It’s been eight years since South Africa won an Elite Men’s XCO World Championship medal, but two strong rides at Nove Mesto last week have put South Africa’s Alan Hatherly in with a podium shot at the 2020 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Leogang Austria on Saturday.

By Sean Badenhorst

On Wednesday, Hatherly decided to skip defending his title at the eBike World Championship race as he wasn’t feeling tops (stomach bug). It was a good call since the conditions were atrocious and he likely would have felt under pressure to be up front, draining him physically and emotionally.

Alan Hatherly is South Africa’s only hope for a medal in the Elite Men’s XCO World Champs race on Saturday. | Photo: Specialized

Let’s hope he’s feeling 100% by Saturday when he will tackle a strong field on a steep course with limited overtaking opportunities. In XCO racing, being the only rider from your country isn’t necessarily a disadvantage as it’s more a time trail than a bunch race. But start position is critical if you want to have a reasonable pitch at a podium finish.

Start lists weren’t up at the time of writing, but Hatherly is likely to start in either the first or second row, which is already a small battle won. Switzerland and France are the two most powerful nations in XCO racing currently and they’ve included some of the sport’s biggest hitters for Saturday’s global showdown.

Eight-time world champion, Nino Schurter, leads the Swiss squad, which includes Lukas and Mathias Flueckiger, Fillipo Colombo, Lars Vorster and Thomas Litscher. The French team is led by Maxime Marrot, who is ably backed up by Victor Koretzky, Stephane Tempier, Jordan Sarrou and Thomas Griot.

Alan Hatherly was impressive at the two World Cup rounds at Nove Mesto last week. | Photo: Specialized

The other key medal contenders are likely to be Brazil’s Henrique Avancini, Denmark’s Simon Andreassen, New Zealand’s Anton Cooper, Netherlands’s Milan Vader, Italy’s Gerhard Kerschbaumer, Germany’s Maximilian Brandl and Czech Republic’s Ondrej Cink.

Schurter’s appetite for a victory is no doubt greater than ever after having been uncharacteristically beaten into fourth and third at last week’s World Cup races in the Czech Republic. This hunger to win at least one major title in a Covid-crunched 2020, combined with his experience, make him the favourite. Not the outright favourite as in previous years, but the favourite nonetheless.

Avancini and Andreassen’s maiden World Cup wins in Nove Mesto will have given them greater confidence, so expect them to be bold with their tactics from the outset. Both are well-rounded riders and have super form and could create a twin threat to Schurter who normally handles pressure extremely well, but showed some cracks last week.

The biggest revelation this past week though has been Vader. Third and second in Nove Mesto, the young Dutch rider in his second Elite year is bristling with talent and class. He apparently only started riding full-suspension bikes last year, so has the skillset that comes with being highly discerning when it comes to line choice.

And considering the race on Saturday afternoon is likely to be held in at least partly muddy conditions and there’s plenty of roots, line-choice is likely to be a significant factor in avoiding unnecessary stalls and falls on the sharp gradients.

For Hatherly, who started out his mountain biking life as a downhiller, good skills are already ingrained. The long climbs will be his biggest challenge. Staying in touch with the leaders on the ascents, some of which are rooty, and then being able to recover before the next climb will be essential for the 24-year-old.

Schurter is sure to try and assert his dominance before the final lap in his quest to defend his world title. If he can’t and the front of the race becomes crowded like it did at Round 2 in Nove Mesto, then it’s going to be a thrilling finish. But based on the steepness of the course and the greasy conditions, it’s likely to be the best climber on the day that will grab the gold.

For the record, Burry Stander was the last South African to win an Elite Men’s XCO World Champs medal – bronze in 2010. The last time the World Championships were held in Leogang was in 2012. It was Burry Stander’s final world championships and he finished 8th. Schurter won the gold.

The race will be televised live on SuperSport from 14h45 on Saturday, 10 October 2020.