You don't make it to the top tier of cross country racing by chance. Each racer who lines up on the World Cup start line has put in a superhuman effort to even get there, let alone race at the front. None more so than Cannondale's Henrique Avancini who, over the last few seasons, has become a permanent fixture at the front of the cross country World Cup pack. He hasn't always been there though. The Cannondale Factory Racing kit emblazoned with sponsors, the rainbow stripes, and the Red Bull lid should not be mistaken for anything but signs of hard work and gritty perseverance.
Brazil isn't a nation rich in mountain biking success. Any racer coming out of Brazil hoping to hit the big time has their work cut from the start purely based on their geographical location, the bulk of the race season taking place thousands of kilometres away overseas. World Cup racing was a very distant dream to a young Henrique when he got his first taste for riding and racing on a bike that his father had recycled out of an old broken frame and leftover parts from his bicycle repair shop.
Even when he took the plunge and travelled to Europe in the hope of attracting sponsorship, things weren't straightforward. Despite being picked up by Cannondale in 2015, success didn't just come to him overnight. It took him a while to adjust to life in such a high profile team. After a couple of seasons and a slight change in his approach to racing, he began to find his feet. With every race he gained more and more momentum, eventually establishing himself as a frontrunner even if he wasn't exactly welcomed to the podium fight with open arms, rather an elbow or two from the established guard. An XCO World Cup win still eludes him but he is certainly knocking harder and harder on that door, and you can bet that if and when we get racing in 2020 that Avancini will be in the mix at the sharp end once more.
Henrique's story is one that I could write scrolls and scrolls about, but in truth, I wouldn't be able to do it justice, so who better to tell it than the man himself?:
Going back to the start, how did you get introduced to riding and then later on racing?
My start in the sport was pretty gradual, when I was a kid at 6 or 7 years old my father opened a bike shop in my hometown. He started with a really small shop, more like a service shop, and one of the customers drove into his garage with their bike on the roof of the car and broke the frame. At that time it was still pretty hard to get bikes and kit, especially for a small boy. He took this frame and made a smaller frame from it, the guy was 1 metre and 90cm tall so it was like a massive frame, and I was I don’t know, small! He made a really small version from this broken frame for me, the first bike was built with leftovers from the service shop. This is how I got into mountain biking, that was my first mountain bike and it was nice to grow up in this environment.
After school, my favorite place to go was always to the shop. I was reading magazines and catalogues all day. I knew the specs from every single moto from a few brands, I just enjoyed it so much to see the riders passing by to leave for training or coming to get their bikes serviced. This was a lifestyle that I really enjoyed, a good part of my childhood I spent inside this bike shop and I have really, really good memories from this time. I was always really competitive with myself mainly, so the first thing I started to do when I got this bike was finding hills around my home and I was doing it 10, 15 maybe 20 times and trying to improve my time. I always had this really competitive nature in me and I always enjoyed the training in a way, for me whenever I said I was going training I felt good with myself as it felt like I was doing something special.
I think at one point my old man just thought okay maybe we can go to a race to see if you like racing or not. I remember at the first race I was 8 years old, the categories were spread across a bigger age range so I was racing against some bigger boys and I remember on my first race that I finished second. I had this mountain bike with no clip pedals, I had cantilever brakes, I had no suspension and stuff like that… The boy who beat me had clip pedals, suspension, v-brakes and all that and was 2 or 3 years older than me. When I finished the race, I started giving excuses, his bike was so good, he is so big… I’ll never forget that. It was one of the first lessons I got from my old man about racing or about life. He just told me hey, winning races is easy, but trying to win races is hard! I’ve just kept this in my mind in a way. In the end it was true, after that I stopped giving excuses about why I would lose a race and I just started to train harder and harder in my way and in my mind, I realised I needed to dedicate myself a little more to the sport if I want to win.
When did it become more serious and you started to think about making a career out of it?
That was a really hard path to find. Honestly, it was something crazy far from my reality. Thinking about racing a World Cup wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t that achievable. At the start, I really wanted to develop myself in the sport and I had this as more like a dream but the reality that I was living which was the Brazilian mountain bike reality wasn’t great. There were a couple of racers riding professionally who could make a kind of living out of mountain biking but to be honest they didn’t seem great. None of the riders could do anything impactful internationally and the races, the industry was a bit more amateur, it wasn’t professional so the environment hadn’t developed yet.
When I was young it was really hard to target being a professional mountain biker because first of all, I didn’t know or apparently I couldn’t achieve a good enough level to race in Europe or to be a top racer in Europe. I never had the chance to race against the under 17s worldwide, I didn’t have many chances to race on a junior world level so it was really hard to compare and say okay I can be good at that and one day I might make a career out of racing. It was really gradual. Until I was 18 I was always chasing this dream but I was mainly using this sport to open up new opportunities for me. I got the chance to go to a really high-level school just because of the sport, because I was racing and I was winning and in the newspaper, I was given a position at this school. I was using the sport this way to learn a new language. The first trip I did overseas was because of the sport so I was opening up opportunities to my life in general but not necessarily to build a professional career.
