Battles Ahead and the Big Unknown
von Erhard GollerExcitement about new Short Track Format on Friday
The Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt promises a great sporting weekend. The Short Track race on Friday could change a lot. World Champion, Nino Schurter, is among those excited to see what the weekend brings in the venue’s classic “Bullentäle”. Schurter’s long-time competitor Julien Absalon declared his immediate retirement on Monday, but there are others who are hoping to prevent a third Schurter victory in Albstadt. In the Women’s field there are a number of star riders who could shine, just as last season showed us.
Nine weeks have passed since the season start in Stellenbosch so the cards may have been reshuffled. The course in Albstadt has significantly different characteristics compared to South Africa but, nevertheless, Nino Schurter (Sui) still tops the list of favourites. As he impressively proved last year when he won all six World Cup races, he can do everything.
Schurter himself recognizes Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) as a big threat to his domination. The cyclo-cross star finished second in Albstadt in 2017 and comes off the back of winning all three stages of La Rioja Bike Race in Spain over the weekend.
Stellenbosch winner, Sam Gaze (Nzl), may not be perfectly suited for the Bullental Course, but in 2016 he won the U23 race here in front of strong climbers such as Titouan Carod (Fra). And if he succeeds in winning the short track (see below), then this could give a further boost in motivation, just as Schurter forecast in his earlier interview.
"Max is on fire," says Manuel Fumic about his Cannondale teammate Maxime Marotte. The Frenchman was narrowly beaten into third in Stellenbosch and he also has on his agenda: "A World Cup victory".
Swissman, Mathias Flückiger, catapulted himself out of the race for possible Albstadt victory last year with a spectacular crash. However, he recently defeated Nino Schurter in Solothurn and commented afterwards that, "There was not much missing”.
If you stretch the search for favourites to podium candidates, then Anton Cooper (Nzl) comes into play. "It's getting better day by day," says 2017’s third place finisher. The aforementioned Titouan Carod (Fra), as well as Florian Vogel (Sui), should also be ones to watch. Henrique Avancini (Bra) could be ready for his first World Cup podium if he can handle the jetlag well, or maybe France’s Jordan Sarrou is ready to step into Julien Absalon’s shoes.
Absalon (Fra) announced on Monday his immediate retirement which leaves a big hole in the field. The reason is a pollen allergy which has worsened so much this spring that he decided to call it quits.
"Julien is a great champion, I already miss him in the race,” said Schurter, with whom he has had many famous duels over the last years. However, Absalon will appear on-site as team principal of his own small team, Absolute Absalon, and as boyfriend and supporter to Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.
Manuel Fumic also reflected on Absalon’s career: "I would have wished him a better finish, but he will not be completely lost to the sport. Julien has so much passion for the sport and was for many years the man who was almost unbeatable "
Of his preparation (with the injured finger) and his own chances, Fumic says: "The training was great, but if I get into the top ten or even top eight, then I would be happy.”
He looks forward to the home crowd and good weather. "Albstadt has more than earned that!"
Women: A Quartet of Albstadt Winners
Those who line up in the white World Cup leader’s jersey are automatically among the favourites. With her win in Stellenbosch, Annika Langvad, has the target on her back.
Last weekend, the reigning Marathon World Champion also became Danish Champion in this discipline. Finishing only ten minutes slower then the Master Men’s winner gave her confirmation that her shape is good.
The 2014 Albstadt champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, did not fare well at the HC race in Obertraun at the weekend following a flat tyre after only 500 meters. After eight weeks of road racing, the Frenchwoman is now back on her mountain bike and definitely a candidate for the biggest trophy at the award ceremony.
Previous victors in Albstadt also include World Champion, Jolanda Neff (Sui), who had an unsteady spring campaign. After a clavicle fracture in January she made an early return with an impressive sixth place in Stellenbosch, but then in April a heavy training fall on the thigh slowed her progress once again. "At the moment I am fine and I am training to keep going upwards", she announced on Monday, a little ambiguously. Given her talent we can assume that she will play a significant role when it comes to the race, but perhaps her top form is not to be expected.
When Yana Belomoina crossed the finish line last year in Albstadt, hands over her face, she could hardly believe she had won her first World Cup victory. Two more victories followed and she took the overall title. In autumn she had a training accident on the road resulting in an awkward break in her femur and a long absense from training intensively or racing. She could not race in Stellenbosch, but with her victory in Obertraun she has finally returned to the circle of podium contenders.
She could not race in Stellenbosch, but with her victory in Obertraun she has finally returned to the circle of podium contenders. “The legs were good, every week faster. We will see, how I will feel this weekend, but I believe”, says Belomoina.
Besides this quartet you have to acknowledge Maja Wloszczowska. The Polish woman has been on the World Cup start line for at least twelve years. Her last victory was six years ago, but she has come close since then.
You can also look forward to the 45-year-old Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Nor) who is contesting her last World Cup season, and on the other side of the age scale to Anne Tauber from the Netherlands, who on Saturday will celebrate her 23rd birthday. With third place in Stellenbosch you have to consider the newcomer – who hails from speed skating - as a serious contender.
The German chances are not bad. Sabine Spitz has already shown with her eighth place in Stellenbosch that she is in good shape. She also took the win in Singen over the weekend, commenting that she was feeling strong on the climbs. Asked what that meant for Albstadt, she laughed, "do not compare apples to pears!” A top ten is possible, she added.
A top ten is also within reach of Elisabeth Brandau, who finished seventh in 2016 before she took a break from racing for her second child. Now she is back and has shone with four victories already this season, notably in Heubach where she beat a strong field of women.
However, Brandau got sick last week and spent five days in bed. "I am at least recovering for the World Cup weekend," she said with a laugh. "The shape is safe, but I have no idea what is possible. A World Cup is something different. I'm looking forward to Albstadt, but I'm not under any pressure", she says.
Short Track: The Big Unknown
It all starts with the big premiere of the Short Track on Friday, and to say that the athletes are curious is an understatement. The new World Cup format is the big unknown; everyone knows how important it is, but no one knows what will come of it.
"I am especially looking forward to Friday," said Sabine Spitz, and Nino Schurter and Manuel Fumic have also expressed their excitement towards this new challenge.
The 40 best women and the 40 best men will race for 25 minutes on the 1.2 kilometre track, hunting the first World Cup Short Track victory in history. The favourites? Certainly Sam Gaze is a candidate, also Mathieu van der Poel and Nino Schurter.
But it can be expected that others will be involved as well. For Thomas Litscher, the power could last for 25 minutes after his surgery.
In the Women’s field Jolanda Neff cannot be discounted, and the two-time Eliminator World Champion Linda Indergand will be a firm favourite. Eva Lechner and Annie Last are also ones to watch.