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Inside Gunnar Holmgren’s excellent elite World Cup debut in Brazil

Canadian 25th at the 2022 season-opener in Brazil

Photo by: Caroline Gautier

Gunnar Holmgren opened the 2022 World Cup season with a huge result, leading the Canadian elite racers with a 25th in Brazil. That’s a solid result for any rider. For the Ontario racer’s first event in the crowded elite field, it’s huge.

I caught up with Holmgren over the phone to find out how his week in Petrópolis played out. He was in a van with his sisters and parents, headed to Fayetteville, Arkansas for this week’s spree of US Cup mountain bike races.

As we talk, it becomes clear that the result isn’t just a matter of fitness and bike handling skills. Surviving the crowds, furious start pace of a World Cup XCO and the jungle heat required the wisdom and experience of a veteran racer. That makes sense, considering how long Holmgren’s been racing. It also makes the 25th in Brazil all the more exciting, as it moves the Pivot Cycles-OTE racer up the start grid to where he can focus on racing from the line and not spend the first few laps fighting through the field.

Read on to find out all the details on Gunnar Holmgren’s Brazil World Cup success and what’s in store for 2022.

Gunnar Holmgren brazil World Cup XCO
Photo: Caroline Gautier
Canadian MTB: How was the course in Brazil? With the jumps and drops, it looked like it had a different feel than most World Cup courses.

Gunnar Holmgren: It was really unique.  It was a bit different than most European World Cups, with one long climb then it rolled around at the top for a bit and then one big descent. But it flowed really well.

Avancini and the crew down there did a really good job with building lots of features, making it flow well in training and in the race. All the riders I talked to said they had a lot of fun and I couldn’t agree more. It was fun to have a lot of air time, and it was set up well for the fans as well. The big stadium as you rolled into the finish line was so loud, every lap, even further back in the field.

I hope we can get back there again. They deserve a World Cup down there!

How was racing in front of huge crowds again?

It was crazy. That big of a crowd? It’s been a really long time. It was like a fully Euro World Cup, but maybe even a bit more.

How did the actual race go for you? It didn’t look like an easy course to move through the field.

It rained quite a bit the night before. I was pretty stoked at that. We had some time on course the week before in the rain, it was pretty muddy for the C1 race, so I knew what to expect compared to some of the guys that didn’t get to experience that. But I knew it was going to be a long day going in. I adjusted my pace to that and didn’t start too hard.

The race was an hour and a half, so 10-15 minutes longer than the other elite World Cup races. I knew with the heat, some guys would start too hard and start to boil over. So I really measured my pace and chose my spots wisely to put the gas down, made my way up the field slowly and made sure I could finish strong.

Gunnar Holmgren brazil World Cup XCO
Holmgren on the move in Brazil. Photo: Caroline Gautier
You raced the same course the week before and had good results. More than just knowing the track, did that give you confidence going into the World Cup?

I had a really good race the week before, moving up the field in a similar style. That got me a couple more points.

But we spent a lot of time on course then, so we had it pretty dialed. It definitely adds confidence having raced on the course before.

What does a start like this do for the rest of your season?

We’re headed to Nove Mesto and Albstadt next. I’m excited to give it another shot. I think it’ll be a bit harder over there, because there’ll be a couple more guys. But I know I could be up there. I know how to make sure my legs are good for those races. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m actually on the way to Fayetteville. We’re almost at the border.

Stepping back a bit – you started to get more results in under-23 at the end of 2020 and into 2021. Was there anything that changed between 2019 and 2020 that led to those results?

It was just progressing slowly and getting better at everything – training, racing, just knowing how to race better.

Riders get four years in the u23 category. Was it difficult to have confidence in that slow progression, that it was working and that the results would come?

I knew it was four years and that some guys get it right away and some guys take a bit longer. I just took a bit longer to get up there. But I knew if I kept working I’d eventually get up to the top.

Right at the end of the season I had a couple top-10s at the World Cup. That was a big help. But I’ve always been on the right track to get there.

Gunnar Holmgren brazil World Cup XCO
Holmgen focused forward in front of a loud Brazilian crowd. Photo: Caroline Gautier.
Between last year and this year, that’s not a slow progression to go from u23s to 25th in elite. That’s a big result for any rider. Was there something specific that clicked to speed up that progression?

Not really. I had a really good winter training with my teammates Marc Andre Fortier and Raphael Auclair, I think that’s made a big difference. We trained a lot in Spain and in Victoria (B.C.) and doing a lot of the work some guys aren’t game to do, I think. We’ve just been really solid with the basics and training extra hard.

You’re not the only one in your family that’s had a good year on bikes. Your sisters put in some excellent results on cross bikes and are now on Stimulus Orbea. Does seeing their success add motivation for your own racing?

It’s motivating for sure. I remember when I was their age heading over to Europe for the first time for ‘cross. They’ve been waiting for it for a long time, watching me over there. It’s cool to see them finally getting their opportunity. They’re actually in the back seat right now as we’re driving down.

It’s definitely motivating. We’ll get to see each other racing next weekend, too, which is fun.

Racing has always kind of been a family affair for you and your sisters. Does it feel weird being the only Holmgren not involved in Stimulus Orbea this year, with your father and sisters both involved in that team?

Is it weird? [laughter] No, not too weird. We still all live together and get to ride together a lot. I’ve got a good setup with Pivot team, and that feels like a second family, so everything’s all good!