America’s top cross-country mountain-bike racers have a lot riding on this weekend’s World Cup opener in Albstadt, Germany.
A coveted spot on the 2021 U.S. Olympic team is potentially at stake on the fast and flowing 4.2-kilometer circuit, even though the race holds less weight in the Olympic selection process than next weekend’s World Cup in Nové Město.
Nové Město is the most important event for America’s Olympic hopefuls, as riders can punch an automatic ticket to Tokyo with a top finish there.
That said, Albstadt is still important for the eight riders on the U.S. Olympic long team. The coaches and experts who will eventually choose the Olympic teams are likely to examine the results in Albstadt as they decide which riders make the final cut for Tokyo.
“This World Cup block at Albstadt and Nové Město are the final races going into Olympic qualification so in many ways it feels like it’s time for all of my hard work to come to fruition and it’s the chance to let the constant day in and day out work really shine through,” said Hannah Finchamp. “On the other hand, I really feel like I’m just getting started. I have Olympic dreams for the next few Olympic cycles so I know this is just the beginning of this pursuit.”
Every four years the off-road race to make the U.S. Olympic team generates multiple storylines that are worthy our attention. In 2004 the battle spawned the must-see documentary Off-road to Athens, and since then USA Cycling has altered its selection criteria to make sure that the riders chosen to attend the Olympics are on top form and ready to fight.
Of course the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2020 Olympics and threw a sizable curveball at the eight riders on the U.S. long team for the games. Kate Courtney earned an automatic spot for Tokyo by finishing fifth at the 2019 UCI world championships. But for Finchamp, Erin Huck, Lea Davison, Haley Batten, and Chloe Woodruff, as well as Keegan Swenson and Christopher Blevins, the World Cup presented the best opportunity to qualify.
The U.S. women likely have three total spots for Tokyo, while the men just have one.
So, what do the qualification rules say? If any American, man or woman, wins next weekend’s World Cup in Nové Město, he or she punches his or her ticket to Tokyo. If no American wins, then any American who finishes in second through eight will earn an automatic spot on the team as well.
That second scenario could play out in the women’s race, where the strongest American women often battle for the top-10. It’s a less-likely — but not impossible — scenario for Blevins and Swenson in the men’s event.
If spots on the U.S. team still remain after Nové Město, then the spots will be awarded by a selection committee based on specific criteria that heavily weights international races like Albstadt. Per USA Cycling’s selection documents for mountain biking, that criteria leans heavily on each athlete’s performance in major races like World Cups and the UCI world championships.
You can read the full document here, and note how the selection committee will assess each athlete as to whether they are a “medal-capable athlete” or a “future medal-capable athlete” based on a long list of criteria. For both buckets, the committee is heavily focused on international results. In fact, USA Cycling clearly defines what it means by ‘international competition’ when outlining which races will count toward the choice.
“International Competition” includes any competition in which the field of athletes is sufficiently strong that performances in that competition are indicative of how an athlete can perform in the Olympic Games. International Competitions need not occur outside the United States, as “international” refers to the competitiveness of the field (i.e., includes many of the best riders from leading MTB cycling nations around the world), not the location of the event.
So, what does all of this mean? If Erin Huck or Christopher Blevins scorches the Albstadt World Cup and finishes inside the top-10 or on the podium, neither rider will automatically qualify for Tokyo. But you can bet that the U.S. Olympic selection committee will take notice, and mark an extra bright checkmark next to his or her name.
Every race counts, especially the next two.