There was double trouble in a COVID bubble this week in Nove Mesto as the XC season was started, fought and finished in just six days of competition. In that time we had two XCC and two XCO races and although it was tantalisingly short, it was packed with action and stories as riders scrambled to adapt to the new normal. Cyclocrossovers are racking up more wins
Maybe inspired by Mathieu Van Der Poel's successful crossover in recent years, two new cyclocross converts made their presence fully known on the World Cup circuit this weekend. First was Evie Richards, a first year elite rider for Trek Factory racing and Under 23 Cyclocross World Champion in 2016 and 2018. She won both the XCC races and that was despite crashing on the last lap of the second one and having to battle her way back through the top ten on the final two-minute circuit. While the sprint format clearly suits her well, she was no slouch at the Olympic distance either and finished with two top tens.
The other Cyclocross success stories this weekend were 21 year old Brit Tom Pidcock and fellow U23 racer Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado. Alvarado was the 2020 UCI CX World Champion and the U23 XCO Winner at Sunday's race in Nové Město na Moravě. Pidock was the 2018 U23 CX World Champ and is also a formidable presence on the road having won the 'Baby Giro D'Italia' or Giro Ciclistico d'Italia in September this year. Pidcock was unstoppable in the Under 23 races this weekend and won the first World Cup by 27 seconds and the second by more than a minute. He also recorded the fastest lap of anyone in the first round with his 12:01 putting him around 7 seconds faster than anyone in the Elite men's field. Pidcock heads to the World Champs as strong favourite this week but there's a question mark over his head for his future in XC and cyclocross. He recently announced a move to the Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) team who are heavily focussed on road Grand Tours. Their frame sponsor, Pinarello, doesn't currently produce an XC race bike and the team would no doubt be looking to finesse Pidcock into a road mountain climber. We'll keep our fingers crossed that World Champs isn't the last we see of this promising young talent. XCC was still crucially important despite offering no overall points
With no overall to fight for this year, some riders could have seen the XCC as a bit of a sideshow to the more prestigious XCO races that followed a couple of days later. This proved to be a dangerous tactic as, while it may not have conferred any overall points this year, the XCC still determined the all-important grid positions for the XCO. One rider that was caught out by this was Nino Schurter. He seemed out of sorts at the first XCC and ended up rolling home in 29th, which left him stranded a few rows back from his normal starting position at the front of the grid.
Schurter was sitting in 22nd place and 33 seconds back after the first proper lap of the XCO, but battled incredibly through the pack in that race to end up on the podium in fourth. When the second XCC came around, Schurter had clearly received the message as he kept himself up near the front for the race and finished sixth. This put him back on the front row of the start grid and he controlled the race until the last lap when Avancini pipped him with a huge attack on the last lap.Young guns led the charge at round 1
In a disrupted season after the longest break between World Cup races since the series began, it was the young riders that seemed to adapt better and brought the fight to the established old guard of XC racing. In the first round, there were 4 first-time winners in the elite categories - Richards (23), Ulloa (24), Andreassen (23) and Lecomte (21). In fact, all of these riders except Ulloa were on their first-ever Elite World Cup and Ulloa was only setting out on his second elite season. Evie Richards continued to take the fight to the elites in the second round of the XCC but generally the regulars regained their place at the top. Avancini won the XCC and the XCO for a victory that has been a long time coming, while Prevot soloed for most of the race to take the win the women's XCO.
We've been reading a number of theories as to why the younger riders performed so well. Maybe they had more motivation as they were moving up to elites for the first time, maybe they are an especially strong cohort, or maybe the elites are just holding something back for World Champs in Leogang this week. Whatever the case, the next few years of racing are sure to be packed with excitement as we see a tussle for the top between two generations.Less well-known cycling nations are picking up steam in XC racing
Leogang is going to be wide open
Alongside new race winners, we also got winners from parts of the world we don't normally see in mountain bike racing too. On Tuesday, Jose Gerardo Ulloa Arevalo took Mexico's first World Cup win of any kind in mountain biking as he outsprinted the cream of the crop in some of the worst conditions we've had in recent years. Ulloa has been slowly building since he moved up to the elite class with two top ten results last year and it was great to see him take victory at his first attempt this year.
Henrique Avancini also gave Brazil a first XCO World Cup victory after also giving them a first mountain bike World Cup victory in the Short Track at Andorra in 2018. He doubled his World Cup total to 4 as he did the double in round two in Nove Mesto, which will no doubt please the huge fan base he has back home in Brazil.
This season is so incredibly compressed that riders will have made the 500km trip from Nove Mesto to Leogang yesterday evening and will begin the first training session for the World Championships at 12:30 pm today. The riders will then line up for the relay race on Wednesday followed by the World Championships on Saturday.
The scattered results show us that there are no clear favourites for this year's race and Leogang has apparently constructed a whole new course for riders meaning that nobody will have an advantage from having raced at the Austrian venue before. It's going to be a fascinating weekend of racing to round out the 2020 season.