Multi-discipline star Puck Pieterse does a wheelie with one arm in the air.

Wheel Talk Newsletter: All is quiet on the road

Why Canyon-SRAM is the team to watch in 2024, some very muddy cyclocross, and a conversation with Swiss mountain bike phenom Ronja Blöchlinger.

Puck Pieterse at the 2023 Cyclocross World Championships.

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 14.11.2023 Photography by
Gruber Images, Piper Albrecht, and Dominique Powers
More from Abby +

I am back for another instalment of the Wheel Talk Newsletter. Today’s menu: Canyon-SRAM’s rehabilitation of German cycling, full-body mud masks, and the next big thing in Swiss mountain biking.

But before we dive in, did you know you can get this newsletter straight to your inbox? It’s true! This, plus our other fabulous Escape Collective newsletters including Jonny Long’s Spin Cycle and Matt de Neef’s Down Under Digest are available via email.

Last week I wrote about development teams and mentioned that Canyon-SRAM kind of started the ball rolling with theirs, but I could have dug a lot deeper into what the German team is doing for German cycling.

Since the team’s inception, it has leaned heavily on German talent. But for years, its German riders, however strong, weren’t quite up to the strength of the rest of the team. Hannah Ludwig, who joined the team at 19, left after three seasons to join Uno-X. Christa Riffel (20) spent four years on the team without much impact before joining Coop-Hitec Products. Canyon-SRAM’s most successful German rider was Lisa Klein, picked up from CervĂ©lo-Bigla in 2017, but she left this season for Lidl-Trek. Zwift Academy winner Tanja Erath stayed with the team for three seasons before joining TIBCO-SVB in 2021 and then left professional cycling in 2022.

However, the dreams of the German team to help develop German cycling started to come true with Ricarda Bauernfeind and Antonia Niedermaier. The two both made massive impacts on the 2023 season, but also put German cycling back on the map, at least for women.

Now, as the team looks toward a new season with their heads held high, a new German talent joins the ranks.

Just like the two before her, Justyna Czapla will join Canyon-SRAM after spending a season with the Canyon-SRAM Generation team. The 20-year-old had a strong 2022 season, winning the time trial at both the German junior National Championships and European Championships. After joining the Generation team she dramatically increased her number of race days and was consistently in the mid-pack. But she follows in the footsteps of two young German riders whose move to the WorldTour team ended up being the best decision Canyon-SRAM has made since it started the development team in the first place.

Canyon-SRAM is a team that grew immensely over the 2023 season. From a stacked team that constantly failed to pull together all their cards to get results to a team that took its phenomenal style of racing into actual wins, it is the team to watch in 2024.

? Let’s discuss ?

While I don’t cover the mountain bike side of the sport, I do love to watch it. Especially the cross country, those women are incredible. So I was thrilled to be able to chat with one of the rising stars of the sport: Ronja Blöchlinger.

The 22-year-old Swiss rider dominated this year’s XCC (short track cross-country) World Cup season in the U23 category, winning all eight throughout the year plus the short track at the European Championships and the final XCO event in Mont-Sainte-Anne.

Next year Blöchlinger is stepping up to the elite field with Liv Racing, the team she joined for the 2023 season after riding the prior season on her own.

We chatted about her season, what’s next, and how she got there.

Ronja Blöchlinger races at the Vallnord World Cup round.
Ronja Blöchlinger raced privateer in 2022 before joining Liv Racing this past season.

Abby Mickey: I want to start by talking about this season because you had an incredible season this year. I mean, 10 wins. And the final win of the year was the XCO in Mount Sainte Anne, which just looked like a completely insane race. How do you feel now that the seasons wrapped up?

Ronja Blöchlinger: I never thought that I could have such an amazing season. Sometimes I don’t realize it, that I had a super season. But just today, I had to list all my successes for the Swiss cycling or the Swiss sport on a list and I was surprised like, “Whoa, it looks crazy.”

When you look at the stat sheet, you’re kind of looking through all the results, it’s just yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow. First, first, first. Was there a win from this year that stands out for you as one of your favourites?

I think it’s winning Mount Sainte Anne in the XCO race because I was in the last year as an under-23 rider but I never won a [XCO]. I could win all the short track races this season in the World Cup, but never cross country. I really fought until the last race and I’m so happy that I could win finally. Because it was the last chance of my career to win one in the under-23 category so this is definitely a special one.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by UCI Mountain Bike (@uci_mountainbike)

This was the first year that you guys had the short-track event, correct? Has that changed the racing this year?

