If two riders have defined the 2023 World Cup mountain bike season so far, it’s been Puck Pieterse and Nino Schurter. The 21-year-old Dutch rider from Fenix-Deceuninck has three World Cup XCO wins to her name, storming to a debut elite category win at the first round in Nové Město and claiming two more victories by getting out front early in the race and staying there. Meanwhile, Scott-SRAM’s Nino Schurter broke the all-time World Cup wins record in Lenzerheide and backed it up with a record-solidifying victory in Val di Sole.
Both riders will face stiff competition in Saturday’s World Championship race in Scotland, part of the UCI’s inaugural Glasgow ‘Super Worlds’ that will take place every four years and combine all the cycling disciplines in an Olympics-esque two-week rainbow party.
While the downhill mountain bike race took place at the famed highland track at Fort William, the cross-country races are taking place at Glentress Forest, which is actually closer to Edinburgh than it is to Glasgow. It’s an XCO track that has not been raced at the world-class level before, making for an enticing prospect for riders and fans alike.
The start grids in the XCO races are decided by the current UCI rankings, meaning that riders who have missed World Cup races – like Tom Pidcock – could find themselves near the back of the pack.
Read on for a deeper look at Pieterse and Schurter’s chances come race day, and who will challenge them for the rainbow stripes.
Women’s field – the contenders
In the women’s field, it’s hard to bet against Puck Pieterse. The current World Cup leader has found a way to exploit her rivals and that plan has been working.
Cast your mind back to the season’s first World Cup race in Nové Město. Trek’s Evie Richards was leading, but an untimely puncture gave Pieterse and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot a chance to pounce. Pieterse attacked near the top of the final climb and won with just a five-second margin over Ferrand-Prévot.
But Pieterse didn’t want her rivals to be that close. After the following race at Lenzerheide, in which a small group stayed together for most of the race, ultimately to be won by Loana Lecomte, Pieterse successfully adopted a strategy of distancing her rivals early on in the race. The big question now is if her rivals can recognize that strategy and find a way to subvert it.
If one rider is up to the task, it would be Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who won four rainbow jerseys in 2022 (XCO, XCC, XCM, and gravel) and just added another XCC title in Glasgow. Before Thursday, the French racer had only won another XCC race this season, but her consistency has her placed second in the overall World Cup standings. A similar trend happened last year, with her biggest wins coming in the second half of the season. The thing that is for certain is that PFP knows how to get herself into World Championship-winning form.
If Pieterse’s dominant performances feel familiar, that’s because they are reminiscient of Loana Lecomte’s wins a couple of years ago. The young French rider took four wins during the 2021 season in a similar fashion to Pieterse. After her win in Lenzerheide this year, she opted to skip Val di Sole, though she did recently win the French National Championships.
While this preview has been a bit Continental-focused so far, there is one rider who will be more motivated than ever, and that’s Evie Richards. Scotland is not necessarily close to Richards’ hometown of Malvern in England, but this will be as close to a home race as she’ll get this season.
Richards has the palmarès to seriously challenge for the rainbow stripes. She became the first British woman to win an XCO world title in 2021, and she is a two-time cyclocross world champion in the U23 category. I admittedly wrote her off after a 2022 marred by injury and illness, but Nové Město and a recent-ish ninth place at Val di Sole prove that she is on form to be at the front.
One advantage that Richards will have is familiarity with riding in the mud. This is the UK after all, a location that is notorious for rain and muddy conditions, plus Richards has even more mud racing experience from her cyclocross days, as do Ferrand-Prévot and Pieterse.
Last season also gives some insight into who can perform well in slick conditions. Alessandra Keller – the 2022 World Cup overall winner – won in muddy conditions at Snowshoe in the USA. The following race in Mont-Sainte-Anne – another mudder – Jolanda Neff, Mona Mitterwallner, and Haley Batten made up the podium. Both Mitterwallner and Neff have shown signs of good form this season too.
The top-ranked American heading into the race is 2018 world champion Kate Courtney, who recently opened up about overcoming mental blocks with her technical riding skills with coaching from gravity MTB legend Jill Kintner. Courtney is trailed in the rankings by fellow American Gwendalyn Gibson.
Team USA’s trip to Worlds has been overshadowed by the death of junior racer Magnus White, who was slated to compete in the junior mountain bike race. Many American riders, including Courtney, have shared words of grief and condolence on social media, and it would be understandable if the tragic event impacted their racing.
At risk of becoming too long-winded, a few other athletes I’ll be looking out for are Laura Stigger, Martina Berta, and Rebecca Henderson.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐: Puck Pieterse
⭐⭐⭐⭐: Pauline Ferrand-Prévot
⭐⭐⭐: Loana Lecomte, Evie Richards
⭐⭐: Alessandra Keller, Jolanda Neff
⭐: Kate Courtney, Mona Mitterwallner, Laura Stigger, Martina Berta, Rebecca Henderson
Men’s field – the contenders
As written before, the story line in the men’s field is 2022 world champion Nino Schurter, and for good reason. The man is literally a GOAT now and has proven in his two-decade-long career that he is never to be written off. When he’s on, he’s all the way on, but Lars Forster and Tom Pidcock have both managed to best him this season.
Pidcock – the reigning Olympic mountain bike champion – is the UK’s best hope in the men’s race, and he has shown earlier this season that both his legs and his new Pinarello mountain bike are up for the task. Pidcock didn’t race the road events, opting to solely focus on mountain bike, which will clear up any logistical or recovery challenges.
