In some rural parts of the UK and especially so in Scotland, “The Glorious Twelfth” (of August) is a big, and yet understandably highly controversial day; it is when hunting season for red grouse officially begins. Thankfully, this year the glens and forests of Glentress in central Scotland will see a very different and more widely acceptable kind of hunt taking place on the 12th – the battle for the 2023 UCI Mountain Bike World Championship titles.
[Words by Steve Thomas]
Headlining this battle (from the “mixed bunch” side that is) is Britain’s Tom Pidcock, French cycling femme fatale Pauline Ferrand-Prevot – and the man of the moment Mathieu van der Poel (MVDP) of the Netherlands who, on Sunday, took his first Elite UCI World Championship Road Race title on the twisted and slippery streets of Glasgow. Even if you are a purist devotee of the dirty side of the sport, you could not help but marvel at the surreal bike handling skills of the lanky Dutchman as he skimmed the kerbside edges of the endless pinball-like array of turns, even coming to blooded grief in the final minutes of the race.
©TMX_163901.jpg, by Swpix
MVDP clearly demonstrated that he is not only in the form of his life but that he’s certainly not lost his edge when things get intense on the technical side. This surely bodes well for his seemingly unreasonable, even unfair, aim of adding the XCO title to his elite cyclo-cross and road double run, something that no other elite male rider has ever achieved in the same season, although it is worth noting that he also did the cyclo-cross and road World Championship double as a junior.
It remains to be proven as to whether he can turn his endurance-based season’s worth of form into the short-and-sharp-handed perfection required to win on the XCO track but, given his fairy dust-sprinkled history of being able to turn it on in numerous disciplines of the sport with thrift notice, it would be fair to say that few of his rivals or the fans would rule out the chances of him winning this weekend in Glentress. In between title bouts, he has just a few days to lick his real-time road rash wounds and recover from the gruelling weather-cursed road race in time to take on the XCO challenge. If he does pull it off, it will be all the more impressive given that the two highly contrasting events took place within days of each other, as opposed to in the separate championship slots of the past.
Mathieu Van Der Poel performs at UCI XCO in Albstadt, Germany on May 9, 2021, by Redbull
Given his obvious good form and morale highs, he surely jumps from being considered as a rank outsider for glory to one of just a handful of true title contenders – with the fresher legs of Tom Pidcock and the experience of Nino Schurter still the most likely to steel the crock of gold from beneath his rainbow dreams.
Changing the guard
Running a not-so-close second to van der Poel in Sunday’s road race was his arch-rival and nemesis, Wout van Aert of Belgium, another for the current crop of riders who have crossed from the muddy fields of cyclo-cross dominance into road race supremacy (Wout only raced a few MTB races when younger, and he says it’s not for him). Between them, the deadly crossover duo have changed the once-traditional and very myth-laden sport of professional road racing forever, and have proved that it can be actually done with success.
There are also a few younger other “mixed” riders around now, riders who have grown up in their slightly older shadows with Pidcock being the most obvious male example. And let’s not forget that the man who finished third on Sunday was none other than double Tour de France Champion Tadej Pogacar, who started cycling with cross-country mountain biking, and who has long since been a fair hand at cyclocross.
Mixing different cycling disciplines – specifically blending the rough with the smooth, is nothing new, although it certainly fell completely out of favour for many decades. It’s only really been in the past few years that a handful of top professional road racers have even been “allowed” to ride their dreaded mountain bikes off-road, let alone consider racing them or even riding cyclo-cross in many cases. The reasoning, well – that is laden in legacy and jaded orientation within the teams and infrastructures of “traditional” cycling, and few sponsors or team managers would have even taken mountain biking seriously in the not-so-distant past, and so there was/is no way they would risk their prized charges scuffing their knees and elbows in the dirt, which to a degree is understandable.
Plus, mixing mountain biking and road simultaneously does come with its own set of challenges, and only a select few top racers have been so damn brilliant that they have been able to dictate and mix their own racing cocktails, and they are leading by example now. Though, it is important to remember that these are very special riders, certainly not the norm – even if all cyclists could benefit from cross-discipline riding.
Mathieu Van Der Poel seen at UCI XCC in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic on May 14, 2021., by Redbull
In the beginning
Although road racing has been around for more than a century, cyclo-cross as a World Championship sport in its own right, only came around in 1950, when the 1947 Tour de France winner Jean Robic of France took the honours. Back then it was perfectly normal for pro road racers to ride off-road in winter, for training and that tradition continued on and off for many years – and even through the 80s and 90s it was not uncommon for top road riders to take the cyclo-cross title. The mid-1980s was arguably when pro-road cycling became a lot more serious. The stakes and rewards got a lot bigger, and the intensity and the speeds rose rapidly (for various reasons). This was, coincidently about the time when mountain biking started to take off but simply did not fit the agenda for pro road riders or teams of the era.
Even so, in those rigid-riding early days of mountain biking, many of the pioneers were indeed riders who started out road racing – there was no other option outside of dropped bar racing back then (apart from BMX or trials) and many of these were riders who would have no doubt started their cycling careers in the dirt if mountain biking started earlier. Arguably the greatest mixer of mud and tar back in the day was John Tomac, who started out as a BMX pro before mountain biking came around, and who also dabbled as a part-time pro road racer, even taking part in the Giro d’Italia, and winning a national title on the hard stuff.
By the late 1990s things were changing, and many of the young racers out there had started out cycling through mountain biking, and some did shift their talents to the muddy stuff; such as Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Rasmussen, and Jakob Fuglsang to name but a few. These guys did, to say the least, do pretty well as pro-road racers, although, through their prime years, most were discouraged from hitting the dirt in anger, either by their teams or through their own personal preference.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot performs at UCI XCO World Cup in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic on May 14, 2023, by Redull
Young, gifted and muddy
Mixing things up at a younger age has long since been encouraged – at least in certain quarters, and Britain’s Nicole Cooke did also hold the UCI Junior World Championship Road Race and XCO Mountain Biking titles simultaneously. It's a feat that was equalled by Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who also held the cyclo-cross and XCO titles simultaneously in 2015, plus doubling up on the XCO and XCM 2019 titles. Ferrand-Prevot also won the UCI Elite World Championship Road Race in 2014 and Gravel World Championship in 2022. She will also be lining up for a potentially never-before-achieved rainbow run this weekend when she hopes to add the XCO title to the Gravel World Championships title of 2022 (the year that she also won the XCO and XCM World titles) – if only the scheduling had been spread out a little more she may have attempted to also try and add to her 2014 road race world title too (potentially this is still possible).
Whatever happens this weekend, you can be sure there will be one hell of a fight out there in Glentress, Cycling history has already been made, and MVDP and the “mixers’ have already changed elite cycling for the better, and they will be hoping that this is not the Twelfth of Never...
You might also like: