The UCI MTB World Cup in Cairns begins what will be a hectic year for cross-country (XCO) riders with the Australian leg of the series an important step ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and World Championships.
With reigning elite women’s world champion Jolanda Neff (SWI) choosing not to make the trip to Australia, the field that will take to Smithfield Regional MTB Park on the 24th of April is not short of a star.
The likes of 43-year-old 2004 Olympic and four time world champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja (NOR), 2014 Cairns winner Italian Eva Lechner and Canada’s Emily Batty are expected to vie for the first points of the season.
As for the Aussie charge, Rebecca Henderson enters Cairns after a dominant Australian season, taking out the national series, national championships and Oceania titles.
“I had the ride of my season here in Cairns two years ago, my first top 10 world cup in my first year in elite,” said Henderson.
“My goals are still a top 10 in Cairns and while that doesn’t sound like a massive improvement, I am expecting a stacked field this year with Olympic spots up for grabs for every country.”
In the elite men, many see it as a two-rider race between the retiring legend Julien Absalon (FRA) and Nino Schurter (SWI).
Only 42 points separates the pair in the UCI world rankings and the Frenchman will hold the number one plate at the venue where he claimed victory in 2014.
It will be the last chance Aussie fans get to see one of the greats of the sport compete with the 36 year old set to bid farewell after Rio’s Olympic Games.
For Swiss world champ Schurter, he admitted there’s pressure that comes with wearing the rainbow jersey. But despite not competing in Cairns two years ago, he’s not undaunted by the prospect of racing in the Cairns’ conditions.
“Indeed for us coming from the winter in Europe it will be quite a change,” said Schurter. “I will arrive early enough to take a close look at the track. It’s different from year to year anyway. That’s why I don’t see a handicap in the fact I was not racing in 2014.
“It’s the first very big race of the season and every year we see some changes of young guys making the jump to the top,” Schurter remarked.
World number three Florian Vogel (SWI) will also race in Cairns for the first time and is hoping for a solid start to his season.
“I actually had quite a good winter with an almost perfect training regime,” Vogel explained. “However the last couple of weeks went not exactly according to plan with a injury at the first race in Cyprus in the beginning of March.
“I’m confident that my work finally pays off in a week.”
Outside of the European contingent, Anton Cooper (NZ) could cause a few headaches. Cooper edged Australian champion Dan McConnell (ACT) at the recent 2016 Oceania Championships in New Zealand
But the eighth ranked McConnell, along with the large Aussie cross country contingent, will have the backing of the home crowd to push them around the course.
“This is the first (XCO) World Cup of the season so it will be interesting to see how everyone has prepared over the off season,” said McConnell.
“You can always expect a few surprises and I hope I’m one of them.
“I had a really strong year in 2014, I would love to be able to have another great year this year and kicking that off in Cairns would be a great start! I certainly hope to be in the mix.”
The XCO finals start at 9am on Sunday 24th with the U23 Men.
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