There’s been much discussion about the men’s XCO race at the Tokyo Olympics. And the postponement of the event due to the Covid-19 pandemic has created even more time for discussion. But the time for speculation is over as 2016 champion, Nino Schurter, attempts to defend his title against stronger competition than he could have ever imagined.

By Sean Badenhorst

The last time Nino Schurter won a major XCO race was on the 18th of October 2020. It was the European Championships and it must have given the Swiss ace some comfort after a year that was marked by the fact that there was so little racing due to the impact of lockdowns and restrictions. He beat Titouan Caroud (FRA) and Matthias Flueckiger (SUI) for the title.

Nino Schurter on his way to winning the Tokyo Test event in October 2019. | Photo: Tokyo Test Event

The last time Schurter won a race against a global field was the Tokyo Test event on 6 October 2019. That day he beat Victor Koretsky (FRA) and Luca Braidot (ITA) into second and third respectively. Generally, Olympic test events don’t carry the weight, or pressure, of a World Cup. But they do offer the racers a chance to become familiar with the course that they’ll be racing on the following year.

Schurter’s bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008 marked the beginning of his rise into Cross-country stardom. The Swiss star was the outright favourite at the Rio Olympics and he lived up to that status with a dominant win over Jaroslav Kulhavy, the man that narrowly and dramatically outsprinted him to win gold at the London Games four years earlier.

Mathieu van der Poel is the bookies’ favourite for the gold medal. | Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Julien Absalon fans may argue, but Schurter is the greatest male XCO racer ever. His palmares is ridiculously impressive, including eight World Champs titles, Seven World Cup Series titles and 30 World Cup race wins.

But it seems like Covid-19 may have robbed Schurter of a perfect Olympic bookend to his XCO career. He ended 2019 with his eighth World Champs title and Seventh World Cup Series win. He was the favourite (along with Lars Forster) to win the 2020 Absa Cape Epic which was cancelled 36 hours before the start due to Covid-19. And since then, he hasn’t won a major international race.

Tom Pidcock comes to Tokyo with a rather sporadic build-up. | Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

The 35-year-old Schurter goes into the Tokyo Games low on confidence with an outside shot at a medal. Not only has he been hit hard by a wave of younger racers rising through the ranks, such as Ondrei Cink (CZE), Jordan Sorrou (FRA) and Koretzky (FRA) but he’s also had to contend with a career purple patch being experienced by his compatriot, Mathias Flueckiger, the current World Cup Series leader and World No. 1.

And then there’s the twin assault of the multi-disciplined maestros, Mathieu van der Poel (NED) and Tom Pidcock (GBR); and the steady rise of southern hemisphere racers, Henrique Avancini (BRA), Alan Hatherly (RSA) and Anton Cooper (NZL).

Mathias Flueckiger arrives in Tokyo as the World No.1 and leader of the 2021 World Cup Series. | Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Van der Poel is, not surprisingly, the bookies’ favourite. The Dutchman comes off a stage win and five days in the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France, possibly the most unusual preparation ever for one of the most important XCO races there is! But his XCO racing ability is in no doubt and the short, punchy climbs suit his ability to unleash immense bursts of power.

In contrast, Pidcock, the 2020 Under-23 XCO World Champion, hasn’t completed a road race since 20 April and an XCO race since 16 May. He’s also recovered from a recent broken collarbone. Pidcock excels on long climbs so the course doesn’t suit him perfectly. Regardless, he’s a seriously fast bike racer and cannot be discounted despite a relatively sporadic XCO racing career so far.

Ondrei Cink is enjoying his most consistent form yet, making him a medal contender. | Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Two double World Cup wins (XCC and XCO) in succession confirm Flueckiger is in sublime form. The 32-year-old Swiss was sixth at the Rio Games and is undoubtedly at the peak of his career. He’s shone on courses with long climbs and short climbs so has the versatility required for the Tokyo race. His confidence will be sky high and he will be hungry for Olympic gold.

Cink and Koretzky have to be considered among the medal favourites. Cink has two recent World Cup runner-up results and is second in the current World Cup Series standings, so his form is good. He does seem to relish longer climbs though, which may count against him in Tokyo. Koretzky outsprinted Shurter to win the first World Cup of 2021. Payback for having been outsprinted by Schurter for the win at the Tokyo Test event in late 2019. He was only fifth at the recent French XCO championships, but he is one of the most skilled XCO racers there is and that will count in his favour on a super technical course.

Victor Koretzky’s superb skills will count in his favour on the Tokyo course. | Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Of the southern hemisphere crew, Hatherly has been the most impressive of late, achieving his best World Cup result (fourth) at the last round in Les Get three weeks ago. Combine that form and confidence with his high level of skill and that he can race well in the heat and you have a very strong chance of a medal result from the South African.

Although he hasn’t shone recently (he crashed hard early on at Les Gets and ended 16th), Cooper is ranked sixth on the World Cup standings due to very consistent results, including third at Leogang. He relishes racing in the dry and will definitely be in the mix for a top five finish, if not a medal.

Avancini’s form is unknown. After finishing 2020 as the World’s No.1 ranked racer, the Brazilian struggled at the early World Cup rounds of 2021 and decided to remain at home to prepare for Tokyo. He’s been in Tokyo for two weeks already so will be used to the heat come race day. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as an XCO racer, but not consistency. His biggest challenge seems to be his own self confidence. We’re either going to see him challenge for gold or flounder for a top 10 result in Tokyo.

South Africa’s Alan Hatherly is a definite medal contender. | Photo: Cannondale Factory Racing

While much of the above is based on rider performances at this year’s four World Cup races, it’s worth noting that there are some key factors to consider in Monday’s men’s race in Tokyo.

With only 38 riders in the field (there are over 150 at European World Cups), there will be more space to race and choose lines in Tokyo. Gaps between riders are bigger at an Olympic XCO race, which makes the racing a bit dull to watch at times. A rider that quickly creates a gap and moves out of sight of his rivals can benefit significantly.

The current long-range forecast is for some rain on Monday in Tokyo with the max temperature of 27 deg Celsius. But it may also be really hot (over 30 deg C). Not all riders can race well in the heat and this is where riders that come from hotter climates might have an edge. With the race only lasting around 90 minutes, this isn’t likely to affect too many, but it could affect some riders, which will influence the results.

The course in Tokyo is very technical. It’s designed by South African trailbuilder, Nick Floros, who also designed the Rio Games course. Instead of rock gardens, it has boulder gardens! Two of them. Add to this lots of tight, twisty sections, short, sharp climbs and drops and you have the key factor that is likely to make the biggest impact on this race. Yes, most of the world’s top XCO racers are skilled, but on a course like this, which is different from any of the World Cup courses we’ve seen raced this year, there’s a much higher chance of crashing or making a mistake. Expect the more skilled and more experienced racers to deal with this better than the others.

Who is the most experienced rider in this race? Schurter. Superbly skilled, relishes hot conditions, won the Tokyo Test event, is the defending Olympic champion, hungry for a race win in 2021, has been focussed on peaking for The Olympics. He may not be a favourite going into this race, but write Nino Schurter off as a gold medal contender at your peril…

The men’s race will be shown live on SuperSport TV in South Africa on Monday 26 July at 07h55.