When World Cup cross country racing starts this weekend in Albstadt, Germany there will be – at a glance – no less than five recent cyclocross world champions on the start line. They’re lining up in Albstadt with eyes on Tokyo this summer.
With cyclocross still not an Olympic sport, the disciplines stars are forced to choose between road, track and mountain bikes if they want to go to a Games. Increasingly, and with increasing success, they are choosing mountain bikes.
For years, the assumed progression for top riders was from cyclocross podium to WorldTour road team. Zdenek Stybar, Lars Boom both translated cyclocross success into strong careers on the tarmac. For Marianne Vos, cross shared calendar space with road and track competition. Perhaps the most dominant racer of her era, Vos won Olympic medals both on the road and the track, on top of her seven cyclocross world championship titles (and many more in road and track cycling).
Racing without limits
While some, notably Wout van Aert, are still following the path to greater fame on the road, another path is opening. A growing group of riders are racing beyond the limits of traditional cycling disciplines, mixing road, cyclocross and mountain bikes.
Pauline Ferrand-Prevot was the first to add mountain biking to her cyclocross and road racing calendar. The French rider famously won world championship titles in road, cyclocross and cross country mountain bike in the same year. After racing the road event in London, Ferrand-Prevot’s focused her Olympic ambitions on dirt.
Now, Mathieu van der Poel is charting a similar path. The dominant cyclocross racer is racing road, with incredible success. But when it comes to the Olympics, the Dutch rider is opting to take on Nino Schurter in the men’s XCO rather than try his hand at road racing.
Tom Pidcock has clearly taken note. The promising racer turned cyclocross results – and rainbows – into a contract to race on the road with Ineos, one of the peloton’s most prestigious teams. But in 2020, the same year he inked that deal, he won under-23 men’s cross country world championships (and eMTB world’s, for what that’s worth). Like van der Poel, he’s pinning his Olympic hopes in 2021 on knobby tires. The British rider lines up for his first elite World Cup in Albstadt this weekend, aiming to qualify for Tokyo.
The road not taken
All three of those stars – van der Poel, Ferrand-Prevot and Pidcock – are bringing their rainbow jersey pedigree to Albstadt this weekend. But they’re not the only cyclocross world champions lining up in Germany.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, 2020 elite women’s cyclocross world champion, is in Albstadt as well. After adding an under-23 XCO bronze medal in Leogang in 2020, and an under-23 World Cup win in Nove Mesto, the Dutch rider is also eying the Olympics off-road.
Evie Richards, who has under-23 cyclocross worlds titles in 2016 and 2018, is already a force to be reckoned with in the World Cup series. In the 2020 World Cup, she faced of in a sprint finish against Ferrand-Prevot at the Nove Mesto Short Track race, taking the win from the decorated French rider.
While both Alvarado and Richards have raced on the road, they appear to be aiming for the Olympic’s off-road. That mean’s prioritizing World Cup cross country events over the long, drawn-out road season.
Cyclocross racers aiming for the Olympics through mountain biking isn’t without precedent. Sven Nys, the most dominant cyclocrosser of his generation, raced to 8th in the 2008 men’s XCO in Beijing. He appeared again in 2012 at the London Olympics but, like many, fell victim to the Hadleigh Farm’s course and did not finish.
Nys’ forrays into mountain biking were, wile successful, more limited. The new generation of riders are racing mountain bikes more, putting more importance in their cross country pursuits and – more and more – contesting for the win off-road (and on).
What does this mean for cyclocross fans? More chances to see your favourite riders on course, outside of the winter months. Van der Poel is already shaking up road and mountain bike racing. With more riders choosing to mix disciplines, racing is getting more exciting across the board!