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For professional mountain bike racers, few races carry the same prestige as the UCI World Cup series — except perhaps the Olympic Games. And, this year, the first two World Cup races of the season will mean the difference for some riders who hope to ride in Tokyo.
This weekend’s racing in Albstadt, Germany kicks off the 2021 World Cup season, and there isn’t one pro who isn’t absolutely frothing with nerves and excitement to be there. The fast, not super-technical course will suit strong climbers, yet the overall form of the peloton will be very high after the extended year of training.
We checked in with some of the American pros to see how they’re feeling on the eve of the racing.
The team is back and ready to roll in Albstadt! 🇩🇪 #Throwback to the last time #TeamUSA raced the German UCI #WorldCup where @sparkleaddict rode away with double wins 🥇🥇 in the Short Track and XCO in 2019. #ThrowbackThursday #MBWorldCup pic.twitter.com/VIOyJmWjJ9
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) May 6, 2021
What is the course at Albstadt like, and does it suit your riding style?
Kate Courtney: The course in Albstadt features steep climbing and smooth, flowy descents that can become quite technical in the rain. It is a course that I feel suits my strengths and I have had a lot of personal success on it in the past!
Christopher Blevins: Albstadt definitely stands apart from the other World Cups for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a fairly smooth ride and I always opt for a hardtail, while I ride full suspension in nearly every other World Cup. The climbs are all crazy steep and relatively long compared to other World Cup courses. In the past couple of years, they’ve built out a lot more wooden features that make the course faster and a bit more interesting. I won here as a junior, but since then I’ve had some rough races here. I’d say the course suits me when I’m on a good day, but it’s incredibly tough when your legs are dragging, even if just a little bit.
Hannah Finchamp: This is my first time competing at the Albstadt World Cup and my first impression is that it is very steep and will likely be considered a climber’s course. While I think that does fit my skill set, the biggest thorn in my side this weekend will be my call up position. Due to a lack of UCI points, I will have a less than advantageous call up (about 80th) The course doesn’t lend itself to excess passing room so I’ll need to be patient and assertive throughout the race.
Keegan Swenson: The course here in Albstadt is a pretty unique one. It is very steep, and very smooth, it is one of the only world cup tracks that the majority of the field is on hardtail bikes. The descents are steep and relatively smooth as well but can become crazy slippery when they are wet, so tire choice is key! I’d say it suits me well with the steep long climb, along with the limited recovery. There is just nowhere to hide out there and I think it suits riders with a lot of fitness the best.
How important is this race to you and why?
Blevins: This is my first elite World Cup so it’s a pretty big rite of passage. I want to show myself and everyone else that I belong in the field immediately and can fight for a top finish. On the other hand, I know that this is just the first of many World Cups and I will undoubtedly gain a lot of experience regardless of how the race goes.
Courtney: Any World Cup race is a huge opportunity and, after a season without much racing, I am even more motivated to compete at the front of the field. I have certainly learned not to take these opportunities for granted.
Finchamp: For me, this race really marks a beginning and an end. This World Cup block at Albstadt and Nove Mesto 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. 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.
Swenson: Although Albstadt is not the official Olympic qualifier (for automatic selection), It will definitely be used for a discretionary pick as it is only one of two World Cups this year before the selection, as well as being just one of four World Cups in a 12 month period.
Does this race mean more to your World Cup season or making the Olympics?
Courtney: I’ve already qualified!
Swenson: For me it is most definitely more about making the Olympic team, that is the number one goal this season.
Finchamp: I think for me, it is equal parts of both. I have big goals for the upcoming World Cups, but regardless of where I finish this go around, I’ve learned that this sport is always about pursuing progress. I’ll never be done moving forward.
Blevins: The Olympics are front and center on everyone’s mind during these first two World Cups. But they’ve also been occupying our thoughts for the past 18 months+, so I feel like we are used to thinking of the big goal while also focusing on the immediate ones. I feel I still have room to focus on the World Cup season opener independently of the Olympics, while also keeping the Tokyo dream as extra motivation. The bigger picture will fall into place if these races go well, so there’s no point in thinking beyond them while we’re here right now.
How is World Cup competition different than the racing you’ve done thus far this season?
Swenson: The biggest thing about the World Cups is just the depth of the field. There are so many top level racers in one place. You have to be at your best to perform, you can’t fake anything here.
Courtney: World Cup racing is the top level of competition for our sport and differs greatly from more local competitions. I have been lucky enough to spend the last month with my team competing in Europe and was able to race in fields that resembled a World Cup, which is not a possibility in the states. Still, when you line up for a World Cup, you can expect everyone to be on their best form and very motivated to get a good result.
Blevins: I’ve been able to race a couple of super-competitive UCI races in Europe and that warmed me up to World Cup mode a bit. But these elite World Cups just have so much depth and I know I’ll have to fight for every place in a way that I haven’t in U.S. racing or lower-level UCI races in Europe.
Finchamp: This is the world stage. It doesn’t get a whole lot bigger than this. The stakes are higher and the field is larger. This is one of the largest women’s fields in World Cup history and these are the best women in the sport. I think everyone on the start line has an ‘agenda’ that they are pursuing.
Getting close 💥💥
— UCI MTB (@UCI_MTB) May 5, 2021
What kind of racing can we expect?
Courtney: You can expect spicy racing out there! With Olympic qualifications still in play for many athletes, there will be no lack of fitness or motivation.
Swenson: I’m sure there will be some very exciting racing as I think almost every country is in the same boat as us with it being weighed heavily for those Olympic spots. You know everyone will be on their A-game. Should be an exciting round.
Finchamp: I think at this level there are a lot more moving pieces and the people who come out on top will be those who negotiate the nerves, track, and tactics the best. After an unprecedented year last year, I don’t think there is much that we know for certain about anyone’s condition so it will be racing at its best: anyone’s game.
Blevins: People are going to be flying. There’s no doubt that everyone’s put a little extra into the off-season to be ready for these World Cup openers and Tokyo later down the road. It’ll be interesting to see what new faces are at the front of the race and how the perennial contenders are this early in the season. It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to be a part of it, and I know watching it will bring just as much excitement.