The UCI Mountain Bike World Championships return to the high Alps this week in France. Les Gets hasn't hosted the World Championship since 2004, and riders will be tested on a classically steep and technical French cross-country mountain biking track. With altitude. A lot of altitude.
With the village at 1,172m above sea level, riders competing at Les Gets will be racing at a higher altitude than many of the venues used during this season’s World Cup series.
Befitting of its all-or-nothing race day theme, several permutations are shaping to influence the Les Gets UCI Mountain Bike World Championship event. The most significant is the possibility that a Tour de France stage winner could become a Mountain Bike World Champion in the same season. And this might well and truly play out, what with the unusual sense of disunity within Swiss Team camp, and the recent news of Mathias Flückiger testing positive for a banned substance.
The Tom Pidcock phenomenon
Tom Pidcock is arguably the most exciting rider in pro cycling. The Yorkshireman possesses an immense array of bike skills, effortlessly transitioning between road and off-road events. And then there is his fearlessness, a unique aptitude of youth and testament to a rider of mercurial talent on the bike.
Pidcock’s abilities as a mountain biker are evident. He is the current Olympic gold medal holder, European XC Mountain Bike Champion and one of two riders to have bagged a brace of World Cup wins this season, the other being Luca Braidot.
Rock gardens, drop-offs and jumps are features that inspire, instead of intimidate, the boundlessly talented British rider. Pidcock’s courage behind the handlebars also happens to be inarguable. His celebrated stage 12 win at this year’s Tour de France was a combination of immense pain tolerance during the climb, complemented by high-risk descending, where nobody else in the peloton was willing to follow his lines or match his speed.
Emboldened by his Tour de France performance, Pidcock must rank as one of the favourites for a gold medal at Les Gets.
The Goat is looking for Championship win number 10
As is habituated at any UCI Mountain Bike World Championship event, some of Pidcock’s most significant rivals will be Swiss. But it won't be quite the unitary and harmonised Swiss presence that mountain biking has experienced since the 1990s.
Nino Schurter is the greatest XCO mountain biker of all time, and he will be seeking a tenth World Champion gold medal. The Swiss rider has a sense of destiny and legacy about him this season, after his record-equalling 33rd World Cup series win, at the calendar opening event in Petropolis, Brazil.
But all is not well in Swiss mountain biking. Mathias Flückiger would have been a powerful ally to Schurter, with team strategy playing no small part in the first few laps of a tightly bunched XCO race. But Flückiger’s behaviour this season has created fault lines in the once impervious image of Helvetic mountain biking.
During the Swiss World Cup event in Lenzerheide, Flückiger and Schurter crashed after touching handlebars, costing both a potential victory. Schurter displayed barely contained fury on the Lenzerheide podium and Flückiger’s terse mention of it being merely a ‘racing incident’ on social media backfired. He avoided the North American UCI World Cup events, citing mental strain due to online bullying.
The relationship between Schurter and Flückiger would hardly have made for a selfless Swiss team riding environment, but even darker issues are at play. Flückiger won’t be present in Swiss national colours at Les Gets, due to a doping violation for Zeranol.
Charging trio of Braidot, Hatherly and Sarrou
Beyond Pidcock and Schurter, there is the undeniable form of Italy’s Luca Braidot. Having won two UCI World Cup events this season, Braidot is in terrific form and could benefit from an intense struggle between Pidcock and Schurter, if the two favourites vanquish their energy reserves with a breakaway and chase, in the early part of the race.
UCI MTB World Championships 2021 Alan Hatherly of South Africa and Samuel Gaze of New Zealand.png, by Suvi Loponen
South Africa's Alan Hatherly has been one of the most consistent top-five World Cup XCO riders this season. The young Cannondale team rider is a definite medal contender with proven technical skills and indisputable fitness.
French riders have a terrific record at UCI Mountain Bike World Championship events and Les Gets will be no different. Expect Jordan Sarrou, the 2020 XCO World Champion, to put himself deep into the pain cave to bring a medal home for the enormous French crowd, sure to be gathered in Les Gets this weekend.
Sarrou might not have delivered notable results in UCI World Cup racing thus far this season, but World Champs is a single-day opportunity at glory. And some of the most dramatic gold medal victories in mountain biking history have not been predictable, judged on the theme of rider form.
The fastest women and a possible bout of bad weather
In the women’s race, there are five powerful gold medal contenders and unsurprisingly, two are French.
Loana Lecomte has two UCI World Cup wins this season and the young French rider will be a favourite at Les Gets, especially after her recent European XCO championship win.
Lecomte’s youth contrasts with the vast experience and proven ability of Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. The former World Champion could draw on some of her Cape Epic base miles, earned earlier this year, to push in the final lap of the women’s race at Les Gets.
2022 european xc champs podium women .jpg, by SWpix.com
The rider who is always good for a podium or win in any women’s mountain bike event is Jolanda Neff. Expect her to draw inspiration from a significant Swiss crowd, who are sure to make the short journey to Les Gets. Neff has a single UCI World Cup win to her credit this season.
Defending UCI XCO women’s World Champ, Evie Richards has no World Cup wins this season but the British rider did win gold at the Commonwealth games. She is sure to be a threat during the Les Gets race.
Anne Terpstra is the other rider who could shape as a favourite for that gold medal, or a podium, in the women’s XCO race. The Dutch rider has a World Cup win, second-place and third-place this season.
Weather is the infinite player in any mountain bike World Championship event. Temperatures are precited to be mild, but thunderstorm activity will be in the Les Gets area from midday to late afternoon on race day. The trails are designed to drain rapidly, but a sudden downpour could add additional drama to the 2022 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, creating the opportunity for an outlier to astride the podium or even win that gold medal.
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