When I was 19 years old, my second year as a U23 I was racing for a team so that was kind of my first professional contract that I got in Brazil. All of a sudden there was a kind of feeling that this could go somewhere or that I could do it for a while before I could maybe find a real job. I was making some money, I was at the law university getting my studies paid for because I was racing bikes, it was kind of an alright situation finally. Then this brand got into a really deep crisis in 2008 and 2009 because of the financial crisis, it hit Brazil pretty hard especially the one that was related to the dollar market. Then they got a really big hit, they told us hey we are going to pay you 2 months, January and February, then we are going to see what we are going to do afterwards, but yeah you are on hold so do whatever you want…
Then I said okay I am going to take this money, it’s enough to travel overseas. That was on Thursday, on Friday I packed my stuff and I flew over to Cyprus to race the Sunshine Cup for 4 weeks. My intention was thinking that okay, things are not looking great here, I’m a bit on the edge, I don’t know if I’m going somewhere… I think this is the time to give it a shot. I took everything, I tried to go there to race the 4 weeks and to do well enough to maybe catch someone’s attention and try to sign a contract. It’s not easy to sign a contract in February/March! It’s almost impossible. I flew over, 19 years old, I remember I was in such a rush, I flew over with €200 in my pocket I think. I had no credit card at that time, before I left I took my old man’s credit card and I booked a place where I had full board, so I found this hotel and it was kind of an average distance from the races so I would need to ride 10 to 70km to each event so I could race before riding back to the hotel. I booked this one because it was full board with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I thought okay I have 3 meals a day, I have somewhere to sleep, and I have 4 races to do, so I am pretty much sorted!
When I landed it was Saturday at 1 am or something, I went to the hotel and the guy said yeah, but there is no booking under your name… the credit card was refused. All of a sudden I didn’t know how to deal with all of that. I tried to rebook my flight back home and it was like €700, I said oh s*** now I am stuck in Cyprus, I have no money, I have nowhere to sleep! It was just crazy because I was just surviving every week, I have some deeply crazy stories about those 4 weeks in Cyprus! I was racing every weekend, I had to be in the top 10 as I needed the money to eat and sleep the following week until I got the chance to fly back home. In the last week, I had a meeting with a guy and he offered me a contract for 2 years in Europe so that’s how I ended up living in Europe! Until I got to this point it was really hard to see mountain biking as a possible profession. After this point, things still didn’t get easier!
But you knew you had to make this step by coming over to Europe?
Yeah for sure. I think that was the main benchmark in my career, the main decision that I took to take this path. Before I was kind of halfway here, halfway there. I couldn’t really see the possibility, it wasn’t about dedicating myself to the sport because I was doing that but I was doing it for passion and just for a dream that I had, but to be honest I saw myself at a point that I thought okay, if I become really good at that I’m still going to need to balance it with different work because the reality 12 years ago in Brazil was crazy far from what we have now. I couldn’t see racing bikes as a professional at that time.
Speaking of Brazil, what’s the mountain bike scene like there? It seems like Brazilian athletes in any sport always have a pretty passionate following?
This is something interesting because it’s pretty parallel to my career, especially the last few years. I would say from 2015, 16, 17, in those 3 years the mountain bike scene in Brazil just exploded. We just went through a massive boom. Even in 2012, I was the second rider in Brazil for the Olympic season, for 6 months I had no sponsor. By this time I lived in Europe for 3 years between 2009 and 2011 and then I came back to Brazil to race the selections for the Olympics. By this time even if I was one of the best riders, I still struggled so much to find just decent support that would give me a couple of bikes and enough money to just travel to the races. That was pretty much the scenario we had at the time.
After that, things started to change little by little, especially because some of the national brands, starting with Caloi, that was the brand that I signed with halfway through 2012, we started a project that was one of the main changes inside the bike market in Brazil. They started to sell top-level bikes at pretty much half the price of the imported bikes and this pushed quite a lot of the big brands to change their operation in Brazil so now we have Trek, Specialized, Cannondale mainly, all with their own operation in Brazil and I think this was a necessary consequence regarding what the national brands started doing starting with Caloi back then. I think it changed quite a lot because the events started growing, I started to bring attention to the sport with the media, so a lot of people got more into it and the industry itself became way more professional. Before we had small offices at the big towns, mainly São Paulo, operated by 5 or 6 people, and now they had to switch to a completely new way of operating things and it became more of an industrial level. Right now when you go to Manaus where the big brands produce or build their bikes it’s crazy, we are talking about thousands of employees, the factories are really modern and the level is pretty high.
