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Gunnar Holmgren flies to first World Cup XCO top 10 in Nove Mesto

Heartbreak for Jackson and a big double win for Ineos on Sunday

Photo by: Gunnar Holmgren follows Tom Pidcock in Nove Mesto. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

The race to the Paris Olympics kicked into overdrive on Sunday, creating wild and fiercely contested racing in the elite men’s and women’s XCO. Nove Mesto was the final World Cup in the selection period for the 2024 Olympics. That saw some riders surge to seize their last chance at going to the year’s Games while other’s watched that dream fade.

Gunnar Holmgren was one rider seizing the opportunity. The Ontario racer landed his first-ever elite World Cup XCO top 10 when it mattered the most. With that result, he puts himself in position to qualify for Paris.

For Jenn Jackson, Nove Mesto served up the opposite emotions. Riding in the front group early on, the Liv racer faded slightly out of qualifying position before a mechanical issue pushed her further back in the field.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot put Puck Pieterse in the rear view in Nove Mesto. Photo: WHOOP UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Elite Women: Ferrand-Prevot perfect in Nove Mesto

Nove Mesto marked the return of several heavyweight players to the elite women’s field. Puck Pieterse (Alpecin Decuninck), the World Cup winner in 2023, looked eager to announce her return and led off the line. Jolanda Neff (Trek) then Loana Lecomte (Canyon Cllctv) took turns on the front, making it clear the last event in Paris selection had a lot more riding on the finish than a single World Cup win. Jenn Jackson (Liv), hunting for a 12th place to meet Cycling Canada’s selection criteria, was looking comfortable in the front group in the early laps.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Ineos), though, did not wait long to put the rainbow stripes of her world champion’s jersey on the front of the race. It was also the French woman’s first World Cup of the season and, before the start loop finished, she stepped into the lead.

Haley Batten (Specialized), current World Cup leader, and Pieterse, took off in pursuit. While they briefly made contact with Ferrand-Prevot, the French racer wasn’t waiting around. She soon dropped Batten, then Pieterse and set off on her own.

Ferrand-Prevot would never look back. While she did put a foot down on Nove Mesto’s slippery roots and rocks on occasion, she never put a foot wrong. Her lead over Pieterse and Batten grew every lap all the way to the finish line.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot wins her first World Cup of 2024, emphatically, in her first appearance this season.

Elite women’s XCO World Cup podium in Nove Mesto. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

“It was a great race. I wanted to go at my own speed, and I knew I wanted to do the first lap at the front, so I pushed at the start and tried to maintain the speed,” Ferrand-Prevot said after the finish. “I can’t tell you I was feeling good, but I was just trying to ride my own race and push as much as possible.”

Behind, a fierce four-way battle for positions played out between Batten, Pieterse, Alessandra Keller (Thomus Maxon) and Laura Stigger (Specialized Factory Racing). Batten would escape the group, after several attempts, to take second. Keller rides home third with Pieterse and Stigger rounding out the extended podium in that order.

Jenn Jackson puts the maple leaf on the front in the women’s XCO Sunday. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Canadians in Nove Mesto

Jenn Jackson looked comfortable in the front group for the first half of the race but, by the middle laps, started to drift just outside that top 12 placing that was crucial to qualifying for Paris. A mechanical late in ther race added to the Liv Factory Racing rider’s woes, and she rolls home 29th.

With that result, Canada’s lone spot on the women’s cross country start line in Paris looks like it will go to Isabella Holmgren. The Lidl-Trek racer made a stunning under-23 World Cup win on Saturday, winning by a massive margin.

Sandra Walter makes a solid return to World Cup racing, finishing 44th in Nove Mesto. Laurie Arseneault (Pittstop Racing) follows close behind in 48th. Emma Olson finishes 74th.

That’s five wins in Nove Mesto, including four-straight elite XCO World Cup wins, for Tom Pidcock. Photo: Whoop UCI Mountain Bike World Series

Men: Pidcock puts field on notice

Another Ineos rider making his first World Cup appearance this year was Tom Pidcock. While the Briton looked sharp in Saturday’s short track (XCC), earning him a front row start on Sunday, he immediately found himself swarmed by the field and riding in the middle of the pack on Sunday.

Seeing an opportunity, Nino Schurter (Scott-SRAM) and World Cup leader Victor Koretzky (Specialized Factory Racing) and several others heaped on the pressure at the front to try distance Pidcock as he worked his way through traffic.

That tactic didn’t last long as the Ineos rider, also the world champion and defending Olympic champion, worked his way to the front after only a couple of laps.

Pidcock then moved through, and past the front group, which included Canada’s Gunnar Holmgren who was having an incredible ride, and tried to set off on his own. Only Schurter could match his pace, and even then only for a short while. The Swiss rider admitted after that he’d tried to go with Pidcock, but had eased off for fear of blowing up and ruining his own chances at Olympic qualification.

Sunday’s elite men’s XCO World Cup podium in Nove Mesto. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.

Schurter, showing significant fight, was able to hold the gap to 25 seconds for the later laps of the race. He wasn’t able to catch, but holds on for second. Marcel Guerrini (Bixs) finishes third, sure making things more complicated for Swiss selection committee.

Pidcock, never particularly one for politeness, said in post-race interviews that he’d only rode his mountain bike in one training session before Nove Mesto. Truth? Gamesmanship going into Paris? Who knows, but the Brit knows how to be entertaining for a camera, that’s for sure.

“Next time I need to practice my starts before I start on the front row, where everyone can see how bad it is. But once I got to the front I was able to settle in,” Pidcock added. Still he’s happy with the result, adding that the return to dirt was jarring. “When you’re putting in hours on the road, its pretty different than smashing out an hour and a half.”

Gunnar Holmgren follows Tom Pidcock in Nove Mesto. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Holmgren adds to family success

In the group chasing Pidcock was Canada’s Gunnar Holmgren. The Ridley KMC rider survived the chaos of a frantic early-race to pace himself perfectly and claim his first elite World Cup top 10. Riding in a group with the reigning stars of the sport, the Ontario rider looked calm and confident, passing the likes of short track world champion Sam Gaze to move up in the group.

Holmgren would end up eighth at the finish line. That’s not only his best World Cup result, but a huge marker for Canada’s Olympic selection criteria. It’s well inside the top-12 result needed to put him ahead of Carter Woods in the race for Canada’s lone men’s spot in Paris. Woods was, unfortunately, sick in Nove Mesto and unable to start Sunday’s elite men’s XCO.

It’s a performance Holmgren hinted at last year in Vallnord. And it’s surely one buoyed by his younger sister’s phenomenal showing yesterday in the XCO. It looks like, with that result, there will be two Holmgren’s going to Paris this July.