The A Coruña stage of Longines Global Champions Tour looked like it was going hand Maikel van der Vleuten the last leg up towards his first ever LGCT title. The dutchman, alongside 8 other riders, qualified for the jump-off and as one of the last to go in that jump-off van der Vleuten could easily get a huge points haul in the north-west of Spain. But things did not go as planned.
After Beauville Z NOP lost a shoe landing at the first fence, the Dutchman got a good roll-back to the 3rd but from there on it went south. Adding a stride to 4 and getting stuck to the next Prosegur oxer, the 4 time LGCT Grand Prix winner had to pull out, landing him in 9th in the end.
As Christian Kukuk didn’t attend the A Coruña stage and Malin Baryard-Johnson was eliminated from the initial round, his closest rivals didn’t score any points allowing van der Vleuten to extend his impressive lead to just over 50 point. But that is where the good news ends.
The clears of Epaillard, Delestre and Smolders have propelled the trio right into the wake of young ‘Vleut’. Delestre set third on the overall standings, 60 points behind the leader. The frenchman has recorded just 6 results on the tour this season. With the best 8 counting he can easily close the gap on van der Vleuten, who needs a 22nd place finish in Riesenbeck to improve his 8th best championship score.
Julien Epaillard has recorded just 5 results in the LGCT Grand Prix so far, 1 less than Delestre and 3 less than the man from the lowlands. Ranked just 7th on the standings, the 2-time Grand Prix winner this season has the 2nd highest points per stage average - higher than van der Vleuten - but the Frenchman and his barefoot horses will not compete in Riesenbeck and Valkenswaard meaning he needs to get it spot on when coming to London, Rome and Riyadh if he has the ambition to become the first Frenchman since Michel Robert to win the title.
So it could very well be that van der Vleuten will face most challenges from his fellow-countryman, Harrie Smolders. The 2017 LGCT Champion occupies 6th place at the moment, but just like Epaillard, he has only recorded 5 LGCT Grand Prix results. His points per stage average is the highest of all riders and with Bingo du Parc, Monaco NOP and Uricas van de Kattevennen he has 3 Grand Prix horses in his stable that have jumped clears already, making him alongside Delestre the man with the most firepower.
When asked whether Smolders was willing to express his LGCT ambition he kept the pressure away replying: “I don’t want to say it yet, my horses will tell me as the season evolves and then I will tell you”. The smiling dutchman has made the podium for the 22nd time in his career, putting him 3rd in the all-time podium finisher rankings, just 1 podium behind Rolf Göran-Bengtsson and 5 behind Edwina Tops-Alexander.
Out of the Top 10 on the current Longines Global Champions Tour ranking, all riders will compete in Riesenbeck this week, at the home of Ludger Beerbaum. The largest ring of the season seems to be a fitting stage for the titans to clash and for the title race to further unfold.