Fumic and Dahle-Flesjaa among favorites for Afxentia stage race

Best field ever for European cross country season opener

The Cyprus Sunshine Cup will kick off on Thursday with the four-day Afxentia stage race and perhaps its best start list ever. There are too many favorites to pick just one, but for all the racers, the opening time trial at Lefkara on Thursday will be their first mountain bike race of 2014. Therefore, no one really knows what to expect.

Women

Swiss rider Katrin Leumann (Ghost Factory Racing) is returning to defend her 2013 overall Sunshine Cup title.

"I am well prepared. The last few weeks in South Africa were riding great," said Leumann. "To be honest, I am a bit skeptical. Actually the start list is much too strong for this part of the season. But of course, it will be good to determine my shape."

Adelheid Morath (Sabine Spitz-Haibike) was third last year at Afxentia and she is excited to have such a world class field to race against. "It will be very demanding, of course. But I like it, when the level is so high. I am very curious about how it will be," said Morath.

Despite her 41 years, nine-time world champion Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa (Multivan Merida) is coming to the island as a Sunshine Cup newbie. "I was on Cyprus for holidays more than 20 years ago. Now I am really excited and very interested in what I will meet there. For me it's a kind of a case of testing nerves in competition."

Other top riders include: young gun Jolanda Neff (Giant Pro XC), former World Cup winner Elisabeth Osl and eliminator world champion Alexandra Engen (both Ghost Factory Racing), Olympic champion Sabine Spitz (Haibike), two-time marathon world champion Annika Langvad and Tereza Hurikova (both Specialized Racing), Blaza Klemencic (Feenstra Felt), Nathalie Schneitter (Colnago Südtirol) and Kathrin Stirnemann (Haibike).

Men

The same level of competition is expected on the men's side.

"It will be hard to survive," joked Jose Hermida (Multivan Merida) after checking out the start list. It will also be the Spanish rider's first time racing in Cyprus. The former cross country world champion will have four more teammates with him: Rudi van Houts, Thomas Litscher, Ondrej Cink and Julian Schelb.

Fabian Giger (Giant Pro XC) won last year's Afxentia stage race overall. He sounded confident for this year's edition as well. "My preparations were running well, same as last year. I feel a good shape coming and I am looking forward to the first races," said Lindgren. "The overall victory in 2013 was a very good start into the season. I think this year it will be again a bit harder. One stage more and the opponents are even a stronger. I want to do a good race to see how far I am with my preparations for the World Cup season."

Ralph Näf and Lukas Flückiger (BMC Racing) are going to use Afxentia as preparation ahead of the Cape Epic. It will be interesting whether they try to stay together, like they will have to do in the Cape Epic.

London Olympic bronze medalist Marco Aurelio Fontana and Manuel Fumic (both Cannondale) rode the Cape Epic together last year, but this year, they won't. However, it doesn't mean they won't work together while in Cyprus.

"Cyprus is important for me as a start to the season," said Fumic. "The HC status can give you a lot of points, and I want to earn as many as possible. It's great to have such strong riders in the starting list. So the Afxentia is a kind of yardstick." Fumic lost points in 2013 while dealing with an injured shoulder.

Scott-Odlo biker Florian Vogel is another rider to watch, and Jan Skarnitzl (Sram Rubena Trek) made a big move up in the world rankings in 2013 after winning the Cyprus Sunshine Cup overall. Also Michiel van der Heijden and Swedish teammate Emil Lindgren (both Giant Pro XC) are on the start list.

Lindgren tweeted that he particularly enjoyed the singletrack on Cyprus.

For the first time, the race will be run as a four-day event. In previous years, it has been three stages long.

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