So everything kind of grew up together and right now we live in a very healthy environment when you go to the races we have a really solid race. We have a crowd of 20,000 watching national races so that’s pretty insane to have a World Cup crowd on a national calendar race. It’s just crazy to see how big it is, I’ve some good media coverage and to get this passionate following that you mentioned you need to achieve big results. Once you achieve that the Brazilians are pretty emotional, they become really proud because they understand that it is never easy to get there, especially once you break barriers. If you’re the first one in a sport to achieve a high level you get a crazy amount of attention. You get a lot of attention because it just touches the heart in a way and people feel proud to be your countrymate. I think this is what I’m going through now. The national following that I get is really strong, it’s really loyal. Of course, it’s something great to have on my side but it also adds a different kind of pressure, a different kind of expectation because those guys expect the next step. So they are not happy if I keep stepping on the podium at a World Cup, it’s not enough anymore! I need to do more! You need to learn how to deal with that.
We need a World Cup in Brazil again then...
Yeah! It would be very, very shocking to people who came in 2005/06, if they came to a World Cup now anywhere in Brazil it would be really, really clear how much the sport has developed here. Now when I look back to those World Cups that we had in Brazil I feel kind of ashamed, it wasn’t like a real World Cup. What makes me really confident now to have a World Cup here now is because I’d say it would be a shocking surprise for everyone coming here because it would be crazy. Even myself, I wouldn’t know what to expect to be honest! It would be something hard to control! I think this is something that has to happen, and I think there is a chance for it to happen.
What were those early years racing with Caloi like?
In the first year in 2013, we were more focused on trying to build the new face of the brand and trying to organise the team. It was the first UCI team that Brazil ever had and it was a project pretty much led by myself, it took some time to put things on track. In 2013 I did just one World Cup which was Mont Sainte Anne and I finished inside the top 30, 28th I guess. I won a big race in Europe in spring, the Bundesliga in Münsingen, it was my first big win and it was also one of the most important moments in my career just in terms of self-belief, just in the way I rode the race and the guys I beat in the race. That was something that just gave me hope that okay I really can get to the top level.
In 2013 I didn’t race much internationally, but in 2014 I did some more races. I think I did 5 or so World Cups and I had some decent performances. I remember I had a lot of mechanicals this year, I was struggling a lot with flat tires. I think my best result was top 25 in Meribel, France at the last round. That was pretty much my level at the time, I was kind of an average rider on the international field which is not bad, don’t get me wrong. To ride in the top 25/30 at a World Cup you need to have decent legs and decent skills but at this level I couldn’t catch any attention internationally because I was a bit too exotic, it didn’t make much sense to ride for a big brand or a better team at that time. It was also hard to get a lot more attention in Brazil. I was risking a lot at this time, at times it was better to focus internationally or focus nationally because if I could grow nationally I could eventually get better conditions or I could try again to go to an international environment and focus on developing myself for the big events. I stayed kind of halfway and was doing both and that was pretty critical, but it was risky. But I think that gave me a lot of experience to do things the way I do now so I don’t regret it and I think it worked out.
In 2015 you joined Cannondale. How did that move come about and what was it like making a jump to such a big and professional team? Did it make a noticeable difference in your preparation for racing?
That was a massive step for my career. The opportunity came around because Caloi was bought by Cannondale at the end of 2013, so they became a sister brand. There was the chance and the Brazilian market all of a sudden became super important for Cannondale and they needed a rider to go on the Factory Team, but I was really concerned at the time because at Caloi I was the guy who had the voice and I could do things my way and I was leaving one of the best moments of my life, everything I was doing was bringing positive things to the sport. It was nice to leave all that, it was nice to be growing as an athlete but also to be doing significant and relevant stuff for the industry and the sport, that was also boosting me in a way.
Once I stepped up to Cannondale I had to do nothing, I was kind of back into a crazy professional environment. I was surrounded by sports stars and I just felt like a worker, at times I felt like I didn’t belong there and it was really hard at the beginning for me as most of the time I was just spending so much energy just to follow the routine. Things that are just really natural to those guys I had to learn how to do, for example having team meetings, I wasn’t used to that. I never had team meetings as a rider, I was always having meetings to negotiate things, to plan things, to solve problems… but I never had team meetings before to speak about how my day was, or how my training was! That was my own problem back then! Everything was so scheduled in a way, we eat at this time, we eat here, we leave at this time, we get there at that time… In the end those things are just to make you more organised and to make your life simple but to me, it was just crazy hard to follow that because before I was doing everything pretty much on my own. I had to go to the supermarket, I had to go to the registration. I was just adapting all the time, you just check the schedule and okay I’m too tired to go pick up the numbers just now, I’ll go in 2 hours. Or okay it’s stopped raining, I’ll go train. I could do everything the way I wanted as I was just doing everything myself or eventually with a teammate. It was just a different way of working, in the end it was harder but it was easier in a way, there was a bit more freedom. Once I stepped into Cannondale I felt that all the expectations were a lot higher, now I have everything that I need to perform, I have a great bike, good professionals, good teammates…
I had nothing to hold me back but on the first 2 seasons I just struggled so much. The way I saw it, when I signed with the team, nothing can stop me anymore. Now I have everything in my hands to perform well. I just wanted that so bad that I tried too hard, too many times. I remember 2015, our first race together was the Cyprus Sunshine cup and I did really well, I finished second in the overall, I lost to Vogel who was flying early that season when he signed with Focus. There was a pretty high level at the race with Giger, Kulhavý, Marotte, Tempier… So some world-class riders, I did really well, I nearly won the race. I lost a few seconds after 4 days. After that, I did some more races and before the World Cup, around 5 weeks before the World Cup I had a small crash and ended up with a small fracture on my right foot and I was in pain, I couldn’t touch the ground. I went to the hospital, they spotted the fracture and put me in a cast. I said s***, now I can’t go to the World Cup and I’ve lost my big chance and I had to show that I could perform well.
