Anton Cooper is used to winning. As a junior, he had a perfect record of entering every World Cup he entered. After capping off a stellar young career with a 2012 cross country junior world title, the New Zealander joined Cannondale Factory Racing and just moved up to the U23 ranks, where he will face tougher competition.
"I think it's going to be a step up, and I'll have to be mentally prepared to lose a few races of course," Cooper told Cyclingnews. "It's not going to be my first races that I'll win. I have to be prepared to chase again. It'll be a different style of riding, and I look forward to it."
Coming from New Zealand, Cooper didn't race a full World Cup circuit as a junior rider. He travelled to Europe and North America for select events, as his school schedule permitted. He spent quite a lot of time in those World Cups off the front alone, well above the level of the rest of his fellow junior competition.
"I won every World Cup that I entered across my U19 years - both in 2011 and 2012," said Cooper. 2012 was a pretty big year. I'd grown a lot since 2011, with my performance and what I'd learned. It was a big step up from the world championships in 2011. This last year was a year of putting together all that I'd learned. Everything came together well, and I had a perfect season, I couldn't ask for more."
It can be difficult to stay to focused during so much time off the front, but Cooper and his coaches came up with a way to keep him on track.
"Last year, I compared my times to the U23s and elites. It was something to do and it kept me motivated," he said.
When asked how his times stacked up against his elders, he said, "I tended to sit around third in the U23 ranks and 10th-15th in elite men, but then again the U23s do an extra lap. I'll prepare for that - I think I can do another lap at that pace, but the truth is, you never really know until you get out there and do the race."
"You don't know how fast you are until you have to chase someone. Up until then, you're limited if you're off the front."
A look ahead
Cooper will focus on a full World Cup season in 2013, racing among his fellow U23s. To facilitate that, the New Zealander will spend a portion of the season living in Europe with his Cannondale Factory Racing teammate and fellow first-year U23 rider Keegan Swenson of the United States.
"It's good to have someone your own age and we can look out for each other as well," he said.
"I'll be based in Germany when I'm in Europe, but I'll travel a lot so the amount of time I spend there will be minimal. However, it will be good to have a base away from home. I don't speak German, but luckily everyone on the team does and so do most Europeans. It's a bit cheap to try to get away with that, but it'll be nice to learn some German, I bet I'll pick up a bit pretty quickly."
The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup does not begin until mid-May, but Cooper will have plenty to keep him occupied.
"Between now and the first World Cup, it's still pretty full on. I head home after the team camp, and I've got a couple of big races over there and then the Oceanias [Continental Championships] in late March. Then I'm back over to Europe in early April."
When at home, Cooper races with the elites, although increasingly, he is limiting his racing back home so as not to burn himself out - something that can happen if a rider goes directly back and forth between the opposite racing seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
"It's helpful to race with the elites in New Zealand, but to be honest, our U23s are probably stronger," said Cooper.