Mountain bike: countdown to 2021 UCI World Cup opener in Albstadt

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup opens in Albstadt (Germany) on 8-9 May, followed a week later by round two in Nové Město na Moravě (Czech Republic). There are six rounds of UCI World Cup action for cross-country Olympic (XCO) this year, plus the UCI World Championships in August following the Tokyo Olympic Games in late July.

In 2019, the last full UCI World Cup season, Switzerland’s Nino Schurter and American Kate Courtney took the overall XCO wins… but a lot has happened since then.

The 2019 XCO programme also opened in Albstadt, with another Swiss, Mathias Flückiger, taking the first Men Elite win, edging out the multi-disciplinarian Mathieu Van der Poel (NED). Courtney took the Women Elite victory, one of her three wins in the first four events. Meanwhile, Schurter came on strong as the season progressed, finishing on the podium at all subsequent rounds, including two victories: in Vallnord – Pal Arinsal (Andorra) and Les Gets (France). In the Under 23s Filippo Colombo (SUI) and Laura Stigger (AUT) took victory in Albstadt.

Cross-country fans expect the established order and the newcomers to entertain them in Germany.

It’s the eighth time the Albstädter Bullentäle venue has hosted the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, with 190m climbing on each of its 4.2km laps.

With the start/finish straight on tarmac at the foot of the hill, the course zig-zags though grass then woods up to the Mercedes-Benz North Shore (29% gradient), before hitting the 60% descent at Red Bull Devil’s Corner, the Mercedes-Benz Uphill peaking at 25% and the Bikezone Albstadt Drop, with its 43% descent, leading back down to the bottom of the course. It’s punishing by any standards.

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup was short but incredibly exciting. Two back-to-back UCI World Cups in a week at Nové Město na Moravě saw breakthrough performances by young riders grasping their opportunities.

In the cross-country Short Track (XCC) 23-year-old Evie Richards (GBR) pipped multiple UCI World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot twice in just a few days. Then 21-year-old Loana Lecomte (FRA) stunned by winning in her first Elite UCI World Cup XCO race, beating the experienced Dutch rider Anne Terpstra into 2nd and Ferrand-Prévot into third. The same trio completed the next podium again, but in the reverse order.

The men’s racing was just as compelling. First, 23-year-old José Gerardo Ulloa Arévalo (MEX) won the opening XCC, then Henrique Avancini (BRA) took the second. 21-year-old Simon Andreassen (DEN) won the first Men Elite XCO race, before Avancini proved himself as a hugely popular winner of his first Elite World Cup XCO race on the Sunday. With the rainbow jerseyed Schurter finishing fourth then third, the muddy grind in the Czech Republic seemed to signal a sea-change. Or was it just another crazy anomaly thrown up by 2020?

One result from 2020 that still resonates was Tom Pidcock (GBR) collecting two victories in his first ever U23 XCO races.

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is one of the high profile team movers, now at Absolute Absalon BMC. In last weekend’s Proffix Swiss Bike Cup, she hit the podium but couldn’t hold the pace of Austrian youngster Mona Mitterwallner. The Junior UCI World Champion finished almost two minutes clear.

“Such a confidence + motivation boost for next week’s first U23 World Cup,” said Mitterwallner on social media.

Her Austrian compatriot, Laura Stigger, has moved in the off-season to Specialized Racing:

“It would be amazing to continue with the performance I had last year in Nové Město, or ever better,” she said.

Also joining Stigger at Specialized Racing, UCI World Champion Jordan Sarrou (FRA) sets his expectations high: “Albstadt suits me very well. It's my first season highlight this year. I want to win... I'm going for a podium and victory for sure.”

Pidcock, after his photo finish at the UCI WorldTour’s Amstel Gold Race, took the men’s win at the Proffix Swiss Bike Cup, just as his INEOS Grenadiers teammate Geraint Thomas took road victory at the Tour de Romandie: “It's the perfect start to my mountain bike season… I came here in preparation for the World Cups.”

Also with an eye on Tokyo, Mathieu Van der Poel is expected to start. “I’ll go back to my favourite discipline, mountain biking. I cannot wait,” he said after finishing second at April’sRonde van Vlaanderen.

But it would seem folly to overlook 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.”