Olympic Mountain Biking Favourites | A Preview for XCO at the Rio 2016 Games
Here's why the XC MTB could be the event of the Olympic Games...
Who are the favourites to take the gold medals in the men’s and women’s categories in the Olympic cross country mountain biking? And who is representing Team GB in the contest?
Well, one thing we can clear up quickly is that here will be only be one male Team GB rider in the XCO at the Olympic Games this year, and none in the female category.
When Annie Last qualified for the London 2012 XCO for Team GB, she was the first British rider to do so in over a decade, but due to chronic back injury she’s been struggling in the period since. With nobody else able to step up and qualify, there won’t be any female British presence in the XCO in Rio this year.
22-year-old Greg Ferguson was a late addition to the Team GB cycling announcement though, and ensures there will be a Team GB presence at the XCO in Rio.
Ferguson won a silver at the U23 European Mountain Bike Cross Country Championships before taking his first ever win at the World Cup in Val di Sole last year, finishing the year with a bronze in the U23 World Champs. He'll likely just be looking to get experience and aiming for medals in the future rather than gunning for the podium here, though.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be exciting; there are an abundance of Olympic mountain biking favourites competing. Who will win the gold medal? It's anyone's guess, but one surprise entry and born-winner will be out to ruffle some feathers either way...
Let’s start our preview there – with World Champion road cyclist Peter Sagan.
Men’s Cross Country Event | Olympic Mountain Biking Favourites the Gold
Peter Sagan, Slovakia
Peter Sagan was the surprise entry for Slovakia in the XCO for Rio, with most people probably suspecting that the World Champion road cyclist would compete in the road race.
However, having not liked the look of the course for the road race, the 26-year old has chosen to take to the Olympic cross country mountain biking course, and will no doubt be gunning for the top spot.
Sagan won the junior mountain bike world championship in 2008 before moving to road racing, so he’s no stranger to the discipline and he’s won at the highest level before. Of course, having won the Tour de France points classification every single year since 2012, he certainly won’t be flustered or lacking in fitness either. It’ll be interesting to see how he gets on.
Julien Absalon, France
Julien Absalon is probably the best cross country mountain bike rider in the history of the sport.
He won the gold medal both at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and would’ve been in the mix for a third consecutive gold had it not been for a mechanical.
The Frenchman may now be 35 years old, but he’s still right at the front of his sport. Just recently, on May 30, he bagged a record-breaking 31st cross-country World Cup win in La Bresse in his home nation.
Still winning world cups, in fine form and with the experience and knowhow to get the job done on the biggest stage of all, there’s every chance that Absalon is going to get that third gold in Rio after all.
Jaroslav Kulhavy, Czech Republic
After winning the World Cup overall and World Championships in 2011, and going on to win the gold medal at the Olympics in 2012, Czech rider Jaroslave Kulhavy went on to prove he’s not lost it with a World Championship win in the mountain bike marathon in 2014.
He’s had some good finishes this year and will be out to build on his 2012 win with another podium-topping win in Rio.
Nino Schurter, Switzerland
The reigning mountain bike cross-country world champion, after beating Julien Absalon into the top spot at the World Champs in Vallnord, Andorra in September 2015, Switzerland’s Nino Schurter will be looking to go one better this summer and complete the ultimate double by winning an Olympic gold.
The 30 year old isn’t wearing the rainbow stripes for the first time either. He also won the World Champs in 2009, 2012 and 2013, and won the overall world cup title in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. He’s not been outside the top two in the World Cup overall since before 2010.
Nino took silver in London and bronze in Beijing. Can he take gold in Rio? There’s no reason why not.
Women’s Cross Country Event | Olympic Mountain Biking Favourites The Gold
Jolanda Neff, Switzerland
Swiss cross-country rider Jolanda Neff will be one of the surefire favourites going into Rio, having stamped her authority on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup for the past few years and won both the 2014 and 2015 overall titles – which go to the most consistent top achiever throughout the series.
At only 23 years old, Jolando is a lot more inexperienced than other riders around her, and the lure and spectacle of being in her first Olympics may have an effect, but she’s shown so far that she clearly has what it takes to hold her nerve on the big stage.
Jolanda has six individual World Cup race wins to her name in the last two seasons and has one win to her name out of three races this season. You’d be a brave man to bet against her.
Annika Langvad, Denmark
32-year-old Danish rider Annika Langvad has been on absolute fire this year, and leads the UCI World Cup rankings at the time of writing.
She followed up her win in Val di Sole in Italy in August with victory in the first two rounds of the UCI World Cup this year, taking the top spot in both Cairns, Australia, and Albstadt, Germany.
If she can win in the humid heats of Oz, there’s no reason why Annika can’t win in Rio too.
Langvad was meant to compete at London 2012 but had to pull out after injuring herself in a race in France beforehand. The three-time MTB marathon World Champion, who took her latest rainbow jersey in 2014, will be keen to get to Rio and get the gold this year.
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja, Norway
Norweigan rider Gunn-Rita Dahle may be 20 years older than her Swiss rival Jolanda Neff at 43 years old, but she’s still got it, currently sitting fourth in the UCI Women’s rankings for 2016.
A quick look at Olympic cross country mountain bike history should tell you all you need to know about Dahle. Having first won the World Championships in 2002 in Kaprun, and having followed that up with rainbow jerseys in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Gunn-Rita Dahle also won the overall World Cup title four years running from 2003-2006, coming second as recently as 2012 and 2014.
On top of that Gunn-Rita took the gold medal in 2004, so she knows what it takes and has all the experience needed. Expect to see her on or around the podium come finals day. A legend of the sport.
Catharine Pendrel, Canada
Canadian rider Catharine Pendrel is another with a fantastic shot at the XC crown. As well as winning the World Champs in Lillehammer in 2014 and in Champery in 2011, Pendrel has a 2010 Commonwealth gold medal to her name and won the overall World Cup title in 2012.
After finishing second in La Bresse earlier this year in the UCI World Cup, and having recorded a fourth place and third place finish respectively in the other two rounds so far, she’s in fine form too.