The Cross Country Olympic mountain bike race, commonly referred to as XCO, is the jewel in the crown of the endurance mountain bike world, and the race here in Glentress promised to be one of the most exciting races of the UCI Super World champs in Scotland.
The Super event has combined the majority of cycling world championship formats in the same county over two weeks. We had already seen the Downhill events in Fort William last week, and this was to be the final day of Mountain bike racing with both the women's and men's XCO events.
All of the Cross Country mountain bike formats took place in the world-famous Tweed Valley on a custom-made race circuit that uses parts of one of the original and most visited trail centres in the UK, Glentress. The course used for the XCO is very similar to the ones used for the XCE event, but with some longer, less steep climbs as well as a longer starting lap that helps whittle down the large group of riders before they hit the technical sections.
The course is 3.5km long and features 145 meters of vertical gain, it is not the most mountainous of XC courses, but the steep nature of the climbs combined with virtually no flat sections to recover will make it a very tough race. The race is over seven laps, with the first lap being run on a slightly different course. The start of an XC race is always the most important, so the organizers make sure the first few km are on a wider course to give the riders enough time to spread out a bit to avoid bottlenecks and crashes once they hit the singletrack sections.
The only flat section is the start and finish straight. From there, the climb starts as a gradual wide section, but it quickly narrows down to singletrack and gets steeper and more technical with tight corners and difficult log and rock sections for the riders to negotiate, from there they have a long flowy descent reminiscent of the famous trails in the rest of the forest in Glentress. Thats followed by a less technical climb which actually makes a great overtaking spot for the stronger climbers in the race, and then on to the most technical descent on the course, which features a huge near-vertical rock drop and a massive gap jump, used for the first time ever in a world champs course. From there, the course leaves the woods, with more jumps and tight corners before re-entering the start-finish straight.
Elite Female Contenders
The home fans' eyes were on former World Champion Evie Richards, the Malverns-based rider looking to improve on the Bronze medal she won in the short track race earlier this week. The two big favourites for the event were the Dutch rider Puck Pieterse who has had a very strong start to the season, and the French rider Pauline Ferrand Prevot who has the chance to match Gunn-Rita Dahle's record of World Championship jerseys if she wins. Prevots' previous wins, or palmares, are hugely impressive, having held a world champions jersey in Road, Mountain, and Cyclocross multiple times in her spectacular career.
Women's Race Report
Although it has been unseasonably wet in Scotland this summer, it remained dry for the start of the women's race, although there were rumours that it may rain later in the day. The start of an XCO race is always a frantic, exciting affair, with all the riders trying to get into the narrow singletrack sections in the front, and today was no exception. Straight away, French rider Loana Lecomte got the holeshot, which is a term borrowed from the world of motocross for the rider leading from the very start. She was being pushed very hard by pre-race favourite Puck Pieterse, and the two of them soon broke clear of the field, getting a small gap on the technical sections.
The other main favourite, Prevot, had a poor start in comparison, stumbling slightly on the start line, and the two lead riders had pulled 16 seconds. Lecomte used her descending talents to pull away from Pieterse, and she continued to push incredibly hard, increasing the gap to 15 seconds before her compatriot Prevot started to find her rhythm, She managed to get to within five seconds by the end of the lap with a group of three just behind her made up of Alessandra Keller, Puck Pieterse and Martina Berta.
Prevot continued powering on, catching up with Lecomte, and they rode well together for a short while, but Prevot was too strong on the climbs. The multi-discipline World champion Prevot stretched out her lead to nine seconds, and at this point, the writing was on the wall for the rest of the field as they all visibly struggled to hold the searing pace set by Prevot on the climbs.
The remaining laps continued in the same vein, with Prevot pushing hard on the climbs and Lecomte using her descending speed to keep the gap as close as she could, but it wasn't enough to stop Prevot from increasing the distance between them. Behind the French pair, Keller and Pieterse battle for third place, with home favourite Evie Richards chasing hard behind them.
And that was how it stayed until the end of the race, with Prevot showing her class and incredible form by taking her second consecutive double world championship, having also won the XCC earlier in the week. Loana Lecomte finished over a minute behind her, and Puck Pieterse took the bronze in front of a huge crowd.
Elite Women Results
1st. Pauline Ferrand Prevot: 1:24:14 France
2nd. Loana Lecomte: +1:14 France
3rd. Puck Pieterse: +1:27 Netherlands
4th. Mona Mitterwallner: +1:31 Austria
5th. Alessandra Keller: +2:23 Switzerland
The Men's race was shaping up to be a spectacular race, with some notable names from the Road world coming across to race the XCO, which did cause some upset amongst the established Mountain bike racers but definitely increased the buzz around the event. The biggest name was Matthieu Van Der Poel, still buzzing from his incredible win in the Road race, and Peter Sagan and current Olympic XCO champion Tom Pidcock, fresh from the Tour de France.
