While the title race for the men's field may be at its strongest ever, it is fair to say that short of Cecile Ravanel getting struck by a meteor (or, more plausibly, heading off to try and crack into the DH World Cup scene), I don't expect the women's title race to provide too many fireworks. I've cast my eyes through the field to highlight some of the women who I think could break through into the sharp end of the competition this year.
Andreane Lanthier-Nadeau has a strong set of results at this level. After what looks to have been a pretty mixed bag racing XCO at World Cup Under-23 level, she first tried her hand at an EWS in 2015, racking up a series of impressive top five results and a podium in La Thuile, 2016. It hasn't been easy going though, and she has suffered more than her fair share of injuries. In 2017 she found herself without the support to race the whole season. With the changes to the Rocky Mountain team this year they have doubled down on their support, putting her back on the full series programme to round out Team Canada with Jesse Melamed and Remi Gauvin. Unfortunately surgery on her wrist this winter didn't take, so she is sitting out the first two rounds as the corrective procedure heals, but if she can stay rubber side down and get on a roll, she may well be a future race winner.
Bex Baraona made her EWS debut in 2016. The last time the series headed across the Atlantic and down to Bariloche, she stood out as one of the few women who could hold their composure amidst the deep holes, hidden beneath nearly a metre of dust. Since then she has put in two solid seasons as a privateer - no small feat with a season that spans three continents. Struggling to find sponsors to fully support her racing, in 2017 she held a raffle to help her cover the costs. For 2018, Ibis recognised her talent and added her to their factory racing programme. With that kind of support behind her this year, it is going to be exciting to see how far she can go.
Noga is highly rated by many on the circuit, to the point where she was voted the breakthrough of the year in 2017 by the EWS team, despite having made her debut the year before with a couple of strong top tens at the end of the 2016 season. Her career highlight so far was an impressive third in Madeira in 2017. This year, she has landed full factory support from GT, which should be interesting to watch and I'm keen to see how far she can take it. The big question is: 'how soon they will get a new bike under her?' - their Sanction platform is coming up to five years old and is starting to show its age. It is an open secret that it is ripe for replacement, and with GT's DH team on a new bike, it seems likely that their enduro riders will get the same kind of love soon.
Melanie Pugin may not be a name many people outside France recognise, but she stakes a strong claim to the number three position in their national standings with only Cecile Ravanel and Isabeau Courdurier ahead of her. For the last few years her results at a national level in France would have easily won her the national title if she'd committed to racing a full season. In the past she raced World Cup DH, although never landed a big result. For the last two years, she has won the Shimano Epic Enduro - a 4,500m monster that is one of the toughest days anywhere in mountain biking. In other words, on paper, she has the fitness and skills to challenge for the podium plus the racing experience to back it up. Yet she has struggled to find support over the last few years, her natural shyness not helping her self-promotion. This year, she has landed a ride on the Miranda team alongside Alex Cure and Jose Borges to race the European legs of the season. She is definitely one to watch.
It is hard to guess how well Becky Cook will do this year. While her 2016 British enduro title may be hard to value, the fact that she was the world trials number 2 in 2015 (on the motos, not bikes) is certainly impressive. What is not clear is how this will translate to enduro. Her EWS results from 2017 are solid, but she has only been racing enduro for a couple of years and her trials background shows that she has what it takes to make it to the elite level. No matter how it turns out, Orbea should be commended for signing her, at a time when there are many teams with no women on their rosters with team managers seemingly looking for a sure thing, they took a risk on Beck, and without more people taking those risks the women's field will struggle to develop and grow.
Hand on heart, I don't know much about Camille Balanche, aside from the fact that she scored an impressive fourth at the muddy war of attrition that was the Rotorua 2017 EWS round. What I do know is that Cecile Ravanel rates her highly, and you don't get a much better recommendation than that. For this year she has moved from the Swiss-based Norco enduro team to a distributor-based Devinci deal. She is set to miss the opening rounds in South America, but we should see her once the series returns to Europe.
One issue the EWS has struggled with is creating a link between international and national racing. As the 2014 French national champion, you would think that Julie Duvert would have had an easy jump up to the big leagues, but it hasn't worked out for her. After a couple of years with some decent results in the EWS Under-21 category and some top-15 results in 2017, Ibis reached out and added her to their factory programme for this year's European rounds.