UCI MTB World Cup 2022: Cross-country season recap
Knowing who won doesn’t tell the full story. Whether it’s a Football World Cup champion or the UCI’s XCO World Cup winner. For the last decade, followers of cross-country mountain biking have become familiar with one Helvetic rider's domination. Nino Schurter’s status as the greatest XCO mountain biker of all time was never in doubt before the 2022 season. He powered to his tenth overall World Cup series title, but it wasn’t the dominant performance we’ve come to expect.
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The 2022 XCO World Cup season featured several race winners and unusual discord within Swiss mountain biking. Schurter is closer to the end of his career than the middle, and the 2022 World Cup revealed who the challengers will be to take over his mantle.
Winning in the rainforest
Schurter was dominant at the first event of the year in Brazil, as World Cup mountain biking returned to South America’s most populous country, after a Latin American hiatus of 16 years. The Petropolis venue was exotic, with challenging humidity, and although it delivered a strong start for Schurter, there was a great disappointment for Brazil’s greatest mountain biker.
Much was expected from Henrique Avancini at his home event, on a track he knows better than any. But the Brazilian rider could only manage a 13th. Schurter’s reaction on the podium was potently emotional in Petropolis, as he equalled Julian Absalon’s record of 33 UCI World Cup wins.
As the world’s best mountain bikers journeyed for Europe, where the bulk of UCI World Cup events were scheduled, Schurter’s likelihood of besting Absalon’s overall win record, was assumed to be a certainty. But this was not to be the case. In fact, the great Swiss rider would not win another UCI World Cup event in the 2022 season.
Why Schurter didn’t win – again
Victories at the remaining eight UCI World Cup rounds were divided between British cycling superstar Tom Pidcock (Albstadt and Nové Město), Mathias Flückiger (Leogang), Luca Braidot (Lenzerheide and Vallnord), Titoun Carod (Mon Saint-Anne and Val di Sole), and David Valero (Snowshoe).
Consistency carried Schurter to his overall World Cup win, despite only one win in the season. The statistics don’t reveal the emotional texture of Schurter’s tenth title, which ranks as his most testing.
Tom Pidcock’s participation in the 2022 UCI World Cup season was always going to be limited by his Tour de France commitments. Gauging the Yorkshireman’s dominance in Albstadt and Nové Město, a full UCI World Cup campaign could have unbalanced Schurter’s season. Braidot and Carod, each with two wins, also showed clear and present capability, to become future UCI World Cup champions.
But Schurter’s most unexpected and disruptive challenge was from a fellow Swiss. After Pidcock won back-to-back in Germany and Czech Republic, the Austrian round in Leogang saw a Swiss win and second place. But Schurter wasn’t atop the podium, with Flückiger taking victory in Austria, which set up all the tension for Schurter and Flückiger’s home race.
The Swiss round incident
During the Swiss UCI World Cup round, in Lenzerheide, Schurter was expected to win – and establish a new record for overall victories. An unexplained – and controversial – collision between Schurter and Mathias Flückiger, cost both victories and unmasked a rarely seen side of the Swiss multiple world champion.
In the immediate aftermath of the Lenzerheide race, Schurter was livid. He projected undiluted anger at Flückiger in Swiss German, and the tension was palpable. Flückiger dismissed their collision as a mere ‘racing incident’, but this did little to defuse the situation. There was a massive social media backlash against Flückiger, the severity of which precluded him from travelling from Europe to North America, for the American and Canadian UCI World Cup rounds.
Schurter rode smartly for the remaining events, finishing second in the final round in Italy. To mountain biking’s most ardent fans, Schurter’s tenth UCI World Cup series win was perhaps his most defining. One where several young riders were continuously threatening his ambitions.
What is left for the most accomplished XCO mountain biker of all time? There is the issue of being tied with Julien Absalon, on 33 wins each. Although he tallied only a single victory in 2022, it would be improbable for Schurter not to beat Absalon’s record next season.
The women’s World Cup was a mighty tight battle
The 2022 season left no doubt alive about the health of competitive women’s XCO racing, as we witnessed some terrifically close race results, and the data revealed more when the points were tallied at the season’s end.
Although French rider Pauline Ferrand-Prévot doubled up to historically win both XCC and XCO races at the final UCI Mountain Bike Cross-Country World Cup round in Italy's Val di Sole, it was Allesandra Keller gave Switzerland the clean sweep in XCO elite racing, winning the World Cup title. Australia’s Rebecca McConnell was second and Dutch rider, Anne Tepstra third.
The difference between Keller and McConnell was only 56 points, and the gap from McConnell to Tepstra was a mere 8 points. In contrast, in the men’s top three Schurter won from Carod by 103 points, with third-placed Braidot 87 points behind Carod.
And what about the bikes?
Droppers and clever handlebar controls were both strong themes during the 2022 season. With XCO World Cup courses more technical than ever, riders who previously eschewed the idea of a dropper post, finally embraced them.
Paradoxically, the popularity of gravel biking has helped the cause of dropper seatposts for elite World Cup mountain bikers. With huge gravel bike demand for short-travel dropper seatposts, manufacturers are finally producing light enough components for elite XCO riders to consider – and use.
As the technicality of World Cup courses dictated equipment choices, riders who were once hesitant to dropper seatposts, were swayed to their usage. The defining technical feature of the 2022 UCI XCO World Cup season, was the broad standardisation of 50-70mm dropper seatposts.