I went back home and I couldn’t sleep the whole night and once it got light at 5 am I went to the kitchen and got a knife and I cut the cast off, jumped on my bike and rode 180km… Just because I felt like nothing was going to stop me and I need to face it. The pain was still there and I couldn’t do the training properly, I was always fighting so hard against the pain. That was pretty much the main mistake that I did in those first 2 seasons with Cannondale, so I couldn’t really ever perform great. I did a couple of top 25s but I pretty much kept my level from the years before riding with Caloi. I couldn’t really improve my results, I improved a little bit here and there, I think my best result was top 20 in Nove Mesto in 2016, but I couldn’t go through the next barrier. I couldn’t step up.
You’ve still got a bit of involvement with Caloi in running the Caloi Avancini Team, could you just explain a little about that program? Are you just trying to invest a little back into Brazilian XC racing?
When I look at my career, for so many years I had the level that I have now in terms of the physical aspect but it took me crazy long to start understanding the sport in a wider picture. What I try to do with those boys is to teach them how to build a career in a professional way, speaking as an athlete, speaking as an ambassador. I just tried to give them the time to develop the right way, to take the right steps and to not rush the process like I did in my early years. Once they understand that it’s really nice to see how much they step up, the most important is they are understanding how they are stepping up. I created this project back in 2015 once I signed with Cannondale I still had this side of me that thought okay I can still organise a team, I was doing that for my team for myself before so now I just wanted to use my image that was getting more exposure to get sponsors to organise a small team to try to bring on the next generation of riders in Brazil. It started on a really low level and then we were stepping up year by year and then in 2018, 3 years ago, we made a really big step up.
Now we have 2 UCI teams, Cannondale Brazil Racing and the Caloi Team, one is an U23 team where we work with younger riders and the other is more focused on elite riders, still a development program. The idea is just to make a flow, a path that they can follow and grow and develop their career. I think it is great that I am able to do these things, I feel really blessed in a way to have the power and the influence to achieve this kind of project and get this type of support. I think it reflects a lot on this scene, a lot of people started thinking a lot more about young riders, how they see the sport. In the last few years once the industry grew up we started having bigger events, better exposure, everything grew up in Brazil, but the racing scene grew up on a marketing point of view but we didn’t follow the same level on a sporting side of things. There were a lot of riders living in the sport but they didn’t know how to develop their performances. So the sporting side was left aside a little bit, the image side was well used so what I tried to do with my project was to connect both things a bit more. So to focus a bit more on performance on long term sportive development, alongside that we still communicate, we still produce a few things to communicate the brands with some nice content. But the main goal is to make those young riders take the best out of their bodies in a way.
From the outside 2017 looked to be the year when things started really gaining momentum for you with some strong finishes, signing off the year with 4th at Worlds. Would you agree with that?
When I look back to 2017, I wouldn’t say I developed so much as a rider, but I started learning how to deliver what I had already. I think that was a really important year in my life. I got my first top 10 in Andorra in 2017 and I think someone who helped me a lot in this process was Phil Dixon, the current Performance Manager for Cannondale Factory Racing. It was the second year we worked together and we just made a few small changes in the way I was racing and also in how early I would come to the races, we started to adjust a little bit better the timing of the things and all of a sudden... I still remember the top 10 in Andorra. I finished the race and I couldn’t believe it, it was actually one of the easiest races of my career and suddenly I‘m in the top 10. I just held back on a few occasions during the race, I made the right moves, I was chilled and I didn’t have many expectations for the race. All of a sudden it was the last lap and I was inside the top 10 and I said I think I can finish in the top 10?! Then when I crossed the line inside the top 10 I was like woah, that was actually the easiest World Cup that I’d done so far!
