Kulhavy and Spitz with Cape-Epic-Form?
Defending Champions Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa and Fabian Giger, as well as the Olympic Champions, Jaroslav Kulhavy and Sabine Spitz, will start the 21st Afxentia stage race in Lefkara, Cyprus, this week. With the 14.6 kilometre opening time trial from Lefkara to Skarinou, the athletes from 25 nations will begin the early season test, which ends on Sunday with the cross-country race in Mantra tou Kampiou.
Fabian Giger (Kross Racing) has already won the HC-class Afxentia three times (2013, 2014 and 2016), and is therefore somewhat the unofficial Champion of the traditional event. And he is one of the favorites this year.
The 2017 Stage One time trial starts for the first time in Lefkara and ends in Skarinou, more than 500 meters lower. Giger is known as a climber, not a descender, but he does not appear too worried about the new Stage One course: "I'm really looking forward to the stage. The decisive time differences are always only made during the final cross-country race on Sunday," he says.
It was turbulent after the Olympics, says Kulhavy
Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing) is the big opponent. Firstly, because the Olympic Silver Medal winner from Rio and Olympic Champion from London is always a victory candidate, and secondly because he is preparing for the Cape Epic in South Africa and thus is already in need of good form.
Kulhavy could equal Giger in terms of Afxentia wins; he has been successful in 2010 and 2012.
"I think I have a chance. But as every year before the first race, I'm still unsure," says the Czech. "It was again very turbulent after the Olympics and I took a longer break. But according to my last test, I am in equally good shape as last year. The most important thing for me now is intensive training, to adapt the competition speed and to perfect the setup on the bike. Cyprus and the Sunshine Cup are ideal for this with their beautiful weather and the incredible trails at the events.“
A serious opponent for Giger and Kulhavy is surely also Jordan Sarrou (BH-Sr Suntour-KMC). The Frenchman, like Giger, is a man for the ascents. In 2016 the young rider took his first World Cup podium with a fifth place in Mont Sainte Anne and with a good result in Cyprus he would set himself up for more World Cup success in 2017.
Thomas Litscher (jb Brunex-Felt) is also one of the candidates for a podium place. The Swissman is hopeful that the form that saw him take fourth place in the Nove Mesto World Cup in 2013 is on its way back after health problems have caused a frustrating couple of seasons. The 2011 U23 World Champion knows Cyprus well and will look to use the Sunshine Cup to kick start his 2017 season in a positive way.
Grant Ferguson (CST Sandd American Eagle) from Great Britain is equally serious as a podium contender, as he has shown in previous years. Bartlomej Wawak (Kross Racing), who was fifth in 2016, and Karl Markt (Möbel Märki), who won the overall in 2011, are also in with a chance.
Women's race with three Olympic Champions
Last year, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flejaa (Gunn-Rita Merida) won the Afxentia stage race for the first time with an impressive performance on the final day cross-country race. Surely the most successful mountain biker of all time will once again be a favourite, but in Sabine Spitz (WIAWIS) she will have a long-standing rival on the startline. With the Cape Epic not far away, the Sunshine Cup will be an important test for Spitz and she will undoubtedly wish to perform well.
"I'm expecting a good competition. I reckon it's going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to racing again“, says Spitz.
In the four days, Sabine Spitz will test a prototype of her new bike partner WIAWIS for the first time. "It is important for me to ride the bike before the Cape Epic. You can not simulate such things in practice.“
An unknown but extremely exciting challenge for mountain bike glory comes from the Rio Olympic Road Race Champion, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans). She has a great role model in compatriot Marianne Vos, who was able to win the race in 2013, also the year after she won Olympic gold on the road. However, whether van der Breggen can handle the tough, technical terrain of Cyprus is yet to be seen.
She is, in any case, more than just a token rider in the high-class ladies' field.
Another hot iron in the fire is Yana Belomoina (CST Sandd American Eagle). The Bronze Medallist from the 2015 World Championships could even take victory if her early season form is high.
Elisabeth Osl (Aut), Alexandra Engen (Swe) and Anne Terpstra (Ned) from the Ghost Factory Team are also in with a shout of stage and overall podium positions.
The 2017 Cyprus Sunshine Cup is all set to be a scintillating race.
See how it unfolds across our social media channels, with daily updates and reports.
Let the racing commence!
The four stages of Afxentia
Feb 23 Lefkara-Skarinou
Time Trial 14,6 km/ 725m Downhill, 135m Uphill
Start: Elite at 13h CET, (local time: plus 1)
Feb 24 Lefkara-Lefkara
Point to Point 52,2 Kilometer /2154 ascent
Start Men at 10h, Women at 10:00:30 CET
Feb 25 Lythrodontas-Lythrodontas
Point to Point 66,2 km/1993 ascent
Start Men at 10h, Women at 10:00:30 CET
Feb 26 Mantra Tou Kampiou, Machairas
Cross-Country 5,9km/217 ascent per lap Runde
Start Women at 10h, Men at 12h CET