We are just days away from the 2014 Marathon MTB World Championships, which are taking place at Cascades MTB Park, in Pietermaritzberg, South Africa. This will be the first time that XCM Worlds has been raced outside of Europe since the first race in Lugano in 2003. South Africa is mountain bike mad, and with the help of many strong events – obviously including the ABSA Cape Epic, and the 2013 Mountain Bike World Championships, it’s a country on a mountain bike high.
But, Marathon racing isn’t a rich sport. There are a few superstars, but it does look like the extra travel expenses have kept participation lower. Although South Africa shares the same timezone as most of Europe, it’s still a long flight for racers, team managers, mechanics and helpers to make. That’s a big financial burden for a sport where many elite athletes still have a modest expense limit, and not a salary.
Course design is worth considering, as in Europe, the terrain has distinctly dictated results. In Austria, the climbs weren’t technical, but were so long, and the tempo so high, that a selection was made. While many of the descents weren’t overly technical, the final one was, and luck and ability there dictated the results. Some riders were even changing wheels at the top in the tech/feed zone for more aggressive tread.
In Pietermaritzberg, the course has been built and designed. Not dictated by the surrounding alpine passes. Like Worlds in 2011 (Italy), and indeed 2010 (The St Wendel Breadknife, Germany) this may dictate how the race plays out. Fast bunches, with the higher tempo favouring the super fit and most skilled. Possibly someone like the skinny Swiss sausage man.
Looking at the men’s entry list (start lists aren’t available until the 28th June) there are still so many names to look to for podium results – people you would expect to see there, and would have done for the past 5 years.
Alban Lakata will always be a race favourite. The Austrian is rarely off the podium unless he suffers a mechanical, and even then he often makes it on there. Lakata suffered a bad injury in winter, but his recovery is complete, and he’s racing and winning again. After bad luck at the European XCM Champs, Lakata will be hungry for success. His brute strength and depth of experience will serve him well on a demanding course, with such a high level field.
Belgium has plenty of bike racers. And like other lowlanders, the Dutch, Belgians are often found around the globe. Not so much this time, as Roel Paulissen will be their leading rider, especially given his recent success in the Alpentour Trophy. Michiel van Aelbrock will likely have a brilliant race too, but is less likely to be a podium threat.
While Canada is the home of ‘gnar’ riding and wide bars, they have some handy marathon racers too. Cory Wallace has gone from strength to strength in the past 18 months, and after solid top 20 racing at the Alpentour Trophy, he should be vying for a top 20, and maybe even close to a top 10 result in South Africa if things go his way.
Colombia has lots of hills, amongst other things that help cycling, and Leonardo Paez has shown no secrecy of the form he has right now, with the overall win at the Alpentour Trophy, backed up with his 3rd consecutive Sellaronda Hero title. That race is just bloody hard. Paez was third at XCM Champs in 2013, and depending how the race plays out, could well be on the podium again in 2014.
Europe has plenty of strong riders, and the Czech Republic is teeming with them. Nove Mesto has been voted one of the best XCO courses, riders rave about the Malevil Cup, and Kulhavy won the Olympics… so they go ok. In this case, we have to look to Kulhavy as an outright favourite after his strong performance with Specialized team mate Sauser at the Euro XCM Champs. Kristian Hynek was unlucky, like his team mate Lakata, but is also in top condition. Jiri Novak and Frantisek Rabon will also make a difference, especially if these guys are playing the flag game and not the trade team game.
Historically, Germany has flooded the XCM Champs with riders. That’s not too different this year, but it’s hard to look through their rider list and be amazed by the potential race winners. There are so many strong riders there with Thum, Sahm, Platt, Milatz, Mennen, Bohme – but a winner? None of them have shown world beating ability this year. As much as I would love to see Karl Platt pull on a World Champion jersey – it seems unlikely. Could he, and others, ride a tactical team game for a younger rider like Gegenheimer? Sure, that seems more plausible. Ok and if Robert Mennen ended up on the podium, it wouldn’t be overly surprising. He’s a motor.
Periklis Ilias is still the one man Greek MTB show, and although he won the title in 2012, it doesn’t seem certain he will trouble the podium. The pace that is likely will most certainly require a good team mate or two.
If there’s a case for Europeans staying at home, Italy support that pretty well with the men (and more so with women). They have a young team, and although Johnny Cattaneo has had some classy wins, a Worlds podium might not be amongst them. Tony Longo could make it work, especially if they use their 8 rider team to good effect. It’s entirely possible he will ride to support his Bianchi team mate, the Columbian Paez, as he does in so many races.
South Africa is the 29″ wheeled rolling juggernaut of the XCM Worlds, with 28 riders listed on the entrant list. Sure, some might not start. But they dwarf any other country – and so they should. There are so many strong riders in South Africa, with a coherent National XCM Series, enough stage races so you’d never sleep at home if you were just that into racing. And one of their XCO racers just won their XCM Champs on the very course that is being used for Worlds… If James Reid and Rourke Croesser ride like they did at the start of the month, it will be the racers with and XCO background who come to the front (that Swiss guy again). With 28 potential starters, team cannibalism is more likely than team work. Can anyone imagine 28 highly competitive, hungry and tired elite endurance athletes getting along? Sure, a small group might work, but they might be working against others. This is nothing against the selection, as so many of the racers here would have qualified via the XCM World Series (that is, being ranked in the top 40, or achieving a top 20 race result), but it’s a case where numbers aren’t everything. A win from a South African seems unlikely.
The Swiss team hold the race favourite – 2013 XCM Champion Christoph Sauser. He was dominant in the Bike 4 Peaks at the start of June. And just incase you missed that, he also won the European XCM Championships just after that. He’s an Olympic medallist and multiple world champion. He’s won the Cape Epic, countless other stage races, marathons and XCO events. A brilliant climber, possibly an even better descender and brilliant tactician. He’s mechanically savvy to get himself and his bike through hard races. He is good at what he does, a consummate professional, and far and away the favourite to take the men’s title. But Urs Huber is also riding for Switzerland. Huber is insanely strong, and having seen him sit on the front of a group and drive it so hard his nose bled, he will clearly go deep into the pain cave to win a world title. With a 2nd place in the Sellaronda hero last weekend, he’s in great shape. Although a week earlier he couldn’t match the pace of the Sauser/Kulhavy express in Balyhoura – will a low cadence climbing race like Sellaronda give him the speed he needs?
There are plenty of other riders who could make a difference, like Jukka Vastaranta, Aussies Morgan Pilley and Australian XCM Champ Andy Blair, Lukas Buchli (and his hat), Adrian Brzozka… and 28 South Africans. But it looks like Sauser is the outright favourite, likely to be troubled by Hynek and Lakata, Paez, Huber and Paulissen.
We will have a run down of the wide open women’s field online tomorrow.
Don’t forget, the XCM Champs will stream LIVE!