Yeah. Last year, I always looked up to the elites and thought “That’s so nice, I would like to race also in shorter races.” And it also made me a bit curious about the time when I came to the elites and could also compete in these races. Then I received the message that we have a short track also in the U23 category. At first, I was a bit sad, because then I could not look forward anymore to when I come to the elite for short track, but then I changed my mind. And I’m super happy. Because this discipline really suits me. I never thought that I could win all of them. I thought maybe it was possible to win one.

How much of mountain biking is mental?

I think the mental part is more about believing in their own power and staying focused all race long. It’s like one hour and 10 minutes in the XCO race. The hard part is to be really focused all the time and to stay in the mental game, in the positive part, not to think, “Oh, I’m tired,” or something like that. Everyone is tired.

I think the courage is also important. But I think I’m a bit known that I am not the most courageous person; I know what I can do and I know what I can’t do. And I am a person who doesn’t go over the top. So if I don’t have the courage, I don’t do it. The good thing is that I invested a lot in technique training so this limit is a bit higher. So I’m able to ride it.

How do you feel going into the elites next year?

I’m really looking forward. Last year, I also had some races with the elites and I could see where I am in the field, who I can compete against. [Blöchlinger finished 12th in the Paris 2024 test event against an elite field. – Ed.] And that was really interesting. I’m really curious. It’s a big step and the cool thing is that this year, I was always in the first line and everybody thought I could have the chance to win and next year, it’s a new game. I’m just there and they can ride and yeah, it’s a new situation for me to ride from the back.

How does it feel going into an Olympic year, your first year in the elites?

It’s exciting, but as a Swiss rider, it’s really hard to go to the Olympic Games. It’s possible. It’s not impossible. So I will try really hard that I can go, but we will see what happens.

In the full interview we talk about training with Marlen Reusser, why Ronja isn’t interested in racing on the road, and her hobbies outside the sport. You can find the episode on the Escape Collective members-only feed wherever podcasts are found.

? The joys of social media mud ?

I don’t always watch Cyclocross … but when I do I am reminded how badass and hardcore the women who race it are. I am often in awe of their technical ability and unhingedness (running up stairs mid-race? Sure). But throw in the winter weather? ?

This weekend’s Superprestige Niel was, in a word, messy.

Annemarie Worst ended up in third behind Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Aniek van Alphen. How great does this run look? So fun. At one point a rider even almost lost her shoe.
Aniek van Alphen (7) runs past her teammate Anna Kay (17) who is struggling with a bike much heavier than it was when the race began. Van Alphen finished second behind Alvarado but Kay wasn’t able to finish the race.
Marie Schreiber, SD Worx’s new young talent from Luxembourg, started the race strong but had a really gnarly crash after she had slipped backwards through the field. She got up and kept riding after this crash, ending up in seventh, hopefully with some very clean pores.

These are very small samplings of what the women were up against on Saturday. The whole race was sloppy and Alvarado was unreal. She looked like she was racing through completely different conditions than the rest of the field.

? A picture worth a couple words ?

There is a story coming to the site soon that centres around a team I have long admired, Coop-Hitec Products (next year: Coop-Repsol) and one of their sponsors, Hunt Wheels.

Long story short: Coop-Hitec Products didn’t receive an invite to the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and was not convinced they would get into the 2023 race, but did. Read the actual story for the rest.

One of my favourite things about the story was being able to feature photos from the incredibly talented Dominique Powers. Dominique is hands down one of the coolest women I’ve ever met, and her photographs are stunning:

Three women cycle through mist side-by-side.
Three Coop-Hitec Products riders climb the Col du Tourmalet during the seventh stage of the Tour de France Femmes.

She’s also got some cool stuff in the works so I highly recommend you keep tabs on her via the Gram @dominiquepowers.

? Your weekly dose of Taylor Swift ?

Taylor Swift is back on the road after a few weeks off from the Eras Tour. She re-started her bid for world domination in Buenos Aires this weekend and was once again the most talked about pop-culture icon of our time.

Speaking of performing … after her surprise shift from all-out pop legend to indy-dad-island icon Swift took to the stage at the Grammys where she performed a three-song mashup from her two pandemic albums alongside her co-creators Aaron Dessner (of the National) and Jack Antonoff (Bleachers).

It is a performance that lives in my mind rent-free. Enjoy.

? Until next time! ?

Thanks, yet again, for reading through the Wheel Talk Newsletter. I really hope you enjoyed it, and if you did, maybe share it with your friends? No pressure.

Also, no pressure but membership dollars are how we make this whole ship float, so if you aren’t a member of Escape Collective, perhaps think about signing up. And thank you to all of you who have already supported us.

I’ll be back next week, and if you have anything specifically you’d like me to write about, let me know in the comments or via the Escape Collective Discord.

What did you think of this story?