get my first
World Cup win. For me, it’s one of my biggest achievements, one of the toughest
things I can do. I've been trying for three years, so I've long been dreaming
of a World Cup win."
In the Women Elite, there was a familiar face in top spot, but new ones on the rest of the podium: UCI World Champion Kate Courtney (USA) took her second straight victory 36 seconds ahead of Australia’s Rebecca Ellen McConnel with Haley Smith of Canada 6 seconds further back.
this occasion Courtney
was not able to power away from her rivals, but instead had to battle back through
the field after an early puncture. “It took every ounce of what I had, so I'm
pretty happy," she said afterwards.
With the performances in the accompanying XCC races factored in, the current standings are, in the Men Elite, Van der Poel (with two short track wins): 700 points; Flueckiger: 500 and Schurter: 485. In the Women Elite, Courtney (including short track) has 700 points; Neff is on 490 and Chloe Woodruff 385.