Ones to watch during the 2019 MTB Cross-Country World Cup season

Olympic mountain bike champion Nino Schurter is going for a record seventh overall title, with fellow Swiss rider Jolanda Neff chasing her fourth women's UCI crown.

Albstadt, Germany hosts the first leg of the Mountain Bike (MTB) UCI Cross-Country World Cup on 17 May, with the men's and women's Elite races taking place two days later.

Switzerland's Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff defend their series titles, but they face formidable respective challenges from cycling's new superstar Mathieu van der Poel and reigning women's world champion Kate Courtney.

The highlight of the season is the World Championships in Mont Sainte-Anne, Canada, at the end of August. The Tokyo 2020 test event in Izu on 6 October is also at the forefront of riders' minds.

Here's your Olympic Channel guide to the ones to watch over the four-month campaign.

Chasing Absalon

With six overall World Cup titles to his name, Rio 2016 gold medallist Nino Schurter is without doubt the man to beat in cross-country Olympic (XCO).

The 33-year-old Swiss has dominated for the last two years and collected his fourth consecutive individual title at the World Championships, his seventh in all, on home soil in Lenzerheide last September.

He also has two rainbow jerseys from team events (2017 and 2018) making him the most successful mountain bike rider in history.

This season, Schurter can clinch his third straight World Cup title and match double Olympic champion Julien Absalon's record tally of seven.

And 2019 has started well with Schurter cruising to his second Cape-Epic overall win in South Africa in March with his team-mate, 2018 European champion Lars Forster.

The SCOTT-SRAM rider also claimed the recent Swiss Bike Cup in front of fellow countryman and national champion, Mathias Flueckiger.

Multi-talented MVDP the danger

Having stunned the world on the road in the Spring Classics, Mathieu van der Poel looks to be the biggest threat to Schurter's record bid.

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Good feeling and a 2nd place in the worldcup overall 🤟🏻

A post shared by MVDP (@mathieuvanderpoel) on

The Dutchman, known as MVDP, is the best cyclo-cross rider on the planet but split his time last year between that discipline and MTB which he aims to contest at Tokyo 2020.

He managed three podium finishes, plus a short-track XCC victory in Italy, to take second overall behind Schurter before taking bronze at the Worlds.

On returning to cyclo-cross, van der Poel competed in the last six World Cup events out of nine and won them all.

But he's attracted headlines across the globe thanks to his exploits on the road in recent months.

MVDP signed off in perfect fashion, producing a quite incredible finish in the Amstel Gold Race to emulate his father Adri, who won the race in 1990.

The 24-year-old Dutchman now switches to fat tyres to do battle with Schurter again.

This is far from a two-horse race though with Italy's world silver medallist, Gerhard Kerschbaumer, one of the few men to beat Schurter in XCO last year.

France's Maxime Marotte, who has been third in the World Cup for the last three seasons, will also challenge for the podium spots along with Mathias Flueckiger.

Sam Gaze, U23 world champion in 2017 and winner of the 2018 season-opener in Stellenbosch, South Africa, had been expected to challenge this year.

The New Zealander missed last year's World Championships after breaking his wrist in a practice at Mont Sainte-Anne.

But he suffered a concussion in a crash which forced him out of the Cape-Epic, and earlier this month decided to take an indefinite break from World Cup competition.

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Onwards and upwards 👍🏼

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Queen Jolanda

Jolanda Neff has been the star of women's MTB for the last few years.

The 26-year-old Swiss is a three-time overall World Cup champion, winning World Championship gold in 2017, and European honours in 2018.

Like van der Poel, she has been successful in other disciplines, from road and cyclo-cross, to marathon and her latest challenge, downhill mountain-biking.

"My main focus is mountain bike and will always remain my main focus... I like steep climbs, I like steep downhills, so that's really what I love," she recently admitted in an interview with the UCI.

Having finished fourth in last year's Lenzerheide World Championships, Neff is determined to regain her crown.

"I want to win the rainbow jersey many more times, I want to be the best. I know that I can win again and I want to win again", Neff added.

