Athlete of the Year Nominees
After we described 2019 as one of the best years for racing ever
, 2020 probably takes the title for the most fascinating. The year started so regularly with Crankworx Rotorua in its usual slot as the season kick-off, however that was the last bit of normality we would experience. There were many points when it looked like we wouldn't have any racing at all but in the face of extraordinary odds, race organisers put their reputations and livelihoods on the line to put on the best shows they could. And what shows they turned out to be! All credit goes to anyone who put on a race this year in extraordinary circumstances.
The athletes themselves faced hardships too. How could they stay motivated with no racing confirmed in the near future? How do you train and time your fitness peak with no clue when you may have to use it? How do you adapt to new rules and regulations on the fly, sometimes in the middle of a race weekend? How many COVID test invasions can your nose take in one month? Despite it all, the athletes delivered and racing this year was as exciting as ever. Here are the athletes that left us awestruck in 2020.
Why she's nominated
After finding her feet and coming so close to the overall title in 2019, 2020 was set up for Marine Cabirou to kick on and dominate. Despite a shoulder injury at team camp in July, her pre-season form was good and her first race saw her claim a silver medal at the French Championships. However, she felt unable to recover and then received the news every athlete dreaded in 2020 - a positive COVID test.
Cabirou announced the news just over a month before the World Championships, meaning she would be unable to train at a crucial time and faced the prospect of lung damage or worse. Thankfully, she made a full recovery and was back between the tapes in Leogang in October. That race didn't go to plan for the young Frenchwoman, but when the World Cup season kicked off, she really got into gear.
Cabirou earned a win in both Maribor and Lousa and finished second in the races she didn't win, taking the overall by 50 points from Myriam Nicole at the end of the year. If there were question marks over the strength of the field during her 2019 breakout performances, they could now be dismissed. Cabirou faced down established champions Seagrave and Nicole while also battling off the younger up-and-comers such as Hoffmann, Balanche and Farina, and truly earned her title as champion.
Why he's nominated
Before this year, Tom Pidcock had never competed in an international level mountain bike race and would be pretty much unknown to most race fans unless you were an avid follower of cyclocross. There are no excuses for not knowing him now though as he took the Under 23 races by storm and, we think, could have seriously troubled the elite ranks too given the chance.
Pidcock came into the season fully admitting that he didn't really know what he was doing
but what he lacked in technical nous and racecraft, he made up for in raw power and ability. In Nove Mesto's first race, he started from the back row of the grid and battled past the field to win by more than 20 seconds and then followed that up by winning by more than a minute in race 2. He recorded lap times that were faster than the fastest Elite men and marked himself out as clear favourite for the coming World Championshsips.
True to form, he won his Under 23 Rainbow Stripes at a canter but, more than that, earned himself a second Rainbow Jersey in the eMTB XC race too. If he was a country, he would have finished second in the medal table, with only France ahead of him.
Unfortunately, Tom's mountain biking talents may not be something we see again for a while. Not only is he successful on dirt, but he also has huge potential on the road where he won the Under 23 Giro D'Italia this year and was subsequently snapped up by Team Ineos. It's not currently clear if we'll see him ride mountain bikes again in the near future but it has been a privilege to do so in this COVID year.
Why she's nominated
We've never nominated any Under 23 XC athletes before but in this topsy turvy year, she's a second young XC rider that shot to the top of the sport in 2020.
Loana decided to move up to the elite ranks two years early and made an impact in her first-ever race, taking 3rd in the short track and then taking the win at the full distance after a race-long battle with Pauline Ferrand Prevot and Anne Terpstra. She rounded off her week in Nove Mesto with another brace of podiums in the second round. At the World Championships, Lecomte was placed back in her age group and was predictably dominant, taking the win by more than a minute.
Loana Lecomte is only 21 years old so technically has two more seasons in the Under 23 ranks, but we doubt we'll be seeing her race there very much as she continues to show the elite ranks that she's the next superstar of women's XC.
Why he's nominated
His hometown glory at Whistler in 2017 aside, Jesse Melamed has always been one of the fastest riders on the Enduro World Series circuit but he frequently lacked the consistency to turn that into race wins. Well, consider that issue put to bed.
Melamed got more racing in than most this year as he started his season at the Crankworx Summer Series where he was even beating Finn Iles in downhill races (although, in the interest of balance, Finn also beat Jesse in enduro races). This proved a great warm-up for his race season and he was able to hit the ground running in Zermatt. It was a wild weekend with weather throwing the schedule up in the air, but Jesse battled through to take his second ever EWS win in the truncated race.
He backed it up at the most famous enduro venue of all in Finale Ligure. The list of winners here is a roll call of the greatest enduro racers ever and Melamed can now comfortably include his name in that list. There wasn't an Enduro World Series overall this year but if there was, Melamed would have won it by a healthy 200 points.
Why he's nominated
Matt Walker won the 2020 World Cup overall in the most Matt Walker way possible - he kept his head down, avoided the spotlight and let his hard work and talent do the talking on the track. Matt is never showy and often gets overlooked in favour of his more flamboyant peers, but you can't deny the British rider's pace and ability when the blips start ringing in the start gate.
From his junior days, his two-year battle with Finn Iles prepared him well for the fierce competition in the elite ranks and he emerged from that period with a Junior World Championships and a clutch of race wins. His first World Cup top ten took just two races to achieve and his first podium followed a year later. He's still hunting for the elusive win but that didn't matter this year.
2020's truncated blitz of races proved too intense for some racers but it was relentless consistency that carried Walker through. Four races meant four podiums for Walker and he was the only rider to do so, adapting to the new normal arguably better than anyone. A thoroughly deserving World Cup champion.
Honorable MentionsThibaut Daprela
Not only did Daprela have to adapt to the COVID world but he was also thrust into the elite ranks for the first time too. He rose to the challenge with aplomb. His run at the World Champs was looser than a flat Earther's grip on reality and it landed him 11th. Following that up at his first World Cup, he became the first-ever graduating junior to grab a podium in their first race with a third and didn't leave the top ten for the rest of the year, ending up fifth in the world in his very first elite season.
The GOAT only got GOATier this year and proved that old saying once again - "You can never write off Greg Minnaar". At a brand new track, racing on the verge of winter, he showed the young dogs some old tricks, turned back the clock and came away with 1st and 2nd in the two races. He extended his own records for being the oldest World Cup winner, the oldest rider ever on a World Cup podium and, of course, the big one, with win number 22 taking him a bit further out of Gwin's reach. Legend.
With or without a motor, this year Melanie Pugin proved she is one of the women to beat on an enduro bike. On her eMTB, Pugin won the opening round of the E-EWS in Zermatt and then backed it up in Leogang as she was crowned the eMTB XC World Champion too. Under her own steam, Pugin proved peerless in Pietra and was second only to Morgane Charre in Finale Ligure despite winning two stages. We expect we'll be seeing plenty more of Pugin in the future.