Many act as if a Pidcock win is inevitable when he’s on the start list, and that narrative has certainly played out at times. However, look back at last year’s Worlds in Les Gets to see an example of a weakened Pidcock. He was able to ride his way up to the front of the race after a poor position on the start grid, but then he couldn’t match the pace of Schurter, plus he crashed on a tight and tricky corner, ultimately leading to a disappointing (for him) fourth-place result.
Pidcock is also coming off the Tour de France, a race where he visibly suffered at times and could not match his 2022 stage-winning performance. Is the couple of weeks in between the Tour and Worlds enough time to recover and sharpen the legs for an hour-long XCO effort?
One man who is knocking on the door of a big result is Joshua Dubau. The 27-year-old Frenchman has been relatively unknown in the mountain bike world, but he was the French cyclocross champion in 2022 and sat in the top-20ish range in World Cup cyclocross races this past winter. He came to Nové Město and rode himself up to a second-place finish behind Pidcock, and he also placed fourth in Val di Sole. Making matters more interesting, he rides for Rockrider Ford Racing Team on a Rockrider Race 940S bike. Rockrider is a brand associated with French budget outdoor gear store Decathlon, but its new XC race bike sure seems to be World Cup-worthy.
The subject of men who have been second-best this year brings me to Alan Hatherly, who placed second in Lenzerheide. The South African feels to me like a cross-country version of downhiller Troy Brosnan: incredibly consistent in their abilities to put on podium performances but can rarely find the top step. On the right day though, Hatherly can be a threat.
Speaking of consistency, that’s how Mathias Flückiger rode to the World Cup overall victory in 2021. After a frustrating 2022 season for the Swiss rider, he has been climbing his way up the results sheet, recently trailing Schurter for a second-place finish in Val di Sole.
In seemingly every race this year, Luca Schwarzbauer has played a role. So far he has two XCC victories to his name, but the powerful German hasn’t been able to pull it together in the XCO races, his best result being a second in Leogang. It seems like the Canyon-CLLCTV rider has all the cards, but just needs some time to figure out how to put them in winning order.
A few other riders who are on my long list include Sam Gaze (who took a second-straight XCC world title on Thursday), Vlad Dascalu, and Christopher Blevins. Dascalu showed his potential last season and won the European Championship jersey this summer before placing third at Val di Sole.
Blevins always rides himself into form throughout the season and turns the dial up for important races. He was the first-ever man to win the XCC World Championship in 2021 before narrowly missing the win last year. But he started the week with a training crash that left him with a broken pinky and stitches in his chin. Not the ideal prep.
Finally, let’s address the roadies in the room. Mathieu van der Poel has a chance for the ‘Full Pauline’ (winning road, cyclocross, and mountain bike World Championships in a 12-month period, a feat accomplished only by Pauline Ferrand-Prévot in 2014-2015). His biggest obstacle will be poor start position. Since he hasn’t raced mountain bikes since the Tokyo Olympics, he has no UCI points and will almost certainly start on the back row. There’s also the question of recovery from his huge road race effort. Finally, as with Pidcock, can his legs adapt to the different effort?
All of that also goes for Peter Sagan, who will start his first major mountain bike race since the Rio Olympics in 2016 – a race where he started on the back row and rode into the top five before punctures ended his chances. The Slovakian has said that he wants to focus on mountain biking ahead of the Paris Olympics next year and Saturday will bring early indications of whether he can still match the pace of the top XCO riders.
Both Van der Poel and Sagan certainly add intrigue to the story of the race, though I’m not necessarily holding my breath for a podium performance from them.
As I mentioned for the women’s field earlier, it’s also worth keeping an eye out for riders who have performed well in the wet. The last time Worlds had mud was 2020 in Leogang where Jordan Sarrou won the rainbows. Based on last year’s results in Snowshoe and Mont-Sainte-Anne, Titan Carrod and David Valero Serrano are strong in late season, slippery races too.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐: Nino Schurter
⭐⭐⭐⭐: Lars Forster, Tom Pidcock
⭐⭐⭐: Joshua Dubau
⭐⭐: Alan Hatherly, Luca Schwarzbauer, Mathieu van der Poel
⭐: Sam Gaze, Vlad Dascalu, Chris Blevins, Titan Carrod, David Valero Serrano
-⭐: Peter Sagan (that’s right, minus one star, just because he hasn’t done this in eight years)
The first major climb of the course in the Glentress Forest features some switchbacks early on, which could cause some bottlenecking, but the climb does open up into a wider double track straightaway. The catch with that section is that it is steep, so overtaking will come with brute force.
A flowy downhill section leads into a roughly two-meter-long step down jump which is mandatory if you don’t want to lose time taking the B-line go-around. Later on there is a rock-roll feature with three options, but the quickest A-line will require precision and commitment. Then at the bottom of the first descent, there is a three-meter-long double jump that is reportedly mandatory, with no B-line go-around.
After another climb and descent, riders will face another section full of jumps, drops, and berms just before they enter the start/finish chute.
From the limited course previews we’ve seen, this course appears to be in-line with modern XCO courses: challenging for both the racers’ fitness and technical riding skills. Add in potential wet weather and a field of the world’s top riders, and this race could be yet another barn-burner.
Viewers in the USA and Canada can turn to FloBikes to watch the racing with GCN+/Eurosport streaming in the UK and most of Europe. SBS is the broadcaster in Australia. All times local/UK:
- Saturday, August 12: Elite women’s XCO @ 11:30
- Saturday, August 12: Elite men’s XCO @ 15:30
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