Women’s World number one, Yana Belomoina, is the favourite to take victory in the 23rd edition of the Afxentia stage race, the first race of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup. In the Men’s field, Vice-World Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy and third-placed Thomas Litscher are among the outstanding entrants for the four days of racing under the sun. This classic event will start with participants out of 23 different countries on Thursday by a 14.5-kilometer downhill prologue.
The four days of the Afxentia stage race will play a major role in preparing the cross-country specialists for the first season highlight, the World Cup opener on 10th March in South Africa.
With this race following only two weeks later, you can expect world-class athletes to be close to top form.
Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing) won the Afxentia race for the third time in his career in 2017.
"I had a good winter, similar to last year. Now there are three more weeks of intensive training on the program", says Kulhavy. “My last two tests have shown better results than last year, but there is still room for improvement in the highest intensity range, which is most important for cross-country racing."
The silver medallist from Rio is confident that Cyprus can offer this final stepping stone towards top form.
Thomas Litscher (jb Brunex Felt) is his biggest competitor on paper. The 2017 World Championship bronze medallist was only 17th in Afxentia last season, but the Swissman was at a very different point back then, repeatedly tormented by back problems. Only in the second half of the season did he manage his way back towards his best condition, which finally gave him that bronze medal in Australia.
Someone who has always been at the forefront in Cyprus is Jan Skarnitzl (Sram Mitas Trek). The Czech was third in 2017, a marker he laid down from the day one Prologue.
Brit, Grant Ferguson (CST Sandd American Eagle), is likely to be a serious competitor, so too is Karl Markt (Moeble Märki) from Austria.
Many Candidates for Victory in Women’s Field
Amongst the women, Yana Belomoina (CST Sandd American Eagle), is certainly one to watch. She has been acclimatising on the island for five weeks, and as the leader of the World ranking and the overall World Cup winner from 2017, she sets the bar for the competition.
"I'm always optimistic", says Belomoina, laughing. Last year she had early season problems and after finishing seventh at the Afxentia nobody would have expected that the Ukrainian would be the overall World Cup winner at the end of the year.
Who can challenge her? Annika Langvad (Specialized Racing) is certainly a candidate. She won the Afxentia race in 2015, and as reigning Marathon World Champion and Cross Country Champion of 2016, she is always one of the favourites.
“ In a weeks time I'll be grabbing bottles from @holi_jumanji in Cyprus after a two year hiatus from this classic season opener. This year there's no studying holding at home. I'm looking forward to getting back together with the gang and putting all these hours in the saddle to use.”, Langvad posted on Instagram.
Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Merida) is ordinarily a contender wherever she races, but this year she will be holding back.
"I will not go too far this year. It's more about getting into competitive mode and feeling good on the bike”, says Dahle-Flesjaa, who won the final stage of Afxentia in 2017.
Adelheid Morath (jb Brunex Felt) was not at the start last year, but in 2016 she was in third behind Dahle-Flesjaa. "I'm looking forward to Cyprus and think that my winter training has worked so far”, she commented.
Lisi Osl (jb Brunex Felt), Barbara Benko (Ghost Factory Racing) U23 World Champion ,Sina Frei (Ghost Factory Racing) and of course title defender Githa Michiels from Belgium are just a few more top athletes who will make the race very interesting. Added to the mix is Olympic Road Race Champion, Anna van der Breggen, whose mountain bike premiere we will watch with interest.
Changes in stages 2 and 3
The 23rd edition of Afxentia will start again with the downhill-heavy prologue from Lefkara to Skarinou: 14.5 kilometres with a negative altitude difference of 600 metres. However, there is also a passage in which the pedals must be pushed, meaning the stage will be a total of 750 minus altitude metres altogether.
In the second stage, with start and finish in Lefkara, riders will return to the singletrack of 2016 and add an additional loop; 52.2 kilometres with 2154 vertical metres will be recorded by the stage finish.
On day three, it is the final phase which has undergone a change. An asphalt passage has been taken out, with the finish now parallel to in previous years. The stage is three kilometres shorter, now 66.2 kilometres long and requires 1993 metres of climbing. You can find out more on the Facebook page of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup.
As is tradition, the final day is spent on the demanding 5.9 kilometre cross-country route with 217 vertical metres per lap. This is spared the hobby riders of the Cyprus Sunshine Challenge; you can instead watch the professionals suffer or enjoy the island at your leisure.
Dates of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup 2018
February 22 to 25 Afxentia stage race (SHC)
March 3 Amathous (C1)