After a summer largely devoid of racing, the world’s best cross country mountain bikers convened in Nové Město, Czech Republic last week for the season’s first, and only, UCI Mountain Bike World Cup events.
After a slew of cancelations due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, by mid-summer Nové Město was the only World Cup venue left standing. Rather than try to find another willing host for a second World Cup, event organizers and the UCI opted to schedule two full events comprised of short-track and cross-country races back-to-back at the same venue.
On Tuesday September 29 the pro men and women tackled a short-track cross-country race, followed on Thursday by a full cross-country race. On Friday they completed a second short-track event, with the second full cross-country race falling on Sunday, October 4.
In five days riders completed four punishing races. And pro riders across the field told VeloNews that they approved of the unorthodox model, given the circumstances.
“I think it was a great idea on the organizers and UCI’s part to do that,” American champion Keegan Swenson told VeloNews. “I think it was the safest option because it saved us having to travel. It also made it easy. It made the trip shorter. Obviously the clock is ticking over here in terms of weather, too. Nové Město is one of everyone’s favorite venues, so no one was disappointed to race there twice. No one has done it before so everyone is in the same boat.”
The other question mark ahead of the Nové Město events was how the field would look after so many months away from racing. Swenson said that it quickly became obvious that form was not going to be an issue.
“It was definitely as hard as any World Cup I’ve been to,” he said. “I think the first short track was definitely the hardest short track I’ve ever done. Definitely no tactics, pretty flat out from start to finish.”
Polish Olympian Maja Włoszczowska said that she experienced similar energy on the women’s side.
“You could see that most of the riders are a bit tired of the long quarantine and long period of restrictions without races,” she said. “Everyone missed racing so much that they did that effort to get to Europe. Everyone was happy to see each other, I think everyone missed the field very very much. Racing was very hard, tight, especially the short track race but that’s why we came to Nové Město.”
For a handful of young riders, traveling to the Czech Republic was a chance to test themselves on the elite stage. In both the men’s and women’s races, once unfamiliar faces quickly made themselves known. Trek Factory Racing’s Evie Richards nudged Pauline Ferrand Prévot to second in both short track races, and 21-year old French rider Loana Lecomte defeated the world champion in the first olympic XC race and finished third in the second.
In spite of all of the good news to come out of Nové Město, there were also plenty of reminders of the risks of racing during a pandemic. Since the racing ended in the Czech Republic, there have been reports of four positive COVID-19 tests among riders. Włoszczowska said that the race organizers did an excellent job of mitigating risk but that athletes also had to shoulder the responsibility themselves.
“I felt safe, but we really, really followed the UCI instructions, staying in our team bubble,” Włoszczowska said. “We all did COVID testing before coming to Nové Město and tried to keep social distance all of the time.”
Keeping distance from fans was one factor that riders didn’t have to deal with this year. Spectators were not allowed inside the race venue, which is a huge departure from normal times when up to 30,000 fans line the course.
Swenson said it was so quiet at times during the race that it felt like “you were out doing hot laps on your own training.”
“It was definitely different, but it was kinda cool,” he said. “The crowds were missed, but it was the right decision on the organizers part.”