Fall foliage dotted the mountainside of Mont-Sainte-Anne last weekend, providing a picturesque backdrop for the final showdown of the 2023 mountain bike World Cup. The changing leaves – and the dodgy weather – signaled that summer was slipping away. Much like the seasons, the World Cup series departs as fast as it emerges.
After eight races across two continents (so much for a “World” Cup), Nino Schurter and Puck Pieterse came away with overall series titles. What else did we learn after hours of brutal racing with its own fair share of controversy and mini-dramas?
A nice place to start is Tom Pidcock, the men’s winner of Sunday’s last dance.
Pidcock can win, but what about MvdP?
Pidcock took wins at the beginning and end of the season, as well as clinching the rainbow jersey in August in Glentress Forest. The performances are confirmation that the Ineos Grenadiers rider can still get away with mixing road, cyclocross, and mountain biking. The Tokyo Olympic MTB champion will certainly want to defend his title in Paris, however, the Tour de France finishes just a week prior to the Olympic MTB race. How will he balance the demands of his road ambitions and MTB ambitions?
I wouldn’t put it past him to figure it out. An additional open question mark is Mathieu van der Poel, who has said the MTB race in Paris is a goal for next year. An unfortunate crash at worlds took him out of contention – an echo of his crash-DNF in Tokyo – and the Dutchman finished 28th at the Paris MTB test event last month. The Alpecin rider will be another key figure to follow in the men’s field as the race for Paris heats up next year.
Nino is the king and the 🐐
Not only did Nino Schurter ride to a record-breaking 34th World Cup win this season, he extended it to 35 wins in Val di Sole. In addition, the Swissman’s consistency propelled him to a 9th-career World Cup overall victory. As we’ve written before, the man knows how to show up on the biggest days, and the Olympics are indeed a big day. What will he do after Paris though? The R-word is ever present, but Schurter has said that he loves the lifestyle of training and racing at the highest level.
Consistency brings success
Speaking of consistency, Jordan Sarrou proved that countless podiums can eventually turn into a big win. One of the key reasons why he was in a position to take his first-ever World Cup XCO victory in Snowshoe was his position near the front of the race. Another man who kept his head high and put in the work week after week was Mathias Flückiger. He completed his comeback in Andorra and looked like he could be in Pidcock-beating form in Mont-Sainte-Anne as well until punctures set him back.
Power surge in XCC
Luca Schwarzbauer also found himself in our race coverage more often than not. The powerful man in purple claimed three XCC victories and was in the running for more than a couple XCO results. I’m inclined to say the Canyon rider spends his bullets too early in the XCO, but a big win for the German is on my predictions list for next year. Victor Koretzky also won three XCC rounds, including doing the double in Les Gets. The Frenchman sure is making a strong case for Olympic selection next year.
New names, fresh faces
The difficult (and very interesting) thing about Olympic years is that riders need to be selected by their national federations, and most nations only have a couple of slots and countless capable riders. A Frenchman who will make selection difficult for the host nation is Joshua Dubau. The Rockrider-Ford racer rode to no less than 10 top-10 performances across XCO and XCC. Another name that impressed was KMC’s Martins Blums who got his first two XCC podiums this year. Thomas Griot also matured and offered some great battles late in races (and earned bonus points for a great mustache).
How to beat Pieterse
When Puck Pieterse won the opening round in Nové Město, we did not yet know if the debut performance for the first-year elite rider would be a one-off or a sign of what was to come. Pieterse quickly proved that it was more in the latter category with three additional victories across the World Cup calendar. When she wasn’t winning, the Alpecin rider wasn’t far off, and the consistency aided her in securing both the XCC and XCO overall titles.
A key takeaway though is that Pieterse was dominant but not unbeatable. There were days when her form just wasn’t enough for the top step. One weakness that emerged was her struggles with the extremely wet and muddy conditions in Mont-Sainte-Anne, something that her rivals will certainly have noted.
Austrians on the rise
While Pieterse put her name solidly on the results sheet, another young rider joined the winner’s circle. In just her second year as an elite, Mona Mitterwallner turned solid results into a win in Andorra. Of particular note is her ability to string together a win on a high-altitude course in subpar conditions. The Cannondale rider backed that up with an additional win in Les Gets to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. Fellow Austrian Laura Stigger also came into her own this year with three XCC victories and her first elite XCO victory. That win came on the Snowshoe course that featured power climbs interspersed with tricky technical sections, something to note if there are similar courses next year.
Fastest in France?
An awesome narrative for the past few seasons has been the battles between Frenchwomen Loana Lecomte and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Both women showed their form early in the season and then were the top two at the world championships. PFP’s worlds win was hardly a surprise as we knew that the multi-time world champion could perform on the biggest days, and Lecomte was simply the best rider in the field (from both a fitness and technical point of view) in Mont-Sainte-Anne. Both riders will certainly be eyeing their home Olympics.
Not just best-dressed
Italian national champion Martina Berta has one of the best kit designs in the field but is also no slouch in a bike race. The Santa Cruz rider was consistently fast off the line and used her good positioning to secure consistent results, including a career-best second place in Val di Sole. She certainly has the ability to string a big one together and I’ll be hoping that she holds on to the tri-color jersey.
Since we are an English-language media outlet, we also have to give props to the Brits, Aussies, and Americans out there performing well in a European-biased sport. When I wrote the World Cup season preview earlier this spring, a few commenters pointed out that I had missed Evie Richards. It was nothing against Evie, but her results last year were inconsistent. It was great to see the former World Champion grab an XCC win in Snowshoe as well as a collection of podiums. It was also nice to see Rebecca Henderson challenging the top riders, though she did not find her hot-streak form of the 2022 season.
Last but not least, America tied only Switzerland in placing the most riders in the top-20 for the season’s overall standings in the women’s field at four riders for each nation. Trek’s Gwendalyn Gibson fared the best overall and also rode to solid results at worlds, while US national champion Savilia Blunk closed out the season with a fifth and fourth at the last two races.
World Cup XC racing returns in April 2024.
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