After that I just got the confidence to see things in a different way and to believe that I have the legs to be there, I just need to know how to use the legs in a better way. After that I just switched the mindset I had for racing a bit more, I wasn’t facing the races the right way and after 2017 everything started connecting a little bit better and by the end of the year I finished 4th in Cairns at World Champs, I was active at the front of the race, I led the race for a few moments, I did some attacks and I just missed the medals. After that, from the racing, I just got even more confidence in the way I was training, it was just easy and it became like a big snowball rolling down the hill. I just got the validation that okay, the way I face the sport in training is the right way, I was just delivering it the wrong way which is something that is taking me to a better level. After that it was just easy to believe a little bit more in the things that I was doing, then it was just easy to keep going. It was crazy. Once I had delivered in a couple of major races I just started lining up at World Cups with a completely different feeling. You stop asking yourself and stop questioning yourself if you’re able to ride there and if you’re really able to perform.
You’ve then carried that front running form ever since, being a regular podium contender and winning threat. Your tactic looks like you like to lead from the front and be at the sharp end the whole race?
That’s the reason I race the way I do, I wasn’t always there, I wasn’t always a top rider. Once I started trying to race a bit more at the front I never got an inch from the guys. Every time I tried to position myself there and said okay I’m going to put myself on the second wheel or third wheel, it didn’t take long till I got an elbow. Everyone kind of saw me as, okay that’s not your place so put yourself in your place, it’s a bit further back… It was always hard to ride from the front not leading, then I realised that I had the legs to be there. I always felt I had to battle way, way more than the other riders to ride inside the top 5, I said okay if I have the legs then I’m going to start racing the way I race all the other races which is being active and then I started to race the way I learned my whole life which is from the front.
At times to me, I save way more energy and I know how to read the race a lot better when I’m leading the races. Not many people can understand that because they think that I’m just wasting energy and doing the race for the other guys but for most of the races this is the best way that I can ride in terms of saving energy and to manipulate the race in a way to make the guys put in effort in a way that’s good for me. So I kind of balance things a little bit more my way, especially on short tracks. It’s a fast race, it’s more open so has a bit more wind effect. Most short tracks I’m leading most of the race and I’m not often outside of the top 3 or fighting for the win, it just shows me that in theory that it’s not the best way to face the race but it’s how I know how to face the race and I think I need to respect my characteristics.
Also, from a personal point of view, I see that a lot of riders end up winning big races and perhaps they never get full credit because of how races unfolded, like okay this is a top 5 guy and he won the race because someone else got a flat or someone else had a bad day or someone else wasn’t there and stuff like that. I’m getting closer and closer to winning and I’m pretty sure that it’s going to happen this season, I think nobody is going to say I won something by chance because no one can deny that I try to make the race happen, I try to grab the win, I tried to be active in doing that. It’s not like I wait and maybe one guy crashes and the other breaks a chain and then I win. That’s not the way I race. I think people kind of appreciate watching me racing because they know that I am not going to hide, I’m not going to avoid trying to win the race. Even if I fail quite often I’m still trying, and that’s the way it’s going to be. Every other win that I have in big UCI races, the Marathon Worlds in 2018, I was active. I was building the race to lead me to a position where I could fight for the win. I like to race that way and I think it’s the right way to race.
There have been a few near misses with the top step, particularly last season, is there any lingering frustration that you didn’t manage to close one out? Or are you quietly confident that it’s coming?
When I started 2019, I started with the thought that maybe I would be able to win a race this season. I wasn’t really sure yet, I wasn’t like okay I have everything that I need to win I just had this kind of hope and this belief that I could achieve that, but I wasn’t sure. I think mainly in Andorra and Les Gets I probably had the level to win the race, but I lacked confidence in times to hold back a little bit more or to use all the effort a bit more, so I was a little bit too confident in what I could deliver but I was also afraid to miss opportunities, so I was overactive during the races. I think that was important to me in a way. I see myself as a guy that has a lot of experience in preparing for races because I had to prepare a lot and I had to probably prepare more than other riders, so I had to dig deeper than other riders to step up and step up and step up over and over.
I have the winning experience, I’ve won a lot of races in my career, but I don’t have the riding in the front experience which is something different at bigger events, at World Cup events. Everything gets added on top because you need to face more technical sections when you are leading, you need to deal with the star effect of all the riders so the environment is a bit more charged, you have the environment with the teams, the pit area everything like that. Everything like that affects your mind quite a lot and the way you’re going to race so it wasn’t something natural to me. I always had to think a bit more about the race. I’m still stepping up physically which is perhaps where I was already on a really good level, I’m developing really well on the technical side and my racing experience is just getting bigger and bigger so I know that it’s going to come at some point.
You did manage to take home the rainbow stripes at Marathon Worlds in 2018 though, what was it like to put on those rainbow stripes? And how does racing marathon compare to XCO in terms of approach?