As mentioned earlier, the start is the most important part of an XC race, and the grid positions are decided by the rider's results throughout the season, but the big names from the road scene had no results, so MVDP and Sagan should have been on the last row. However, the UCI decided to give them a special dispensation and moved them up to the fifth row, which angered many established riders as they felt it was unfair treatment, with the riders putting out a statement the day before. Pidcock had actually raced three rounds earlier in the season to ensure he had a reasonable position for the World Champs and posted his support on Twitter after the event offering his support for the Mountain bikers.
The race was wide open with at least five or six possible winners, with Olympic champion Tom Pidcock lining up and having recently completed the three-week-long Tour De France and skipping the road race many believed he would be the man to beat. The current Road World champ Van Der Poel was also getting lots of headlines and is always spectacular to watch, but the overall favorite was Nino Schurter, widely acknowledged to be the best Mountain bike racer ever with ten World Cup titles and more World Cup victories than any other rider passing Julien Absalon’s long-held record of 34 victories earlier this season.
The Elite Men's Race As It Happened:
The pre-race controversy was soon forgotten once the lights turned green, with Jordan Sarrou getting the holeshot leading out the 98-strong field onto the starting circuit. There was a crash toward the back of the field, but all the pre-race favourites got off to a good start. Despite being given an advantageous start position by the UCI, Mathieu Van Der Poel, who hasn't raced XC in over two years, slid out on a flat turn heading, took quite a while to get up, and eventually retired. It was a sad end to the race for one of the favourites, especially after his fantastic performance on Sunday.
Sarrou led the first lap, with Schurter and South African Alan Hatherly following closely behind. The South African was the first to attack, opening up a slender gap. But the ferocious speed of the rest of the riders meant he didn't get more than two seconds with the rest of the field chasing hard. The race was already starting to explode with riders spread out across the circuit, with Tom Pidcock showing some great skill, moving up to 11th by the second lap from his starting position of 49th. His fellow Tour de France pro Peter Sagan wasn't having such a great start, not making up many places from the start.
Nino, clearly using his years of race experience, must have realized Pidcock was a threat, as he put in a big attack on the steep climb during the third lap. With his attack, he dropped Sarrou, Hatherly, and Pidcock back to eight seconds back briefly, although Pidcock kept his composure and gradually pulled the leaders back by the end of the fourth lap and looked to be getting stronger as the race progressed.
Schurter continued to push, using his descending skill to test the rest of the field, but Pidcock and Hatherly could stick with him closing the small gaps on the climbs. Pidcock started to work with Schurter on the fifth lap, with Hatherly visibly struggling to hold the extremely high pace set by the two leading riders, eventually cracking on the technical climb. Schurter and Pidcock continued to push, and with two laps to go, Pidcock attacked the climb, dropping the ten-time world champion and surging away into the lead.
Pidcock looked comfortable out in the lead, seemingly cruising to victory. Behind Schurter wasn't riding as smoothly as usual, clearly paying for his efforts earlier in the race. Hatherly had run out of gas at this point and had been caught by charging Kiwi Sam Gaze, who was clearly on fantastic form, having won the XCC short course race earlier in the week. Gaze, who is also the teammate of Matthieu Van Der Poel, looked to be getting stronger as the race went on, eventually catching Schurter on the last lap, dropping him on one of the steep wooded climbs, attacking just before the crest of the hill before the flowy descent.
Heading into the last lap, both Gaze and Schurter started to close the gap on Pidcock, who looked in control but riding within himself, Gaze clearly had great legs, finally dropping Schurter and getting within 12 seconds of the British rider, but Pidcock held his nerve and held off his chasers to the finish, having enough time to grab a Yorkshire flag from one of his fans before crossing the line with his arms aloft eventually winning by 19 seconds from Gaze and Schurter in third.
Post-race, Pidcock said he was relieved to have won and that the last two laps were very stressful, as his rear derailleur had come loose in the last two laps, which meant he could not push on the pedals as hard as he wanted. This explains how Gaze and Schurter had closed the gap on the last lap. Thankfully for him and the home crowd, his bike survived up until the finish line.
The atmosphere in the Tweed Valley had been incredible, With the organizers and the UCI putting on a great event for racers and fans alike, and it seemed fitting that a home rider won the final race.
Elite Men's Result
1st. Tom Pidcock: 1:22:09 Great Britain
2nd. Sam Gaze: +19 New Zealand
3rd. Nino Schurter: +34 Switzerland
4th. Victor Koretzky: +43 France
5th. Vlad Dascalu: +54 Romania