A bike race is often shaped by who didn’t win rather than who did.
In mountain biking, anything can happen. The same is true on the road, of course, but an XCO race is condensed into just over an hour. The characters, storylines, internal doubts, and external punditry are all thrown into a mixing bowl when the gun goes off, this time in the Czech countryside a couple of hours outside Prague.
The first XCO World Cup of 2023 saw mechanical heartbreak for Trek’s Evie Richards and ended with Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) punching the air in victory in her elite World Cup debut. This is how she did it.
Pieterse showed intent from the gun, sprinting off the line for the holeshot. Haley Batten and Richards were close behind, taking over the lead through the start loop.
It was Richards though who would animate the first half of the race. The current Commonwealth Games champion set off solo on the first full lap of the course, building her lead with each rooty climb and rocky descent. Sina Frei, Rebecca Henderson, and Martina Berta defined themselves as the chasers, with Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Pieterse joining on later. Richards pulled her gap out over 10 seconds.
It was an excellent start to the season for Richards, who was undoubtedly hoping for redemption. The 26-year-old won Worlds in 2021, but her rainbow season in 2022 was plagued with inconsistent results and missed races, a result of injury and illness.
Things appeared to be going swimmingly until a rear flat tire caused Richards to stop in the upper tech zone for a wheel change.
The change was relatively fast, and Richards used the opportunity to down some nutrition and take a short breather. But a slipped gear delayed the Trek Factory Racing rider further. In all, Richards lost 27 seconds to Pieterse and Ferrand-Prévot by the time the new leaders crossed through the start/finish straight.
The two riders—one a veteran and one a rookie—set off to capitalize on their new advantage. Pieterse opened up a gap on Ferrand-Prévot during lap 5, but it was the current quad-World Champion who set the pace for the majority of the final three laps.
Even if Pieterse remained in second, it would be an outstanding ride for the Dutchwoman during her first World Cup XCO race in the elite field. Though she had an outstanding season as a U23 last year and cleaned up in the elite field during the just-past cyclocross season, success in the elite field is never guaranteed for first-year riders.
That didn’t seem to be on Pieterse’s mind in Nové Město though. It looked as if Ferrand-Prévot might clinch the win, putting a few seconds in between herself and Pieterse.
The Alpecin–Deceuninck rider clawed her way back to the rainbow jersey and waited until the top of the final big climb before attacking Ferrand-Prévot, flossing her way through the rocks and skipping over the final jumps into the stadium.
Meanwhile, the race for third also heated up, if not shown as much on the broadcast. Loana Lecomte was 17 seconds back after the first lap, but kept a steady pace, picking off riders throughout the race.
By the final lap, Lecomte was in third, pursuing fellow Frenchwoman Ferrand-Prévot as they approached the line.
Announcing herself the elite XCO field, Pieterse punched the air. Sixteen seconds back, Richards crossed the line in fourth, just missing the podium. The stage is set for the World Cup season with the next battle taking place in Lenzerheide, Switzerland next month.
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