Albstadt's brutal climbs and soaring temperatures proved to be a rude awakening for riders at the opening round of the 2021 XC World Cup series. Their suffering provided one hell of a show for us at home though as four thrilling races unfurled through the weekend. Here are our five key takeaways:
Tom Pidcock Delivered on the Hype but Still May Not Make it to Tokyo
As a British cycling journalist, of course I'm going to concentrate mainly on the Ineos Grendaiers rider and ignore all the others in the race. I'm kidding, sort of, but this time I'll have to indulge myself as there's no denying that the story of this weekend was the debut of Tom Pidcock
. The 21-year-old cyclocross phenom entered the elite level of the sport along with the world's richest cycling team on a wave of hype, but I doubt many truly believed he would be able to deliver quite in the remarkable fashion he did.
Coming into the race weekend with a low ranking, he started on the 11th row of the grid but found himself leading the race by the start of the third lap. His fight to the front definitely included some hairy moments and he won't have made many friends as he at times wall-rode past competitors on the climbs, but it was thrilling stuff watching him battle forwards. In the end, a combination of his furious start and a slow rear puncture, which led to him losing a few places on the penultimate lap as he stopped in the tech zone to re-inflate it, meant he settled for fifth and one of the most incredible elite debuts in the sport's history.
Pidock will be looking to go even better next week in Nove Mesto with a much-improved grid position and the benefit of having won there twice as an Under 23 last year.
However, despite all his heroics, his chance at an Olympics position remains precarious. Unfortunately, Great Britain doesn't currently have a spot due to its low UCI ranking of 32nd but there's a possibility it could still snatch a spot when the rankings are updated thanks to Fraser Clacherty's 14th place at the 2019 Under 23 World Championships. Basically, it's complicated, and Pidcock is relying on other riders' results to ensure his place despite clearly being one of the strongest riders on the planet.
A New Wave of Young Women are Coming for the Top Spots
Pidcock is just one of a huge wave of young riders who continued to prove themselves at the races in Albstadt. Loana Lecomte, another 21-year-old, delivered a totally dominant performance in the Elite women's race and won by nearly a minute over Pauline Ferrand Prevot. From the first full lap, it was clear the Lecomte was the pick of the field as she rode away from the pack with one of the only two sub-14 minute laps in the women's race. From there, she managed her lead successfully to the end and gave herself enough of a buffer to cruise the last lap home to take victory over Pauline Ferrand Prevot.
Looking slightly further down the results sheet, Haley Batten moved up a year early from the Under 23 category and took third in her first elite XCO race. It was clearly a hugely emotional moment for the young American as she crossed the line cheering like she had won and it's testament to the strong base of racers being developed in the USA thanks to the NICA program.
Finally, it's worth looking at the U23 results and Mona Mitterwallner. Despite beating a field of elite racers at the Swiss Bike Cup last weekend
, she chose to race in the U23 category at the Albstadt World Cup. However, based on the timesheets, it looks like she will have no problem stepping up to the elite ranks if she chooses to do so, as her best lap time of 14:08.7 was beaten by only three women (Lecomte, Neff, Prevot, McConnell) in the elite race. It's worth saying her total race distance was less than those in the elite category, but she still put in some impressively consistent times throughout her race.
Dropper Posts Are Getting More Popular but There Were Some High Profile Issues
Dropper posts aren't ubiquitous in cross country yet, but they are definitely becoming increasingly popular. On a track like Albstadt, where the focus is on prolonged climbs with short, sharp descents, there was a mix of riders opting between the lightweight simplicity of a traditional rigid post and confidence-inspiring droppers.
In terms of wins, it was an even split with riders using droppers winning the men's short track and women's XCO, but rigid seatposts taking the women's short track and men's XCO. However, there were also a couple of very prominent issues for riders using dropper posts that will no doubt continue the debate as to whether they are the best choice for XC riders. Firstly, we saw Linda Indergand leading the women's short track by 18 seconds at the end of lap four, but having to reach between her legs to operate her dropper. Then, Mathias Fluckieger, who looked to be one of the strongest riders in the men's XCO race, had to pedal the last one and a half laps stood up after he broke the cable on his dropper. Both riders still finished on the podium, but will no doubt be wondering what might have been were they not running droppers.
Ultimately, these failures are the exception rather than the rule, but when a dropper does malfunction its consequences are arguably more serious in cross country than any other discipline.
Riders Struggled With Hot Conditions for a Change
At Albstadt in years gone by, wet conditions have turned this largely tame track into a limestone slip and slide with bodies and bikes strewn around its slick slopes. This year, it seemed to be business as usual in the short track, with a rainy morning and temperatures below 10°C, but that totally reverted by the time Sunday's XCO rolled around with the sun shining and riders suffering through 27°C heat.
There was no time to acclimatize to the severe spike in temperature and we saw some riders, such as Van der Poel, go off too fast and then fall off as they attempted to get their heart rates and core temperatures down.
But it wasn't just the heat that was an issue, the conditions heralded super-high pollen counts for the area, and riders with Hay Fever struggled with respiratory issues. Jolanda Neff, for example, set the second-fastest opening lap time but was apparently struggling to fill up her lungs properly as the race went on. Other racers, including Erin Huck, apparently suffered from allergies too and will be hoping for a cooler, wetter race in Nove Mesto next weekend.Nino is Back at Challenging for Wins But Lost his Fourth Sprint of the Year
It's a sign of the greatness of Nino Schurter that his 2020 season, which included two podiums from two World Cup races and a top 10 at the World Championships, is considered not very good. The truth is, Nino did look out of sorts last year in the late-season conditions, but he showed he has managed to turn that around in the offseason and leaves Albstadt second in the overall standings with two podiums under his belt.
However, Nino will no doubt be frustrated by his string of second-place finishes this year. So far, he has finished within seconds of the win at rounds 2 and 3 of the Internazionali D'Italia series, the Ötztaler Mountain Bike Festival
and on Sunday's race. Nino has always been a prolific sprinter, but he hasn't yet won one in 2021. No doubt this is an area he'll be building up for the Olympics and we've no doubt we'll see him back at the top and equalling Julien Absalon's all-time World Cup win record soon.