The Australian mountain bike community is a pretty tight one. If you’re into the scene it’s likely that you’re only one or two degrees of separation from some of our athletes that are in Vallnord, Andorra for the mountain bike world championships.
Unlike other sports where we cheer almost exclusively for the Aussies, you’re likely to be similarly pumped to see cross-country, downhill or trails riders from elsewhere unleash everything they have on the steep, mountain slopes of this high-altitude town.
Me, I’m excited for all of it. After a year of close racing in the women’s XC, this is the one I’m looking forward to the most.
Live streaming of these events has provided exposure for the women’s racing that we’ve never seen before. You can hear these ladies puffing from exertion as they take on ridiculously steep climbs. You can watch them rail down similarly steep, rough descents on lightweight XC bikes with hardly any suspension.
Different courses suit different riders. I’ve loved seeing these battles play out in real time, showing me how diverse an athlete's skillset needs to be to stay consistently at the top.
Switzerland’s Jolanda Neff (Stöckli) will be a marked women on Saturday night. She’s won the World Cup series in the elite category twice already, despite the fact that she’s still an Under 23. She has acquired special permission to race the Elite category this year for the championships, apparently three consecutive Under 23 world championship titles (2012-2014) are enough for her.
Neff rides fast from the gun. She can climb with the best of them, but it’s her technical skills that give her the edge. She’s so quick on the descents that commentators typically describe her competition as slow. They’re not. Neff just rides at another level, one that is regularly airborne.
French road and cyclocross world champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabo-Liv) will be riding for the win as well. She’s only raced three world cup round this year and achieved podiums in all of them.
‘PFP’ won Round 5 of the series in Windham, New York, then skipped the final round to prepare for the world champs instead. She’s already backed up last year’s gold in the XC team relay this week, showing she’s in form and determined for more.
The world cup season has shown there are several other athletes ready to turn the leader board on its head with the top ten changing at every round.
Danish national champ, Annika Langvard (Specialized Racing), won the final world cup round two weeks ago at Val di Sol in Italy. The stage race and marathon queen, who has also claimed victories in the Cape Epic, the marathon world championships and the Leadville 100, was genuinely surprised with her win as she crossed the line. She comes across as such a lovely person off the bike that, as a spectator, you get carried along on the joys of the journey with her.
@iamspecialized_wmn: Commanding, dominant—these are just a couple words that we could use to describe @annika.langvad's year to date. Cape Epic, Leadville 100, and a World Cup race in one season? We think it's safe to let her results speak for themselves.
Current marathon world champion, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå (Multivan Merida) will be one to look out for too. She claimed her 29th World Cup win in Lenzerheide this year, placing her in the record books for the most world cup victories since the discipline began.
While Neff pedals the course with a quick cadence and a loose, playful style on the descents, Dahle Flesjå’s style couldn’t be more different. Her slow powerful cadence matches Neff’s for speed when both riders are having a blinder, but the multiple world champion from Norway is so still in her upper body she looks like she’s hardly moving at all.
Dahle Flesjå’s descending style is similarly controlled, and her experience and head game speak volumes about wisdom learned from racing so long at the top.
Australian eyes will be on Rebecca Henderson (Trek Factory Racing) who finished last year’s world champs in 15th. She gets faster every year and is inspiring a new generation of female cyclists back home. She pushed into the top 10 in the opening round of the world cup season in May with a career best finish of eighth.
@bechenderson27: It's been a rocky road to Worlds but I can't complain about the lifestyle!! A few sick days off makes it all the nicer to be outside! #sickdays #sunnydays #mtbworldchamps #andorra
@bechenderson27: Our sneaky photographer @mdelormephoto caught me cutting laps of the World Champs course today! All in all a good day out on a fun and physical race track. #mtbworldchamps #onetogo #vallnord #andorra #teamaustralia #procaliber
The season has been long for Henderson. She was under enormous pressure during the Australian summer to secure our country a female spot at the 2016 Rio Olympics. After a DNF in the penultimate world cup round in Windham, she skipped Val di Sol to recover from burn out in time for the champs. She was still fighting the effects of a cold during the team relay and is hoping for a return to form for Saturday night.
Seen in a broader context, most Australians will be proud of Henderson however she performs at the champs. On a good day she’s been racing wheel to wheel with the suite of current and previous world champions, including others in addition to those already mentioned, all of whom will be fighting for another number one spot this weekend.
Imaginations at home run wild just fantasising about what racing at that level must feel like. It’s been over a decade since we’ve had a female to cheer for so close to the top.
Australian road champion, Peta Mullens (riding for Wiggle Honda on the tarmac and SRAM Yeti Racing on the dirt) qualified to race at Andorra. She withdrew from the competition after a fatiguing lead up signalled she wouldn’t put out the performance she was capable of.
@petamullens: A sunkissed welcome home to #australia Back in lycra after ten days of recovery saw me rolling along the coast in #perth #cantbreath #amiataltitude? #gotfat
“The decision to pull out of the World Championships was actually an easy one,” wrote Mullens, an eight-time national champion, in eight different disciplines, on her personal blog.
"Not only would my result be embarrassing…but the two week stint would cost me in excess of $2,500 and I find it unjustifiable to spend that much money on bad memories.”
A little part of me crumbles when I read insights like that. It shows that whatever funding we do have to support elite mountain bikers in this country, it still takes a huge amount of personal investment just to make it to the start line. I’m sure every other athlete lining up at that start line has put a lot on the line just to be there too, which makes their achievements all the more emphatic and inspiring.
Adding to the challenges of simply reaching the start line in Andorra are the altitude, the sheer gradient of the course, and the weather. The junior men raced in short sleeve jerseys in rain and hail last night. Our lone Under 23 female representative, Em Parkes (Torq-Merida) will race the course race tonight with advanced mud skills sure to come into play.
@em_parkes: Tomorrow it is onnn! Hoping to improve on last year's 23rd position. I'm off at 9pm (AEST). conditions have been less than ideal with hail and rain in the juniors race today.. So it's going to be a game of controlling the slide! Bring it on! #Andorra #vallnord2015 #uciworldchampionships #XCO
Parkes is another rider who thrives on technical riding so hopefully the soggy conditions work to her advantage. Hot off a 9th place in the Eliminator earlier this week, she certainly has the skills and the speed to improve on her excellent result in the Under 23 race this time last year.
Powered by passion
When each start gun fires the challenges of the day and the sheer calibre of the competition will mean just about anything can happen. This sets the ground for very exciting racing all the way to the finish line. While it's always exciting to see who claims the win, the stories and skills each rider brings to this weekend's racing will make performances further back in the field riveting in other ways.
I love that about mountain biking. Every time I ride behind someone, on any trail, I learn something new. Now that we can watch racers like these perform on the world stage, each rider inspires me to lift my own bike skills in several different ways as well.
Whatever race you follow most closely over the weekend, with its tension, its sideways glances, its dance-like moves over terrain most of us only dream about riding, I hope it makes you excited to grab your own bike and relish your unique skillset too. Given how passionate these riders need to be about our sport to reach the start line, you might have more in common than you think.