Julien Absalon at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt, Germany on May 31st 2015. (Image: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool)

World Cup racing moves back to Europe this weekend after an early start in South Africa and conditions in Germany couldn’t be further from the early rounds dry and dust. Thick mud and a forecast calling for more rain has been greeting riders as they arrive at the classic Albstadt course this week, and it doesn’t look like it will change before Sunday’s main event.

If there’s one rider that stands to benefit most from the sloppy conditions, it has to be Dutch cyclocross star-turned-mountain biker Mathieu van der Poel, who continues his hunt for a first XCO World Cup podium. Several of the top Women of XCO have found success in cyclocross, but former cyclocross world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot could eek out an advantage should the conditions stay muddy.

Albstadt will also see the debut of the new XCC format at the World Cup, which runs Friday night using the same start as the main race, but a shortened course and duration. The UCI is hoping XCC will add an injection of pace and excitement to the cross country format, and has created the added incentive for riders to take the new format seriously by offering the front two rows in Sunday’s start grid to the top 16 finishers in Friday’s XCC. With the importance of start position in Sunday’s XCO, all the world’s will have to be ready to go Friday night.

Stellenbosch World Cup Catharine Penrel Jolanda Neff

Catharine Pendrel leads Jolanda Neff in Stellenbosch South Africa. Image: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Canadian’s to watch at the Albstadt World Cup

Canada will be represented, as always, by a strong field of riders in the Men’s and Women’s Elite, as well young talents in the U23 field. Catharine Pendrel (Clif Pro) and Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing) continue to lead the charge, with Pendrel coming off a 7th place in South Africa, while Norco Factory Racing’s Haley Smith will carry confidence into the weekend from her Commonwealth Games Gold medal earned on Australia’s Gold Coast in April. All three will race Friday’s XCC, while Sandra Walter (Liv Cycling) and Catherine Fleury (Team Canada) join them on the start line Sunday for the XCO.

RELATED: Haley Smith brings home Bronze from Commonwealth Games

On the Men’s side, the Canadian’s roll into Albstadt off a solid Spring of racing. Leandre Bouchard (KMC-Ekoi-SR Suntour) represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games, where he placed 6th, while Norco Factory Racing’s Peter Disera, the reigning Canadian national cross country champion was third at the Fontana City Pro XCT race in California. Raphael Gagne will be carrying a solid block of training, having raced the ABSA Cape Epic with his new Silverback OMX Pro Team. Forward Racing’s Andrew L’Esperance will be looking to carry the momentum from a string of results, from winning the Bear Mountain Canada Cup to second in Fontana City and third at Bonelli Park Pro XCT, with him overseas this weekend.

RELATED: Cycling Canada announces team for Albstadt, Nove Mesto World Cups

Sam Gaze Stellenbosch World Cup

Albstadt World Cup Elite Men’s race preview

World Cup season started early, and on the other side of the world, so it’s understandable if you missed the first round of racing in Stellenbosch, South Africa way back in March. If you didn’t tune in, though, you missed out. Both men’s and women’s races were absolute barn burners. After years of talk about the “next generation” of men’s XC racers, Schurter’s historic undefeated streak of World Cup victories finally came to an end in a wild finish line sprint with young New Zealander Sam Gaze. It may not have been the young talent viewers were expecting to topple Schurter, though Mathieu van der Poel wasn’t far off the pace in fourth, but Gaze himself rode with a confidence that made it clear that he believes this is his his year, and his time to shine. A visibly frustrated Schurter was left claiming he’d been undone by a slipped pedal in the sprint, but from the outside it looked like Gaze had the Swiss star beat.

RELATED: The streak is over: Sam Gaze defeats Schurter at showdown in South Africa

Whether you believe Schurter, or believe in Gaze, it was the first time since the legendary rivalry between Julien Absalon and Schurter that the Scott-SRAM racer had been pushed all the way to the finish line. Even Schurter, ever the professional, acknowledged in post-race interviews how impressive the young Kiwi’s ride had been.

Stellenbosch delivered riveting racing action, but what happens next is just as interesting. After struggling to unseat the unshakeable Schurter all last season, the Men’s field will surely smell blood in the water. The mental aspect of elite athletics can be the decisive factor in a race, and just knowing that Schurter can be beaten could be the motivation the rest of Gaze’s generation needs to swarm the Swiss XC institution at the front of the race.

Mathieu van der Poel Stellenbosch World Cup

Schurter, though, has proven so hard to beat for so long precisely because he has been so impressive in responding when he’s placed under pressure. When Mathieu van der Poel crossed over to cross country last season, it was at Albstadt and the Dutch cyclocross star rolled right up to Schurter’s wheel. Schurter not only won that race, after a crash took MvdP off the pace, but came back stronger the next round and went on to have a perfect, undefeated season.

Van der Poel remains on the cusp of a break through World Cup performance, having placed tantalizingly close to the podium with his fourth place finish in South Africa. If the muddy course, which should feel natural to the cyclocross star, doesn’t help him, the new XCC format should benefit the young Dutch rider who has had to fight back from poor positions on the start grid up to this point.

Between MvdP and Schurter in South Africa was Maxime Marotte, one of several rising French talents. Along with Jordan Sarrou and Stephen Tempier, the next generation of French riders has been edging closer and closer to a World Cup win for a couple seasons now. With Julien Absalon’s retirement from the circuit, it will be up to them to bring a win back to France.

Stellenbosch World Cup Pauline Ferrand-Prevot Jolanda Neff

Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Albstadt World Cup Elite Women’s race preview

On the Women’s side it is another French rider, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot who is looking to fly the French flag from the top of a World Cup podium. After going through a very public struggle to regain her form from 2015, the year she held a remarkable four different UCI world champion titles at once. Ferrand-Prévot was second in Stellenbosch after a last-lap mechanical saw her lose contact with Denmark’s Annika Langvad, herself a multiple time world champion.

RELATED: Langvad wins thrilling World Cup round, Pendrel seventh

We will never know how the South African race could have played out if Ferrand-Prévot had a clean ride but, if Langvad’s performance since is any indication the result may not have been any different. The Dane stayed on in South Africa to win the grueling ABSA Cape Epic mountain bike stage race with her teammate Kate Courtney, one of America’s most promising XC racers, then stopped by Sea Otter to win the XC race while visiting Specialized HQ nearby, won the Whisky 50 Off-Road and defended her Danish XCM title back at home before heading to Albstadt.

In Germany, Langvad and Ferrand-Prévot won’t have the front of the race to themselves. World champion Jolanda Neff struggled in South Africa, still feeling the effects of a heavy crash at Hoogerheide Cyclocross World Cup, and still managed to finish sixth. The Swiss rider has had mixed results since, but always manages to pull out big results when it matters. Neff’s Kross Racing teammate Maja Włoszczowska finished fifth, while Canadian Olympic medalist Catharine Pendrel finished just behind in seventh after fighting for a podium position through much of the race.

Last years World Cup winner, Yana Belomoina (CST-American Eagle) returns to the World Cup circuit, having missed out on the first round due to an injury in training.

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