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Five things we learned from Canadian cyclocross championships

What has changed since 2019 and what hasn't

2022 Canadian cyclocross national championships Masters Photo by: Nick Iwanyshyn

It was exciting to see the Canadian cyclocross national championships return over the weekend. After two years,   a lot has changed, but there are also some things that are still the same. Here are five takeaways from 2022 ‘cross champs.

Isabella and Ava Holmgren race Bear Crossing GP
Isabella Holmgren leads her sister Ava in Sunday’s elite women’s C2. While both are national champs, rules only allow Ava to wear the elite jersey in the elite race. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn.

A Generation shift is happening. Fast.

In the several hundred days between 2019 nationals in Peterborough and 2022 nationals in Layritz Park, the youth were busy growing up.

The 2022 elite men’s podium, for example, looked a lot like the under-23 men’s podium in Peterborough.  Tyler Clark, who ended Michael van den Ham’s run of three-straight national titles, was 3rd in 2019. Quinton Disera and Gunnar Holmgren, second and third behind Clark Saturday, were seventh and first, respectively, three years ago.

The women’s race was even more extreme. Ava Holmgren was sensational in racing up from junior to win the elite women’s title ahead of veteran Sandra Walter. Holly Henry, a recent graduate to the elite field herself, was third. On Sunday, Ava’s twin sister, Isabella, won the elite women’s Bear Crossing C2, with the Holmgren duo finishing 1-2. Cyclocross is alive and well in Canada and the next generation is ready to represent the maple leaf around the world.

Quinton Disera hit the eyewear eject button mid corner, but still saw his way to silver. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn

Crossover athletes are good at ‘cross

Many of Saturday’s podium spots were filled by riders that primarily race on singletrack or pavement. Quinton Disera and Sandra Walter are mountain bikers who occasionally dabble in ‘cross. Both finished second in their elite races. Holly Henry races on the road for InstaFund, as does Toronto Hustles Luke Valenti (headed to Primier Tech U23 next year).

This makes sense. Cyclocross literally started as cross-training for road racers. While there’s been a rise in ‘cross specialists more recently, or generalists that got their start in cyclocross (Think Tom Pidcock, Mathieu Van der Poel, Wout van Aert or Blanka Kata Vas and Puck Pieterse), those using the sport as cross-training still have a place. Over the weekend, that place was on the podium.

This is a good thing, of course. It meant we got to see Jenn Jackson, Emilly Johnston and Gunnar Holmgren back on cross bikes, even if World Cup cross country racing now keeps them on bigger tires and flat bars the rest of their season.

Canadian nationals schedule needs to change

No one should be racing for an elite national title in the dark. That should be obvious, but it’s not what happened. Canadian nationals’ one-day format forces compromises at both ends of the schedule, not just on the elites. Masters women and all riders under 17 had to warm up in the dark early in the morning. The elite women raced the majority of their event after sunset.

One possible fix is really simple. Nationals is already a two-day event. Championship racing on Saturday and a UCI C2 race on Sunday. Moving masters championship racing to Sunday, or spreading it out over both days, would take a lot of stress out of the schedule while still giving the elites two days to race for very valuable UCI points. U.S. nationals are spread out over an entire week. We can make better use of the two days we have and give everyone a fair chance to race for the maple leaf.

The junior women’s field was bigger than ever over the weekend. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn.

Women’s fields are growing, starting with younger riders

Cycling Canada only recently introduced age categories for women’s championships in cyclocross. Not surprisingly, this has led to an increase in the number of women racing. In 2019, five racers lined up for the first junior women’s national championship. On Saturday, there were 12. That’s more than the elite women. The under-23 women’s field and elite women’s field were slightly larger than two years ago (nine u23 vs. eight in 2019 and nine elite vs. seven), compared with the elite men’s field that shrunk by four riders. Those aren’t huge fields, but nationals rarely pulls in big registration numbers for men or women.

High-level races are still missing in Canada

While the mountain bikers and roadies had a good showing in Victoria, there are some Canadians making a go of ‘cross as a career. Michael van den Ham, Maghalie Rochette and Sidney McGill are all putting cx first. This is awesome but looks hard. It means a ton of travel and heading to either the U.S. or Europe.

While Canada has fast cyclocross racers, there still isn’t a single series that brings them together on home soil. There are a ton of really strong local and provincial series across the country, as geographically diverse podiums in Victoria showed. But, for riders that show speed at these local races, the next step is a big one. Heading south for the USCX series or a long and expensive trip to Europe. Nationals is literally the only UCI race in Canada in most years. That makes it impossible for riders to step up from local racing without it being a leap. If we want to see more ‘cross racers come out of Canada, we have to support their development at home, not force them to travel for races.