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During cyclocross season, the Belgian announcers refer to riders who also make a good living on the singletrack as “mountain bike-sters.” Every year when Namur and Valkenburg, among others, roll around, commentators mention names such as Katerina Nash, Eva Lechner, Katie Compton and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot as favorites thanks to their bike handling skills. As if Sanne Cant needs more motivation to win, after winning the World Championships at Valkenburg-Limburg, she mentioned that not being included in the list of riders who excel on technical courses gave her a bit of a “no one believed in me” edge.

With cyclocross season over, the mountain bike-sters now return to their familiar milieu. The cyclocross-riding mountain bike-sters and much of the rest of the professional mountain biking world got an early start on the seven-race UCI Mountain Bike World Cup schedule on Saturday in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The race was held in a water-starved region and was an early season start, but riders were in mid-season racing form and brought a storm of knobby-tire fury and excitement.

Familiar Faces in the Women’s Elite Race

Former mountain bike world champion Annika Langvad (Specialized) has not raced much cyclocross in her career, but with Worlds coming to her native Denmark in 2019, she decided to give ’cross a try this past season. We met Langvad in Iowa City and Waterloo at the beginning of last season, where she was clearly having a blast giving cyclocross a go. She also did quite well on the mountain bike-y course at Jingle Cross, taking sixth in the Friday night race under the lights and seventh in Sunday’s very hot Jingle Cross World Cup.

Joining Langvad in South Africa was Jolanda Neff (Kross Racing Team), whose mere presence at the start line was incredibly impressive. Like Langvad, the defending mountain bike XCO World Champion is a ’cross dabbler who decided to up her cyclocross racing this season. Neff scored top tens at the Namur, Zolder and Nommay World Cups and was in good shape at Hoogerheide before a nasty crash broke her collarbone and elbow and kept her out of Worlds.

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…oh I felt so good yesterday. I had such great fun racing @gpadrievdpoel in Hoogerheide, loved the event. Current situation: left collarbone broken, right ellbow broken, but worst is the broken heart… it hurts so much that I will miss World Champs next weekend… can‘t even find the words… I felt so ready for this. Only good thing is that @paulineferrandprevot didn‘t get injured, I‘m so so glad. Hurting myself is one thing but I could never forgive myself to hurt someone else, so much respect for her and I just wish her to be fine. I‘m having operation on my collarbone now but will probably miss the first round of MTB World Cup in South Africa as well as the Cape Epic… I will be back at the startline at WC Albstadt with my rainbow stripes. Thank you so much for all the warm messages, means so much right now. My cx season is over here…. I will be back stronger next winter!!! Thanks for the photo @anton_vos thanks for the outstanding support @kross_racing_team @swisscyclingteam thanks to everyone who made me feel home in the cx world

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Broken collarbones are the bane of off-road bikers everywhere, and at the end of January, Neff was probably facing a return for the May World Cups at best. Her collarbone and elbow, however, had other plans. Neff returned to race in Spain last weekend just five weeks after the crash and then made the start on Saturday in Stellenbosch.

Out on the course, the Women’s Elite race started with two familiar faces—and two former mountain bike world champions—in Langvad and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (SRAM – Canyon) off the front. The two battled well into the race before Langvad got a small lead in the penultimate lap and kept it there to take the win. Ferrand-Prevot finished second and Neff took an impressive sixth in her quick comeback race.

Other ’cross-familiar finishes include Catharine Pendrel in 7th, Elisabeth Brandau in 13th, Eva Lechner in 17th. See below for a link to the full video replay.

Full results: uci.ch

The Van der Poel Show

Although Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon – Circus) has made his name in cyclocross, there is no question he deserves the label of “mountain bike-ster” as well, at least based on his impressive bike handling skills. Last year, Van der Poel also had some results to justify the moniker, with three World Cup top tens, including a second at the Albstadt, Germany World Cup.

After re-signing with Corendon-Circus through 2020, Van der Poel indicated his summer plans are going to include a run at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Part of the plan is a full mountain bike schedule the next two summers that includes Saturday’s race in Stellenbosch.

In the first race last year, Van der Poel rode from the 90th start position to an 8th place finish. This year, he received the 47th call-up, so according to math, he seemed destined for a 4th or 5th place finish. It’s science, right?

Early on, Van der Poel tried to one-up the math gods. In just the first lap, he rode from 47th to the lead group of 6. Van der Poel did not get a redux of his Albstadt battle with all-everything Nino Schurter, but he did take home a fourth-place finish. Van der Poel will have a first-row call-up at the next race in Albstadt in May, and we all know what happened last time he had a front-row call-up in Albstadt.

The race at the front was a thriller. Defending World Champion Nino Schurter (Scott – SRAM) has been the Mathieu van der Poel of the World Cups, winning every single race in 2017. The Van der Poel comparison is not perfect, however, because Schurter also won the 2017 World Championships to cap his impressive season.

Schurter quickly broke from the six-man group and Samuel Gaze (Specialized) of New Zealand joined him. Gaze is a young rider, so merely being at the front with Schurter was a win for him. He decided to go one further and kept with the world-beating Schurter well into the last lap.

What unfolded was a thrilling finish. Gaze held the lead position over the flyover right before the finish (hi cyclocross feature!) and was the first into the finishing straight. Schurter’s cleat came unclipped during the sprint, but it probably did not affect the result since Gaze played the finish perfectly. The video highlights below show the exciting finish.

Full Elite Men’s results: uci.ch

Evie Richards Rolls to Third

Although only 20 years old, Evie Richards (Trek Factory Racing) has already established herself as a name to watch on any cyclocross course that favors the mountain bike-sters. This season, Richards delivered on the hype, taking a head-turning win at the Namur World Cup and then winning the U23 World Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg.

Last season, Richards was also a star on the mountain bike. She won the U23 race at Albstadt and finished on the podium in five of the six U23 World Cups. On Saturday, her podium run continued with a third-place finish in Stellenbosch. The front of the race featured a bit of a shake-up, with Malene Degn of Denmark knocking off defending U23 World Champion Sina Frei of Switzerland.

Full results: uci.ch

Next Up and Replays

The next UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is on Sunday, May 20 in Albstadt, Germany.

Full replays of the XCO races are available from redbull.tv: