The UCI Mountain Bike World Championships are upon us. The racing world’s attention has turned to Val di Sole, Italy, for one of the biggest races of the year. Last year, the World Championships were held in October, so it’s been just 10 months since the outgoing World Champions were awarded their rainbow jerseys. It was a mud-fest for that race in Leogang, Austria, and there’s the chance of rain for this week too.
No matter the weather, the top cross-country and gravity racers from around the globe will be ready to compete in various events, including an e-MTB race. However, the marquee events of course are the XCO race and the downhill race.
Defending World Champions will battle it out with recently crowned Olympic medalists, and you can never count out fast up and coming riders. It's the time to lay it all on the line in pursuit of the rainbow stripe. Here are 10 riders to watch this weekend out on course.
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Where else to start but with the recently crowned Olympic Champion. Jolanda Neff has had some setbacks in recent years, but she completely proved herself when she rode away from the competition during the Olympic mountain bike race in Tokyo.
Her new gold medal will certainly give the Swisswoman confidence heading into the week's racing in Italy, and Trek has just made a custom golden paint job for her bike. But Neff is no stranger to performing at Worlds, as she is the 2017 XCO World Champion and has multiple titles in the U23 ranks, too.
The women's XCO race is shaping up to be a battle between the aforementioned Neff and the defending World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. Ferrand-Prévot has unfinished business, as she slipped out and crashed during the Olympic race, which opened a time gap that she could never recover.
The last time there was an XCO race in Val di Sole in 2019, the finale actually came down to a sprint between Ferrand-Prévot and Neff. Ferrand-Prévot was victorious after launching a long-range sprint, but it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.
Haley Batten was an unknown name at the start of this season. Standout performances in Albstadt and Nove Mesto put her on the map, so to speak, and earned her a spot in the Tokyo MTB race.
She finished ninth in the Olympics, which was the best American MTB finish for both women and men. The young rider will continue her standout season hoping for a solid result in Italy.
The men's silver medalist in Tokyo has never missed the podium this World Cup season, riding to two first-place and two third-place finishes. Mathias Flückiger is also a rider to watch in the short track cross-country race, as he has won two of those this year, too.
The defending men's XCO World Champion is Jordan Sarrou of France. He finished ninth at the Olympics, and his best World Cup result this season was a third-place so he's not far off the pace.
On Wednesday, Sarrou actually helped France take the win in the Team Relay event, so he already has a title to speak for this week. Last year, he won in muddy conditions, so if it rains and the course gets slick, he could be a good pick.
The winner of the most recent downhill World Cup in Maribor, Myriam Nicole will come into Val di Sole with plenty of confidence and momentum. The Frenchwomen won the rainbow stripes in 2019, so she knows how to put together a race-winning run. In addition, she has won multiple World Cup races. Nicole is evidence of an incredibly strong French MTB team, across both cross-country and downhill.
Camille Balanche isn't French, but her hometown sits on the French-Swiss border. She is the defending World Champion and should be flying on track this week.
After winning last year's title on a tricky and muddy track in Leogang, Balanche has proved herself with consistent World Cup results this season. She took the win at the Leogang World Cup and also has claimed two third-place finishes.
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Wilson is the men's defending downhill champion. Last year, the Scottish rider wowed the world with his awesome performance in Leogang. And this year, he has been looking fast at the few downhill World Cups that we have had.
Evidence of his speed came at the Les Gets World Cup, a race that was plagued by rain and muddy conditions. But Wilson feels at home in those conditions, putting down a blistering run. It came apart at the bottom though when he had a massive over the bars crash that he was luckily able to ride away from. If he stays on his bike, he should put in a fast run in Italy.
Young French downhiller Thibaut Daprela has brought pure speed to the downhill track this year. He impressed with a second-place in Leogang before winning outright in Les Gets.
But just as impressive as his speed is his resilience. His race in Les Gets was in doubt because of a massive crash at a regional race in France, which included having to get his tongue stitched back together, but that didn't slow him down a bit.
Greg Minnaar makes the Riders to Watch list for any race he enters and for good reason. He is the most winning men's downhill rider and can still mix it up with the young guns.
In addition to a whole bag of World Cup wins, he has won the World Champion rainbow stripes three times, most recently in 2013. In addition to that, he has gotten second or third at Worlds eight times. The South African's experience means that he'll be flying in Val di Sole.