The elite titles for Australia’s 2017 Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) Championship are set to be decided on 30th April. For this year, the XCM Champs have travelled north to Townsville, being run in conjunction with the Townsville MTB Festival for this year and 2018.
Townsville is home of the Townsville Rockwheelers mountain bike club (one of the biggest in Australia) and they have an active cycling scene. The Rockwheelers own and manage Douglas MTB Park near James Cook University, but the XCM Champs will be using the trails at Cape Pallarenda. With the rocky nature of the trails here, and the proximity to the Coral Sea (they’re right next to it) the trails are weather-proof and photogenic. And more than a bit testing.
I visited in January to ride the proposed course, and gave some feedback to MTBA and Rockwheelers. It’s been great to see much of that embraced, with a new finish above the wetlands, 3 feed zones per lap, and having the start and finish at Cape Pallarenda and not at the barracks. While I notcied yesterday the steep pinch climb out to Smedley’s was taken out, the longer singletrack climb that makes up the anti-clockwise loop of Under The Radar can be just as decisive.
Men will be racing 3.5 laps of the course (avoiding the Under the Radar loop to create a half lap) and women will do 3 complete laps. You can view the course map here. The current entry lists are online, although riders may still enter tomorrow or on Sunday.
Who can win the elite men’s National XCM Championship?
The start list has a few notable names that jump out at you, and it is very hard to ignore the one XCO World Cup winner there – Dan McConnell. A last-minute decision to race XCM Champs has McConnell in Townsville, ahead of his European campaign. While he’s not an XCM specialist, results around the globe have shown that whenever a top-tier XCO racer contends a major marathon race – they tend to factor in the results. Jaroslav Kulhavy has been XCM Champion, Nino Schurter just won the Cape Epic which is still a marathon stage race, even if the stages are a little shorter than they used to be. Most of the women’s XCM World Champions are ‘XCO specialists’.
The reality is Dan McConnell is the one full-time professional on the men’s start list. It is hard to not put him as the favourite.
But if you had to put someone right behind McConnell, it would be Brendan Johnston. Without turning to hard facts, I can casually say that ‘Trekky’ has won more marathons than he hasn’t over the past 3 years. Handily, that includes the 2015 and 2016 National XCM titles, and most other major marathons as well. he has won the first three rounds of the National XCM Series, and the AMB100 last weekend. I would like to put him as an equal favourite with McConnell – but I really think Dan might have the edge.
Some are predicting a sprint finish, and it’s not out of the question given the relativelt flat nature of the course. But with close to 90km to race for elite men, the rocky nature of the course, and the heat (Sunday is predicted to be 28 degrees) will play a role, especially as the race moves to the four hour mark.
Next up I see Tasman Nankervis playing a big role. He has logged some solid results in marathon races, and while his focus is XCO, wins at races like the Otway Odyssey don’t come easily. He has team mate Ryan Standish also racing – team tactics seem unlikely and Standish could also give the front of the race a nudge – and is quite likely to stand on the podium on Sunday.
Talking of teams, Johnston’s Trek-Shimano team mate Marc Williams is also a contender. Maybe not a top of the box contender, but he rode comfortably at the AMB100 last weekend in the 2-lap race, and has been in the front group at most major marathons he has been in. He’s looking fast on course and could go home to Canberra with a medal.
Dual national champion Andrew Blair is recovering from shoulder surgery and that won’t be comfortable on he rocky terrain in Townsville. Although he has more fight in him than plenty of the rest of the field combined, a top 3 finish seems unlikely. But never say never, and if Blair finished in the top 5 it would be a solid result but still not surprising.
Adrian Jackson has taken podium positions in major marathons such as the Otway Odyssey and Bendigo Golden Triangle Epic. ‘AJ’ is a consistent performer and wouldn’t be in Townsville if he didn’t think he had a shot at the title, or a podium position.
All of these riders could end up in the top 5, as could Michael England, who finished 5th in 2015 in Derby. Unfortunately, there’s not enough room for all of them. Jeff Rubach is local and could pull out a strong performance – but I don’t think he’ll trouble the top 5.
I expect to see McConnell, Johnston and Nankervis on the podium. But I’m not sure if that’s the order.
Who can win the elite women’s National XCM Championship?
Almost all women will make a ‘World Cup’ 5 person podium – with 6 riders entered, unless there are more late entries. Bec Henderson, Holly Harris, Em Viotto, Jenny Blair (now entered), Megan Williams and Briony Mattocks are all prepped to race, but the start sheet does miss Anna Beck, Imogen Smith (injured), Bec Locke, Naomi Williams, Cristy Henderson, Eliza Smyth, Jenni King, Kelly Bartlett, Brodie Chapman, Sarah Riley and Peta Mullens. With injuries, time off, or road racing opportunities keeping riders out of action, it’s a small selection from what can otherwise be a good current crop of racers. Many of those riders are based in the south-eastern corner of Australia. Would a race closer by have guaranteed their attendance? That’s difficult to say. But it’s possible.
Still, if you want to win, or do well at a national championship, you have to turn up.
Like Dan, Bec Henderson made a last-minute decision to race before heading to Europe. Does she race marathons a lot? No. Can she handle herself over that distance? Yes. but does that make her an outright favourite? I’m not so sure.
Any time we have seen Bec ‘falter’ (by which I mean not come 1st) in an Australian race it hasn’t been at a peak time of the season. Bec had some stiff competition in the National XCO Series. But the race that counted, National Championships – she was never in question. Like any racer with years of full-time racing under their belts, Bec knows how to peak for the races that matter. And I don’t think she would be here if she didn’t have confidence in taking another green and gold jersey in her suitcase to Europe.
I don’t see Bec as having an outright position as favourite beyond 2015 XCM Champion (and winner of many XCM national title races) Jenny Blair. Another seasoned athlete, Blair knows how to hurt, and has the engine and skills to place another Australian jersey on her back.
But this is not clear cut. Holly Harris is leapt out of the U23 category with a renewed hunger for racing, and could trouble the front of the race. Em Viotto has also earned the ‘most improved’ title in women’s XCM racing, previously won by Briony Mattocks. These three riders have all had rapid increases in results in the past 6-18 months, but whether that is enough to put them on the top step of the championship podium on Sunday is uncertain.
While this is a small race for a championship, I find it difficult to call, but I do expect either Bec or Jenny to take a jersey with them. These are just my guesses. Who are your picks?