The start lists for the 2015 XCM World Championships are out. The racing is barely 24 hours away. The climbs are big, the air is thing, and the Val Gardena is starting to throb with the low resting heart rates of some supremely fit individuals.
For 2015, the UCI Cross Country Marathon (XCM) Mountain Bike World Championships return to the heartland – Western Europe. The race in South Africa was immense last year, but in the not overly rich sport of marathon mountain biking, many teams and athletes will be grateful for lower transport costs. The 2015 venue is barely a few valleys over from the race in Kirchberg in 2013.
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It’s worth taking a look at the start lists for the race. Go download them (under entries) and take a look through. While riders are listed by country, trade teams still play a big role. Feeds for the top riders will be done by their team support staff, not staff from their national federation. So just because Germany has 23 riders entered, that doesn’t ensure a win – it’s highly unlikely that the whole German team is sitting down over beers and schnitzels talking about how they’re all going to ride for Platt, or Mennen or Kaufmann.
We’ve heard form some of the favourites already, but let’s pick out some high impact players from the start list, and find some people who might surprise you.
Let’s start at the top. Miguel Angel Hidalgo, from Argentina. Heard of him? He’s not shy of the front of an XCO or XCM race, and has been Argentinian XCM Champ before too. YOu wouldn’t travel all the way to Italy without intent, right? Clearly he believes the climbing will suit him.
Australia fields two riders, Italian based Morgan Pilley, who we spoke to earlier in the week, and Michael England. While Pilley has the experience, and course knowledge, England seems to have a greater ability to ride deep into the pain cave. With a road background from the NRS (National Road Series) in Australia, England finished 5th at the Australian XCM Champs while hungerflatted for the majority of the end of the race. The long climbs should suit his build, and despite saying he’s no good at singletrack, he’s managed pretty well so far. A top 40 finish would be a solid ride.
There are no kangaroos in Austria, but they do have Alban Lakata. I don’t think he’s an outright favourite, as I think the climbs might be too much for even Alban to muscle his way over. I suspect he’ll finish top 5, and quite probably on the podium if he doesn’t get a flat tyre. That said, he’s a machine, and might just ride to win.
Belgium fields quite a few riders but Roel Paulissen would be the best known. Partly due to the World Champs in 2008, and partly for his apathy to a drugs charge. He’s super lean, as seen at the Alpentour Trophy, and climbing well. He could well nudge the podium.
Canada has a couple of reps with Tim Carleton and Cory Wallace. Poor Cory has zero points and no XCM ranking – as Canadian XCM Champ that’s a real shame. He finished 15th in the Sellaronda Hero in 2014, so if his start position doesn’t set him back then a top 20 would be awesome for the likeable Canadian.
Columbia has one of the outright favourites, Leonardo Paez. he’s won the race a few times, he’s in good shape (although sustained minor injuries at the Alpentour Trophy) and might have great support from his Italian team mates, or his Columbian national team mates. Paez is small, can climb, can descend, and knows the route. He claimed 3rd around the corner in Austria in 2013, so this could be his year for some stripes.
Last year’s winner, Jaroslav Kulhavy, is a big unit. For that reason, I don’t think he can win. He’s super strong, in fact the Cape Epic would show he’s the strongest guy out there. But knowing how steep the climbs are, I don’t think he can win. If he does… well I want what he has for breakfast. Kristian Hynek is another super strong racer, and well accomplished. Both these guys could end up in the top 5. And if they work together as countrymen – higher still.
Soren Nissen from Denmark is a quality rider, but I have a feeling that a top 20 result will be his limit. Spain have fielded a massive team, but with no standout riders, save for some busted ex-pro’s like Beltran and Mancebo. Next.
France have quite a large team for a race that isn’t within their borders. But no one in it seems like they will bother the top 10. But hopefully the likeable Jeff Boessler can lead them all on a wine tour down the valley on Sunday. It’s mostly a very young team, and this might be a great testing ground for many of them.
Similarly with the Team GB from the UK – there’s not a podium hopeful. While the Batchelor brothers are known for the triple sessions from their time training in Brisbane, and ben Thomas is in fine form after winning the Beskidy Trophy and British XCM Champs… he’s not the pure climber that this course favours. Will Hayter explored the idea of what it’s like to be a big fish in a small pond, and then a small fish in a big one. Some of these guys might be feeling that too.
Germany, as always, have the biggest team. 23 riders. Lots of talent. Almost certainly all different goals. According to social media, Karl Platt has been training the house down. The team Bulls superstar will forever be remembered for saying “there is only one gas, and that is full gas!” and will certainly be throwing everything he has at this race. Can he win? Maybe. It’s an outside chance. With team mate Stefan Sahm back to full health and strength, there’s a chance this duo that ruled marathon and stage racing with an iron fist might well come to the fore on Saturday. Matthias Lesiling could ride to a top 10, and Marcus Kaufmann should be well suited to the course. Robert Mennen is riding very well, perhaps not as well as some others. But these five riders should be peppered through the top 5-15, baring mishaps.
