Seventeen year old mountain biker Anton Cooper is not letting the prospect that he can create history cloud his thoughts at the UCI World Championships in Austria this weekend.
The Christchurch schoolboy is ranked second in the junior men’s race at Saalfelden on Saturday night (NZ time) in the chase to become the first New Zealander to win a rainbow jersey in cross-country.
While Tauranga’s Vanessa Quin won the mountainbike world championship in the downhill discipline, the gruelling cross-country stocks have been dominated initially by Americans and in recent years by the Europeans.
Cooper goes into the championships second ranked, although he is unbeaten in his three world cup starts this season in South Africa, Canada and USA and in many people’s eyes, the rider to beat.
“I am coping well. I am not really thinking about things like that (favouritism), just targeting my race and my performance. I am feeling relaxed and ready to go,” Cooper said.
He rides for the Trek World Racing team, who spotted his potential last year when he finished runner-up in the under-19 final, and this year he has mixed lightning trips around the globe with school work at Christchurch Boys High School.
“The main challenge at home has been the limited daylight with it getting dark at 5.30pm and you don’t finish school until 3pm, suddenly get changed and there’s not much daylight left. And you throw in the rain and the cold on top of that then it’s pretty tough. I made do with what I had.”
However he has had the luxury of a month away this time to prepare for his biggest day.
“I went to the USA for four days to Trek’s major opening there before heading on to Spain to stay with my manager there for a week to train. I then went to Switzerland with teammate or more training, and then on to Austria.
“In all I have been away a month, training and acclimatising and practicing on the track. It’s all coming together well.”
Cooper’s main rival is Frenchman Victor Koretzky, who claimed the world title last year and has won the remaining three world cup races this year in Europe where Cooper did not compete. The young kiwi did win their only clash at the start of the season at Pietermaritzburg.
In his early world cup races Cooper was so dominant that his manager keyed him off the lap times of the elite competitors, but his weekend is all about the podium.
“I haven’t been looking at any lap times and I haven’t timed a lap here yet. It’s something I am not really concerned about because it won’t change anything come race day. I want to go out there and really lay it all on the line. Go out there and give it 110 per cent will be my approach.
“Getting a really good start is really important. It’s a fast start and not too long so it’s important to be on the front row which I am and to get into the single track really high up there.
“From there the race is going to sort itself out with a couple of groups at the front early on and it will continue to split up from there.”
Cooper leads a power quartet of talented young kiwi riders in the junior men’s race, supported by top-10 ranked Nigel McDowell (Rotorua), Tom Filmer (Nelson), and Sam Gaze (Cambridge) with Mary Gray (Dunedin) in the junior women’s race. Filmer is the only question mark after a fall during practice.
The New Zealand campaign begins tomorrow (NZ time) when number eight ranked Samara Sheppard competes in the women’s under-23 ranks before Dirk Peters (Rotorua) and Tom Bradshaw (Wellington) ranked 12th and 24th respectively, ride in the U23 men race.
Peters spent time racing the world cup circuit in Europe earlier in the season while Bradhsaw also got a taste of world cup action in the round in Canada and the USA.
The second race day will see the junior men race before Olympians Karen Hanlen (Whakatane) and Rosara Joseph (Wellington) compete in the elite women’s race.