Nino Schurter the man to beat at Mountain Bike World Championships

Home favourites Schurter and Jolanda Neff defend individual crowns in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

It’s that time of the year when the world's top cyclists start fighting for the rainbow jerseys.

The off-roaders have got proceedings underway in Lenzerheide, Switzerland at the Mountain Bike World Championships which run until 9th September.

The first gold medal was decided on Wednesday with Switzerland defending their team relay title.

And in that five-strong squad were the two individual defending champions in cross-country.

Schurter rides again

The great Nino Schurter claimed his first senior cross-country (XCO) world title in 2009.

The Swiss has won six in total, including the last three in succession, and it is hard to see anyone stopping him making it four in a row.

Last month, the Olympic champion from Rio 2016 clinched the World Cup finale in La Bresse, France to cap another winning campaign, and he is the favourite yet again.

Schurter also won the last time the field visited Lenzerheide, in 2017, when he became the first person to complete a ‘perfect season’ with victories in all six World Cup events and the World Championships.

While he was unable to carry his unbeatable form into 2018, the 32-year-old is still the man to beat.

His main rivals are Italy’s Gerhard Kerschbaumer and fellow Swiss Mathias Flückiger.

Kerschbaumer ended the season strongly, backing up his victory at Vallnord, Andorra, with two second-place finishes.

Flückiger took victory in the penultimate round at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada and also enters the World Championships in good form.

The Netherlands' Mathieu van der Poel and Maxime Marotte of France are also challengers to Schurter's crown.

One man who won't be lining up in Lenzerheide is Sam Gaze.

The New Zealander won this season's World Cup opener after taking the Under-23 world crown for the past two years.

But Gaze broke his wrist in a practice crash at Mont-Sainte-Anne, ending his season prematurely.

Neff leads women's contenders

Another Swiss, Jolanda Neff, clinched her third World Cup title at La Bresse.

While Schurter was collecting his sixth World Championship crown in Cairns, Australia last year, Neff was winning her first.

And the 25-year-old has excelled in 2018, winning her third European title in Glasgow last month.

Neff 's closest challenger this season has been 2016 world champion Annika Langvad.

The Dane won two of the first three World Cup events of 2018, but lost form in the middle of the campaign before returning to the podium for the last two races.

At 45 years of age, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa is bidding for her fifth XCO world title.

The Norwegian is one of the greats of mountain biking, winning Olympic gold at Athens 2004 as well as six marathon mountain bike world titles.

Gunn-Rita Dahle Flejsaa riding in the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow
Gunn-Rita Dahle Flejsaa riding in the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow Gunn-Rita Dahle Flejsaa riding in the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow

In what she says will be her final year of racing, Dahle claimed victory in Vallnord in July for her first World Cup triumph since winning at Lenzerheide three years ago.

Emily Batty was on the podium in the last four World Cup races of the season and the Canadian, still awaiting her first major race win, should be in contention.

France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is another contender with Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 silver medallist Maja Wloszczowska also sure to be competitive.

The XCO elite races take place on Saturday.

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