It’s not a bad feeling, I can tell you! To win a world title is quite something but to me, it was even more special because of a few reasons actually. First of all, I won in the Dolomites in Italy and that was the region where I lived in 2011, my last year in Europe when I was a young rider. At that time I was really unsure if I could follow the professional dream or not. At this time the team collapsed mid-season and I was living in a friend’s house and I had no money to come back to Brazil. I was in a situation that was so uncomfortable and so frustrating because the years before I wasn’t sure if I could follow the dream because I wasn’t in the right environment, but during this time I was inside the right environment. In those times in Europe, still after 3 years, I couldn’t become someone relevant for the sport.
So to get back there riding for a big brand, I was number 2 in the UCI ranking then and I started the Marathon Worlds there and I won the title in the same area. It was something so emotional to me, to look back a few years to see where I was and what I was living in at the moment, stepping on the podium with the rainbow stripes on my chest. It was something so deep, so emotional. It was more than becoming World Champion, it was looking briefly back to my journey, something so deep, something so nice to look back and to see that it was worthwhile to keep believing and to keep trying to do great things. After that everything just got way, way easier to me in doing some other side projects for the sport, for bike culture and stuff like that. It was something that was crazily important in my life.
And about comparing cross country racing to marathon racing, I think winning Marathon Worlds is way more unpredictable, the race is way wilder in a way. I think cross country races, and this is one of the aspects that I think we could push a little bit more for a change, cross country races are becoming a bit more predictable in a way at top level. Marathon races at times there is a guy that has the expectation to win the race but if he approaches the race the wrong way, or if someone changes the race in a way that’s not good for this rider, then he might end up out of the top 10 or top 20 or doesn’t even finish the race. It’s way more open which I like, I think it adds some value to the race. For example, in 2018 we had this 102km course with 1000m of climbing, a crazy, crazy hard course, so much singletrack with so much climbing, and everyone focuses on the climbs. I showed up riding a full suspension, and I was one of very few riding a full suspension in the race and I was just hammering down the hills because I wanted to hurt the guys so bad on the way down just to make them push even harder at the start of the climbs. That’s how I managed the race, I was taking the edge all the time, during that 5 hours of riding I was taking the edge of the guys little by little and little by little they were getting slower on the climbs so I think in marathon races you have the chance to have a different strategy, to ride a different way, to attack earlier, mid-race, or late in the race, or to hold back or whatever. In cross country you don’t have so many variations, you can still face the race with some different strategies but it’s way more predictable.
From my side it seems like cross country racing becomes more intense year on year with more contenders and closer racing, does it feel like that on the bike?
To me, it feels a bit different, and I don’t think my view is the right one, you probably see it the right way, just because I am stepping out of the mid-pack to the top level so I tell you once you ride a World Cup in the top 30, it’s a nightmare! There is no religion back there, no one has a mother back there! It’s a proper war I tell you! There is absolutely no respect between the riders so once you break the barrier and ride in the top 10 it’s a walk in the park when compared to the midpack because everyone has a bit more respect and everyone is already getting a nice result, so if you ride in the top 5 no one goes mental because if you go mental you are risking a World Cup podium, so most riders wait for the right moment to go mental. They don’t go mental on lap 2! If you are midpack people go mental start to finish, they are trying crazy overtakes, it’s a hard battle!
That’s why I said in my view it’s a bit different because in the last few years since stepping up and racing at the front, even if racing at the front the pace is crazy fast you don’t really feel like you are going faster and faster because the process is pushing you into this reaction. It comes naturally, you don’t feel like you are breaking barriers and are getting faster and faster and that the race speed is getting crazier every race. When you look at the numbers ,yes it’s getting faster, physically the races are getting more demanding year by year so if I look back on my last 3 seasons I’ve been stepping up physically and the results are not stepping up on the same margins, so everyone is stepping up as well. Mainly the mechanical aspect of the sport, the technical side of the sport is stepping up quite a lot, I think you can now handle the bike way faster and this is probably the area I’ve been investing in the most. The development of my skills and this is crazy necessary, it’s totally necessary to improve yourself in those areas.
What’s the relationship like between the top racers? For example, I’d imagine it’s a different dynamic to that of the downhill guys and girls, you are physically racing bar to bar and not just against the clock.
I sense that. To me, related to the top riders, at times I have a feeling that a few of them don’t really enjoy having me around just because I’m not one of those guys with a champion’s pedigree, you know with that image they are like okay this guy has always been something so I’m not ashamed to be beaten by them. Some of the riders understand that I’m there but it’s a bit hard to accept that I’m there. It’s not a kind feeling or a kind behaviour from some of the riders.
Also, I understand that I’m not a guy who is all smiles to everyone, so I see myself as a hard competitor in the way I race, I always had to find my place in the field so I raced hard for every single place that I could. Some of the riders it’s kind of alright between them but some of them there is a strong rivalry, but it depends from case to case. Take an example, I think Mathieu is a really good boy, the way I see him. I see him as just a boy when you look at him as a person, still a young guy you know, quite fresh, but as a racer, he is a killer and I like that. He is a guy that is a smooth character off the bike but once you put him on the start line he is going to race to win, no matter what the race or how he feels. He is going to try hard to win. I like that because he doesn’t hide his character and he is just a racer. He likes to race on the track but off the racecourse he is just the same, you might like it or not but he is original. He’s not a guy playing any games outside the race.
