Cooper has mountain to climb to win MTB world champs

Olympian Anton Cooper faces a second major challenge in a month when he lines up for the cross-country race at the Mountain Bike World Championships in Italy this week.

Anton Cooper.
Photo: ROSS BELL

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“The mentality is there. I’m ready to race again. Physically might be the biggest challenge, especially with the busy schedule.”

The Christchurch rider finished sixth at the Tokyo Games three weeks ago, the best Olympic placing by any New Zealand cross-country rider, and the 27-year-old is hoping he has recovered sufficiently to replicate that performance.

Cooper said one of the challenges this weekend will be how the riders manage their recovery from the extreme heat in Japan.

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“The first week home was about recovery. The second week was getting back to a training routine and the last week has been adding some intensity back in. I am trying to replicate the form I had in Tokyo. I don’t know whether that is going to be possible.

“You have the time change; the high intensity of the race and the heat which all takes a toll. Then there is all the training you put in to make sure you peaked for that event and so it takes some time to recover from all that. Tokyo was your pinnacle event and now you have to reset and go again.”

Cooper believes there will be plenty of interest in this year’s World Champs, with those riders who competed at the Olympics vying against others who did not make their national teams and who will be “fizzing to prove a point.”

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There’s a lot of racing for cross-country riders, with short track as a standalone world title for the first time, including a qualifying race, and with the cross-country race over five days.

“I am one of the top-10 short track riders this year and you owe it to the sport to turn up and race. If I am going well in short track, I will give it a good crack but otherwise I will save something for the cross-country,” said Cooper, who likes the Val di Sole course in Northern Italy, where he has raced with success before.

“One half of the course is power-based -flatter and more rolling -and the other half features a couple of steeper climbs and more technical stuff. It is a bit of a mix. I am quite looking forward to racing there again.”

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Cooper is joined by Commonwealth Games champion Sam Gaze and Ben Oliver in the elite men’s cross-country race with Cameron Jones to contest the under-23 race and Ethan Rose in the under-19s.

There is interest in the efforts of Gaze, the Commonwealth Games champion, who slipped down the rankings after two injury-riddled seasons.

That means he has started well back in the World Cup fields although he has climbed over 50 places on the world rankings to 77.

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His aim is to continue to progress to earn a competitive ranking which will enable him to be fully competitive next year.

Elite cross-country riders have been out of the top-15 finishers at the world championships over the last 15 years, with the best being Cooper’s 16th on elite debut at Cairns in 2017, while last year both Cooper and Gaze finished mid-pack.

The outlook has changed this year with Cooper climbing to sixth in the world rankings and his sixth placing at Tokyo.

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He is part of a 16 strong New Zealand team to compete in cross-country and downhill at the Val di Sole Bike Park in the Trentino region.

There are seven men plus women’s national champion Jess Blewitt to compete in the elite downhill competition along with James MacDermid, Lachie Stevens-McNab and Guy Johnston in junior category.

The elite riders are led by George Brannigan, currently the top ranked kiwi gravity rider at 21 in the world.

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He is joined by No 34 ranked Brook MacDonald, who comes in after finishing 15th at the last World Cup, Sam Blenkinsop, Sam Gale, former junior medallist Tuhoto-Ariki Pene, Charles Murray and Finn Hawkesby-Browne.

Unfortunately, Taranaki brothers Ed and Wyn Masters will both miss the championships with injury.

Action starts on Wednesday with the elite cross country races and downhill final on Monday (NZ time).

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