Mountain bike: who can catch the Swiss in cross-country Olympic?

May 16, 2019, 14:48 PM

The first cross-country Olympic (XCO) round of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup gets under way this weekend and the burning question is: “Can anyone break the Swiss dominance?”

Switzerland’s Nino Schurter (Men Elite) Jolanda Neff (Women Elite) and Sina Frei (Women U23) all rode like clockwork last year to amass comfortably winning points tallies in their respective 2018 World Cup campaigns. Logically, Switzerland was the winning nation, as it had been in four of the five previous years. Only Petter Fagerhaug prevented the Swiss from making a clean sweep of the overall titles in 2018. The Norwegian topped the U23 UCI World Cup ranking after seven rounds and was joined on the podium by France’s Joshua Dubau (2nd overall) and Filippo Colombo of…. Switzerland!

So while Switzerland does not have a complete stranglehold on the international XCO racing scene, it’s a bit too close for comfort for their rivals, who will be ready to provide stiff competition at this weekend’s opening fixture in Albstadt, Germany (18-19 May). So what can we expect?

Men Elite: the contenders

While Schurter claimed the UCI World Cup overall and the UCI World Championships (for the seventh time, including four consecutively) in 2018, he did not have it all his own way. It was refreshing to see other riders taking UCI World Cup top spots, not least New Zealand’s Sam Gaze (23) who burst onto the Elite scene with victory in the opening round in Stellenbosch (South Africa). Gaze and fellow Kiwi Anton Cooper (24) are both former U23 UCI World Champions and can be expected to be in the mix this year.

Italy’s Gerhard Kerschbaumer, 27, won the Vallnord (Andorra) round in 2018, while Mathias Flückiger demonstrated Switzerland’s depth of talent with a win in Mont-Sainte-Anne (Canada) and sixth place in the overall standings. Meanwhile Frenchman Maxime Marotte, at 32 years of age, should not be ruled out. He didn’t win any World Cup races in 2018 but his season-long consistency earned him third place overall after the seven rounds.

There is no doubt that Schurter will have a fight on his hands in Albstadt this weekend. And arguably his greatest threat will come from Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel, second overall in the 2018 UCI World Cup. After an almost flawless winter season culminating with the title of cyclo-cross UCI World Champion, Van der Poel had an incredibly impressive Spring Classics campaign on the road. He is now shifting his focus to mountain bike with the firm intention of qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in the discipline. He will be holding nothing back this season.

Women Elite: the contenders

In the Women Elite racing, Neff’s dominance is almost as great as Schurter’s. Her consistency over the years has earned her three UCI World Cup overall wins, as well as titles of UCI World Champion in XCO, cross-country Marathon (XCM) and XCO team relay. She is also one of those athletes who can successfully compete in different disciplines, as demonstrated by national titles won in mountain bike XCO, cyclo-cross and on the road.

However, Neff is not totally infallible either: she won three of seven rounds last year, with the remaining victories going to three experienced veterans: two wins for Denmark’s Annika Langvad (35) and one victory each for Poland’s Maja Włoszczowska (35) and Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå (46). Then there is Canadian National Champion Emily Batty (30), who seems to get stronger every year: third overall in last year’s UCI World Cup and bronze medallist at the UCI World Championships, she is still chasing her first World Cup win.

Like Jolanda Neff, Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen has demonstrated her ability to shine in different disciplines. The reigning Olympic and UCI World Champion on the road came second in the Dutch national mountain bike championships last year, and two months ago was victorious in the South African mountain bike stage race the Absa Cape Epic, alongside teammate Annika Langvad. Meanwhile, France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prevot has packed a huge amount of experience into her 27 years and is another multi-discipline rider. The question is how quickly can she return from injury?

And then we have the talented new generation, with US rider Kate Courtney leading the charge. At just 23 years old, Courtney is the reigning Women Elite UCI World Champion and will make life hard for everyone this season.

Who will have the skills, fitness, consistency and nerves to make their mark on the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup? We don’t have to wait long to find out. This weekend’s opener in Germany is followed a week later by Round 2 at Nové Mesto na Morave (Czech Republic). The seven-event XCO season will then continue over four months until the final round at a new venue in the USA, SnowShoe, in early September.