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The MTB World Cup is nearly upon us and the XCO stars can't wait to race
With the UCI Cross-Country World Cup opening round in Albstadt just days away, we caught up with some of XCO racing's biggest names and brightest stars to talk about this exciting new season.
They will each be among the favourites to take victory and pull on the World Cup leader's jersey in that opening race, but their journey to get there has varied in its path and smoothness. We all hope for a more normal cross-country season than last year's standalone double-header at Nové Město, but things are still far from ordinary.
Virus variants, travel restrictions, disrupted training camps and limited opportunities to race have all played their part and make for an extra intriguing season ahead.
Cross-country highlights – Nové Město
Prep and pre-season
So, what's happened since the athletes signed off from the 2020 season? The off-season is all about making plans, laying groundwork and building towards that 2021 race calendar. Despite the season still being shrouded in some uncertainty, there's a more familiar feel to his year, with the optimism that all stops on the World Cup calendar will go ahead.
"We typically start racing World Cups in May, so it's been a more normal build up. We can prepare on a similar timeline. We're feeling more on track,” says Kate Courtney.
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Much of that preparation comes from training camps and early season races, and those have been back on the agenda for many riders.
"I'm really happy about the first races we've done and we’ve already had two training camps with the team," 2020 world champion Jordan Sarrou, who'll race for Specialized in 2021, explains. "The winter preparation was good for me. I'm happy with how my shape is growing week-by-week.”
Nino Schurter has also had the luxury of team camps and a solid winter of training. Either side of a Christmas and New Year holiday where he did a lot of training on Nordic and backcountry skis, Schurter has had three camps in South Africa and two in Tuscany.
For Brit Evie Richards and Brazilian Henrique Avancini, being based at home has been the only viable option in terms of training. Avancini faced heavy restrictions to make it to Europe, but thankfully got over to the continent in time for some pre-World Cup prep. The disruption meant training and race plans had to be adjusted.
Similarly for Richards, initial plans to train and race in Europe were thwarted. However, both riders won their first races of the year once they finally made it to the start line, so those stay-at-home solo training camps must have done the trick.
The mental game
Adapting to disruption, drawing value from success, processing circumstances and drawing positive energy from it all is incredibly important in getting to the World Cup start line in a position to race for the win.
With an enjoyable team vibe and impressive results already under her belt this year, Laura Stigger is riding a wave of positivity: "The team atmosphere is great and I already feel very comfortable. Winning races is super good motivation and I honestly can't wait to get back to World Cups."
Her new Specialized team-mate Sarrou is also benefiting from being in a new team: "When you're in a good atmosphere you can perform at your best. You don't ask questions in your head. That's very important to me."
For Courtney, the 2020 World Cup and World Championships were mentally tough. However, she's spun this around: "I always do well as an underdog and after this break I feel a bit more like an underdog. I have this weird mix of confidence and lower expectation of myself, which in many ways lets me perform at my best."
When fighting for the overall World Cup title, consistency is key, but, as Avancini points out, this isn't just about having good legs: "Consistency doesn't come from good sensations and shape all the time, but from being able to deliver if your legs aren't there, or the logistics or course are not great to you. It's related to your mindset."
Lessons learned from 2020
Maximising unusual training blocks, managing uncertainty, understanding how to travel efficiently and minimising the associated stress of all of it all were some of the big lessons for all riders in 2020. But what of the more personal reflections?
Richards explains that a whirlwind first elite season, which saw her win both World Cup Short Track (XCC) races, has taught her to be more confident in her abilities and more content in her achievements.
Evie Richards talks about her XCC win in Nové Město
Stigger, another first-year elite in 2020, says: "You have to stay calm until the end – the girls are fast until the last minute and you have to fight right to the finish. That's the biggest thing I learned."
For Courtney, learning to have confidence in the process and have perspective on each race has been a lesson learnt from current world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who went from a slow start to absolutely untouchable at World Championships last year.
"It definitely takes me a few races to get my race legs beneath me, as we saw last year," says Courtney. "Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is very confident in that build up. For me, it's about trying to have that same confidence in the preparation and the peak."
Last year, Avancini learnt to win with his victory in the second race at Nové Město, at last beating Schurter in an XCO race, but the man we've become so used to seeing win struggled to find his rhythm in 2020. "The first races I started last year went really well, but then I had a lot of time to train in between and when the World Cups came I wasn’t actually as fresh as I wanted to be," Schurter says, looking back.
Henrique Avancini wins his first Cross-Country World Cup in Nové Město
There's been plenty of team moving and shaking in the off-season and with these changes come new dynamics. Cross-country racing is an individual sport, but the team around the rider is a critical piece of the puzzle.
The atmosphere at the new look Specialized Racing team already appears really positive. Stigger is especially excited about her new setup and having Sarrou as her team-mate: "Being in a team with a World Champion is an absolute honour. I've always looking up to him and now I'm in a team with him. I'm really lucky to be part of this squad."
XCO team changes in 2021
Richards stays with Trek Factory Racing alongside Jolanda Neff, whose fun personality she says is a great fit with her own. Also staying put are Courtney and Schurter, who both feel very settled at Scott Sram. "I think the past year has really bonded us as a team. I feel like we have that family feel that teams really strive for," she says.
There's no move for Avancini, who stays with Cannondale Factory Racing for another season, but there are two new faces in the team as young guns Simon Andreassen and Alan Hatherly join the squad,. Meanwhile Maxime Marotte has left for pastures new. "It does impact quite a lot," explains Avancini. "I'm not the youngster anymore. Having Alan and Simon on the team is going to help me a lot to reach a new level."
With pre-season preparations all but complete, lessons learnt and teams sorted, we're almost ready to begin the 2021 World Cup in Albstadt, Germany on May 7. What are the season's targets for some of the top contenders for the title?
"I'm really looking forward to racing Nové Město and Albstadt. It's the first goal of the season and I want to be in great shape to do what I can. I'm going for a podium and victory for sure," says Sarrou.
Another rider with his eyes on (even more) great things is Schurter: "The first two World Cups are important, especially because of what's coming up later in summer in Tokyo, but also I keep in mind Julien Absalon's wins record, so I want to win two World Cups this year to beat that. I'm not getting younger and people think 'Nino's getting a bit older and maybe a bit weaker', but I want to prove that I'm still at my best."
Richards points towards nailing her technical skills as a big target for the 2021 season and with former British downhiller Katy Curd as her new technical coach, we should be prepared to be impressed: "I used to get to World Cups and I was scared. I want to be coming into the races thinking 'yeah, I can ride that'. That's one really big target for this year."
There's no doubt that Stigger will be gunning for World Cup victories following her incredible double podium debut in the elite ranks at Nové Město last year.
"It would be amazing to continue with the performance I had last year in Nové Město, or ever better," she says. "I want to keep having fun on the bike, riding full gas and enjoying being surrounded by amazing people to battle in the races."
UCI venue guide 2021
Each athlete has their own story about getting to the start line in Albstadt, but once they're there they all share the same goal: to take the top step. Who will come out victorious? Tune into Red Bull TV live on May 7–9 to find out.