Periklis Ilias won on the muddiest of mud-clogged muddy days in 2012. He hasn’t shown super form recently, but as a previous XCM World Champ, is a threat.
Italy have a home town advantage, of sorts (depending what you know of Sudtirol history). But they have been training in the area, and I think if Tony Longo rides out of Leonardo Paez’ shadow, he is in with a great chance for a medal. Juri Ragnoli is in fine form, after winning the Bike4Peaks in part due to the huge gap he gained on the big climbs on stage one. With Marzio Deho and Massimo Debortolis in the team too, there’s level heads. It’s mostly a more mature team though, full of finishers if not winners.
Japan have two riders, and Yuki Ikeda has already filled Instagram with photos of amazing Japanese food made in the Val Gardena, and amazing scenes. He’s a different rider to two years ago, and it would be great to see him finish top 40.
Tiago Ferreira. The brightly coloured team mate of Periklis Ilias, he’s also ranked very highly. It’s likely he will make an impact, but with a small team his chance of overall success seems lower. A top 10 perhaps.
South Africa is a hot bed of marathon racing, and their three rider team doesn’t really do it justice. I don’t think any of them will be bothering the podium, and wonder if the smaller team is a matter of funds or decisions by their governing body. Or both.
Switzerland. What a powerhouse. Sauser is contesting his last race as a professional. Urs Huber the Swiss Bull is likely to muscle his way around the whole course. But Sauser is still hurting from two broken ribs. And Huber is a big strong rider. Maybe Lukas Buchli and his hat are more likely to step onto the podium?
These are all guesses, but it should make for an exciting race come Saturday.
The mention above about more riders racing with a European location is best shown in the women’s field, with about double the numbers from 2014. It’s also a commentary on the budgets for elite women’s racers and teams – but that is a whole other topic.
From the top, we see Eliza Kwan and Sarah Riley atop the list from Australia. Two women who race all out, and who arrived in the Val Gardena earlier this week full of excitement. The reality of the brutality of the climbing on the course, and the altitude, means that they both might not achieve their best possible results. But their attitudes mean that they will give everything they have. It would be great to see one of them sneak into the top 20.
Austria – a different story Sabine Sommer and Christina Kollman have the experience to have great races, and are likely to both finish in the top 10.
Belgium, Brazil and Croatia field good riders – but no podium contenders. Tereza Hurikova doesn’t seem to be where she was a couple of years ago, but could turn in a good top 10 ride.
Annika Langvad is the sole racer from Denmark – and could ride away with the title. Langvad has been working on her technique and form in the World Cup – and finishing well. XCM races often have pretty plain singletrack, but some of the descents in the Sellaronda route require a lot of commitment due to their exposure, steep pitches, or rocks. Or all three.
Helene Marcouyre of France could well trouble the top 5, but might lack the fire power of the top ladies.
Great Britain has four women racing, and Sally Bigham is an outright favourite, having won on the course before. More than that, she is one of the most professional athletes in mountain biking, with a very precise approach to training, racing and recovery. She has a lot of talent. I recall her riding past me (in the 11) like I was standing still at the 2008 British XCM Champs, with a long pony tail and a terrible club cut Topeak-Ergon jersey. Times have changed. I don’t recall ever being in front of her in the past few years.
Rachel Fenton has been training in Livigno, like many of the cool kids of XCM racing, and looks to be focusing on beating her 2013 result. Mel Alexander is in great form, and these two may well end up racing a lot of the event together.
Germany – 16 riders! with some notable names like Katrin Schwing and Elisabeth Brandau in there, Sabine Spitz also stands out of course, with Bettina Uhlig. Spitz could make the podium on a great day, and Brandau might actually make the top 5 too. They’re both super strong.
The Italian women’s team has just two riders, but both Elena Gaddoni and Daniela Veronesi have lots of experience. A top 10 would be a great result for either of them.
Sanne van Paassen just won Bike4Peaks, but in a not too strong women’s field it’s hard to draw conclusions from that. Shes likely to be the strongest from the Dutch team – but Nienke Oostra could well be a crowd favourite thanks to her fighting spirit.
Norway’s Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja seems unstoppable when she has a target. Will this be a repeat of 2013? Will she pip Bigham for the title? She’s been leading World Cup XCO races, so she’s fit. She can climb. She can descend. It’s very hard to split her from Bigham and Langvad for the title.
The next threats come from Switzerland (big surprise) and Ariane Kleinhans will be in the hunt for a medal, as will Cornelia Hug and newly crowned Swiss XCM Champ Esther Suess. Milena Landtwing could fill out the top 5 with a good ride.
It’s interesting to see Lea Davison is racing for the US. This could be prep for the Lenzerheide World Cup – but it could also disrupt the front of the race if she goes all out with some XCO style speed with Gunn-Rita and Annika Langvad.
Of course, this is all speculation. We’ll have to wait and see what the race holds. We’ll be tweeting our thoughts through the race. So follow @marathonmtb to get our feedback.