During the Cape Epic last year you made a few comments about Nino Schurter saying “it would be nice to have some microphones on the bikes and then people could see who is the real Nino“ as that he “gives s*** to every rider on the peloton, nobody knows this side of him”. Was that simply said in the heat of the moment and then blown out of proportion of sorts?
I don’t know, I look back and think if there is anything I regret. if I regret speaking about that in the way I felt, but to be honest I don’t regret it at all speaking about that. I think that is why I don’t avoid the subject if people want to talk about that. It’s just something that I don’t feel good about, the way he acts in the peloton. I mean he is a really dominant character and he knows how to use that to his favour and I clocked that before in a few other situations and I knew that it would always come back again. So it’s not that he’s unrespectful to other riders, but it’s the way he uses his influence. So he wants to control the way other athletes act during the race, just because in theory he is the most important guy there and I don't like that. I don’t think you should race the race for others. He controls that and most of the riders don’t know how to react, to me I think if you’re going to speak during the race you need to be open to speaking after the race.
The thing that always bothered me a little bit more and annoyed me a little bit more about him is that he was always aggressive during the race and inside the race, which you might agree or not, I don’t think it’s about right or wrong, but if you’re going to act like that I think you can’t cross the line and pose like a nice boy. You cannot act like you’re a smooth character and that you had lots of fun and that you are a friend of everyone else… So if you want to be a fighter on the course then okay, speak as a fighter. I think I’m a very clear and open person, a lot of people don’t like me and I understand. You’re not really pleasant to everyone once you acted that way and I think that is why I see myself as a different person. When I compare myself to him as a character because he just acts in a really different way from inside the race to outside of the race. That’s why I said the things I said at this time and I still stand by the same, I just would say it in a smoother way because I could be kinder! But anyway, I still see it the same way.
Talking of the Cape Epic the 2020 running was of course cancelled, that had more emotional significance as it was set to be the final pairing with you and Manuel Fumic… Was that perhaps tougher than World Cups and even the Olympics being cancelled? It looked like the team had invested a lot emotionally into that race.
Aw man, that was a massive emotional impact on all of us. To be honest, when I hear about postponing the Olympics now or cancellation of Worlds, it doesn’t even come close to the canceling of the Cape Epic because all the other races I see it like okay if it happens it happens… If the whole season gets canceled there is next year or in 2 years… I’m probably still going to be there and if not I’m mostly fine with that but missing the chance to race with Fumic in what would be in theory the last chance for us at the Epic was a massively big impact on me. I needed a few days to digest all of that because it was something that I wanted so bad, that I wanted to give it a try once more. We prepared quite a lot this year and we prepared better than ever before. It’s not that I want to win the race that bad, the Cape Epic, but I wanted to win with Fumic that bad. That was something that really touched me, and I think for most of the team, everyone in the team it had a massive impact on. It was a big hit.
How are you coping with the current coronavirus situation? Is it difficult to structure your training with no real known end goal for the moment?
When I look back at my career, I had to face a lot of times when I had to train not knowing when the next chance to go to a World Cup or big event. After the Epic, I got home the fastest I could and took 8 days off the bike. To be honest, I felt like I raced the Epic, I felt so broken emotionally that I was so tired and I had absolutely no energy to do things. I just took some time off and after a week we caught up and we took the next steps. I took this time off and in doing so I realised that this is pretty much like how my life went for quite a long time! I can do that.
After that, I just started cracking on with training and now I’m training like I would race in a few weeks. To be honest, I could race a World Cup in 1 or 2 weeks and I probably would still put in my best performance. Training wise I had to adapt quite a lot in terms of the areas I can go, or how I can do my training but I mean if I compare my cross country lap, the long climb that I do some tests, over the last few weeks I broke every personal record that I had. So I think that tells myself in a clear way that I’m dealing with the situation the right way.
I think it is a really good chance to work on a few areas that I had no time to work on anymore. In everything that I’ve achieved I never really relied too much on my talent because I never saw myself as a very talented rider so I always needed time to work. I always needed time to find the areas where I could develop and to give attention to those areas and to develop myself. Now I just see that I have all the time that I need, so I am just using it. I am working a bit deeper on my mental training, I’m working a bit deeper on my breathing, I’m working deeper on my riding skills, the physical aspect is pretty much in place. I still had some margins to push on but we saved that for once we get the green light.