"I love the adrenaline, I love to go for it, I love winning" - Jolanda Neff on her Cyclingnews blog

Courtney aims to build on breakthrough success

Kate Courtney was a surprise victor in Lenzerheide, becoming the first American to win a world MTB title since Alison Dunlap in 2001.

"Wearing the rainbow jersey is an incredible honour and I’m very excited to start the season wearing those colours. For me it’s a reminder that when all things line up and preparation is good – and of course having a little luck on the day as well – anything is possible. " - Kate Courtney

The 23-year-old from Marin County, California, finished her first season as an elite racer in eighth place in the World Cup, and clinched the US national title.

This year, the Stanford human biology graduate has joined Schurter's SCOTT-SRAM team and will be supervised by Switzerland's former world champion and Atlanta 1996 silver medallist Thomas Frischknecht.

After claiming the Pan-American crown in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Courtney showed she is a force to be reckoned with this season with victory over Neff in the Swiss Bike Cup in Solothurn earlier this week.

But Courtney's priority is securing a spot in Tokyo next year.

"I've certainly been focused on Tokyo as a goal for the past few years, but now of course it's becoming more real and more important to deliver any time that I race - Courtney told the Olympic Channel - I'm feeling ready for the challenge."

The return of the Olympic champion

Jenny Rissveds won Sweden's first cycling gold for 40 years at Rio 2016.

The former U23 world champion has struggled with her mental health since, suffering from depression and a severe eating disorder which kept her largely off the bike.

Last year, she broke off her contract with SCOTT-SRAM to focus on recovery.

The 24-year-old has returned to action in 2019, taking victory in the first round of the Swedish Cross-country Cup in Klippingracet last month by more than six minutes.

And she has launched her own team, 'Team 31', which she hopes will promote the rights of children.

The cycling world is waiting to see if she makes her first World Cup appearance since August 2017 in Albstadt this weekend.

Dangerous rivals

In 2018, 35-year-old Annika Langvad finished second in both the World Cup standings and the World Championships.

She has started this season strongly by taking overall titles at the Sunshine Cup in Cyprus, and the Cape-Epic alongside Rio 2016 road race champion Anna van der Breggen.

The Danish champion was also victorious in the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, and recorded an impressive second place at Strade Bianche on the road.

Just four years ago, French cyclist Pauline Ferrand Prevot was the reigning road, cyclo-cross and MTB world champion.

But in November 2015, PFP suffered a leg fracture which took longer than expected to heal.

The 27-year-old from Reims, France, returned to form at last year's European Championships in Glasgow taking silver behind Neff.

In February, she underwent surgery to correct a blood flow pressure issue in her leg and after just over three months she will compete in Albstadt.

She told Cycling News, "I'm taking it slowly at the moment, and making sure I'm listening to my body.

"I'm not worried if I need a day off, or I need to adjust the program. I feel confident to make changes. It's something that I've finally learned."

Poland's two-time Olympic silver medallist Maja Wloszczowska is another title contender as she bids to go one better than her second overall in 2017.

Another likely challenger is Canada's Emily Batty who was third in last year's World Cup and bronze medallist at the World Championships.

View on Tokyo 2020

The top World Cup riders will test the Tokyo 2020 venue at the Olympic test event on 6 October 2019 in Izu, 120km south of the capital.

The current course, which will likely be the base for the Olympic one, is 2.5km long with an elevation of 85 metres and was last used in a major race for the 2013 and 2014 Japanese national championships.

The Izu Mountain Bike Course in Shizuoka prefecture
The Izu Mountain Bike Course in Shizuoka prefectureThe Izu Mountain Bike Course in Shizuoka prefecture

The 2019 season schedule

UCI MTB World Cup (Cross-Country Olympic):

17-19 May Albstadt, Germany

24-26 May Nove Mesto, Czech Republic

5-7 July Vallnord - Pal Arinsal, Andorra

12-14 July Les Gets, France

2-4 August Val di Sole, Italy

9-11 August Lenzerheide, Switzerland

6-8 September SnowShoe, USA

UCI MET World Championships:

28 August-1 September Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada

Tokyo 2020 Test event:

6 October Izu MTB Course, Japan

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