British champions Grant Ferguson and Annie Last head the field as the 2017 HSBC UK | National Cross Country Series gets under way this weekend at Pembrey Country Park.
The five-round competition opens for the second year in a row in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, before heading to Wasing Park in Berkshire, Aske Estate in Richmond, Dalby Forest in Yorkshire and the final round in August at the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells.
With his attention firmly focused on his Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro, national champion Grant Ferguson (CST Sandd American Eagle Mountainbike Racing Team) made just two appearances in last year’s series.
He finished second in the third round at Dalby Forest but will be relishing the chance to make the return to South Wales having picked up the win in the series opener in 2016.
With 2016 series winner Liam Killeen not competing, perhaps the biggest threat to Ferguson comes from last year’s runner-up.
David Fletcher (Sherwood Pines Cycles Felt - Enve) finished third at Pembrey Country Park last year at the start of a consistent season of racing and will be keen to make another good start.
2015 series winner Phillip Pearce finished last year’s competition in fine form, taking back-to-back second place finishes to secure an overall third place and the BW Cycling rider is sure to be among the major challengers again this year.
Giles Drake (LeisureLakesBikes.com) and Iain Paton (Leslie Bike Shop/Bikers Boutique) finished fourth and fifth in last year’s series and will be hopeful of reaching the podium places in 2017.
100% ME’s Frazer Clacherty will be keen to make 2017 his breakthrough year in elite competition. The young Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy rider finished third in the fourth round at Fforest Fields last year and is tipped to perform well this season.
Defending National Cross Country Series champion Isla Short will be looking to make it two titles in a row in 2017 as part of an impressive lineup in South Wales.
The OMX Pro Team rider won the final round in Cannock Chase last year to seal the overall title.
Although Short is the reigning series champion, she will have serious competition in the form of the British champion Annie Last, who will pose a threat to the start of Short’s defence at Pembrey Country Park.
Last won her fifth national championship in Caithkin Braes last July, but only made one appearance in the 2016 series - finishing second at Dalby Forest in round three.
The winner that day was Evie Richards - another rider set for the start line on Sunday - and likely the favourite to claim the win.
The Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy rider only entered three rounds in last year’s series - but won all three.
Previously a junior silver medallist at the UCI Mountain Bike Cross-country World Championships, as well as becoming the first-ever under-23 women’s cyclo-cross world champion in 2016, Richards (100% ME) is usually dominant in domestic competition and will take some beating in Carmarthenshire.
Jane Barr (Velocity 44 RT) and Lucy Allan (TORQ Performance) both secured top ten finishes in the 2016 series, but neither finished higher than sixth in an individual race - both will have their eye on the podium places in the series opener.
There will also be a chance for Richards’ 100% ME teammate Ella Connolly to impress as she makes the move up to the elite competition for the first time in her career.
Connolly, a member of the Junior Academy, won two of her three series races at junior level last season.
The opening round of the HSBC UK | National Cross Country Series takes place on 1-2 April at Pembrey Country Park, Carmarthenshire and is organised by A Cycling.
Elite races take place on Sunday, with the women’s competition at 1pm and the men’s race at 3.15pm. Races last approximately 90 minutes, with riders taking a mass start before negotiating a series of 15-minute laps. Courses are designed to be spectator friendly and events are free to watch.
There is also age and ability-based racing across both days – for full details or to enter a future round of the series, see the event homepage.