In a way it just motivates me quite a lot, it makes me realise how much I miss racing and I just want to be ready once we get the green light. I don’t want to just be ready to go back racing but I want to go back to racing on a better level than I was ever on before. That’s just my own motivation, that’s just how I feel. I feel really motivated to go out training just now, probably more than during the last few seasons. I just like to wake up in the morning and jump on the bike and to hit the targets even if we aren’t really sure when we are going to race.
Is it a frustrating situation to be in? You looked to be in good shape coming into the start of the season with that strong win in Banyoles.
Yeah man, there’s always a bit of frustration, but I don’t really let myself go this way and to start speaking about the what-ifs because otherwise, you are just wasting energy on things that you cannot control and that you cannot lead. The thing that I can control now and what I can grab myself is that I started the season and I was doing really well, I had a pretty solid and strong performance, I won a pretty big cross country race. Okay, that’s a good point to be and now I have even more time to work on where I was and I was already on a pretty good level. I think if I would race Banyoles today I would have an even better performance than I did back in February. I just hold this thought that I have the chance now to get to an even better level than I was. I’m not sure, maybe with the level I had in Banyoles, if we cold carry on with the season maybe I could eventually win a big race but I wouldn’t be so sure about that, but now I have time to work I’m more sure that I’m going to achieve the big win that I’m searching for. That’s the way I see it.
You became a father a few years ago, how has that been and has it been difficult being away from home so much whilst she’s so young?
It’s quite something! Once you become a father for the first time it’s a life-changing moment and it’s been really hard last season. In general, I spent nearly 200 days away from home, I had to fly out when she was 3 weeks old. We went back home and after 2 weeks I was leaving and I remember I was just crying like a baby! I’ve never felt so bad to leave home like I did that day. It was like I was abandoning her somehow, she didn’t even care you know but it was crazy hard. It was always hard because I’m always backwards and forwards for 2 or 3 weeks so it was always like I’m going now, and once I was back after 3 weeks she was doing so much new stuff and it was always shocking to see how much she is growing, and doing new things and learning new things. It was always hard to lose those small steps that the babies take but now that I have a bit more time I see her every day and I get to spend at least a couple of hours with her every day, even for some other stuff now like feeding her, giving her a bath, changing diapers, playing with her… To hear those things perhaps don’t change much in who is doing that to her, but to me it's really good to feel so connected with my daughter. When I go out for training and get back she makes such a mess because she wants to show that she is happy that I’m back, so she starts screaming Papa! Papa! Papa! A thousand times and showing me everything that she can find around the house. It’s a nice moment to spend some more time with her for sure.
Have you learnt anything over your career that you wished you had known at the start?
Oh boy. I could write a book about that! Yeah I did, it’s a long, long list! I think this is normal. It comes with maturity. It’s part of the learning process, even if you have the best mentality when you are young, which is something that I always missed, it’s like having my rider around me those days. I know quite a lot about the sport today but they need to learn things their way as well. They can’t rush their own process, they need to take the lessons the way they are going to understand and solve long term. I think mainly I tried to rush the process too much at times, I tried to push myself too hard at times.
I think that was the main lesson that I couldn’t follow when I was young, to be patient, to keep working, to keep expanding your limits but remaining patient. Give yourself time. I think for a really long period I couldn’t use the blessing of youth which is having time, I couldn’t understand that. Now even if I’m slightly older I give myself time, I still work pretty hard but at times I understand that the most important thing is to hold back. It’s to wait and allow the training to get into your legs, even if my body is not maturing anymore I’m still getting faster year by year just because I know how to be patient with the training that I do. I think this is one of the key lessons which is so hard to accept when you are young. I’d like to go back in time and say hey you idiot, be patient! And sometimes take a rest day!
What does the future hold for Henrique Avancini? What do you want to have achieved over the coming years both inside and outside of racing?
Oh boy! Outside of racing, it’s a long list because I think I can do a lot of things for the sport, for the bike culture. I think this is an endless road to follow, as long as I have energy, as long as I have ideas and I stay relevant for the sport, I want to be involved. Not only on the sports side, but I would go into a bigger picture and speak about bike culture as a general thing. On the racing side, on the sporting side of things, what I really like about my career and that is something I’m proud about is to share the message I can which is to say and prove with my history is that even if you’re not a naturally talented rider, even if you only a little bit talented you can still grow in the sport. You can still develop yourself in the sport, you can still achieve great things.
On my training side, my World Champion bike is on the wall and under the bike, I put a message which I take for myself which is that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. I do believe in that and I think my career backs it up. I think there are still a few open points in my career. The main one is winning a major cross country event, World Cup or World Champs, for sure I want to achieve that. Then I’m going to have the full collection, I’ll have shown that I can do well in pretty much every format of the sport and I think this is something that I want to achieve just to back up my words, even if you are not one of the natural superstars, even if you are in theory not born to be a top guy, you can still get close to those guys, and eventually you can still beat those guys. To be honest, that is my main goal as an athlete and I think it’s close to becoming a reality...