UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships: forging legends since 2003

2019 marks the first year that the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships are held in Switzerland since its very first edition, in 2003, in Lugano. This cross-country Marathon (XCM) event is the ultimate endurance mountain biking test, with the world’s best riders tackling distances of between 60km and 160km, featuring multiple strength-sapping surfaces and technical, testing sectors. That’s not to mention the climbing: the upcoming 2019 championships in Grächen (September 21-22) are a typical example, with more than 4,000 metres of total elevation in the men’s race and more than 3,500 metres of climbing for the women.

The first UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships were part of the UCI Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships, but, following the success of its first edition, XCM had its standalone World Championships from 2004. In the subsequent 16 years since the 2003 edition, the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships have seen successes from XCM specialists as well as from athletes successfully crossing over from the shorter cross-country Olympic (XCO) distance and other cycling disciplines.

2003 saw the first XCM rainbow jerseys go to Switzerland (Thomas Frischknecht - the first of two XCM world titles for the Olympic XCO silver medalist who also raced cyclo-cross to the highest level), and Poland (Maja Włoszczowska, who, like Frischknecht, won Olympic XCO silver  - twice – as well as  a world title in the shorter distance in 2010, and finishing on the podium four further times).

In the intervening years, Switzerland has hauled in the XCM medals: 22, including 10 golds. As for Poland, in 2003 they were joint leaders of the table with Germany, Włoszczowska having led a 1-2 with Magdalena Sadlecka in silver. Then there were no more medals for the Poles until 2018 at Auronzo di Cadore –the third time Italy hosted the XCM World Championships – with a bronze for… 34-year-old Maja Włoszczowska.

2003, when the XCO and XCM UCI World Championships were part of the same event, was a seminal year.

The women’s XCO gold was won by Germany’s Sabine Spitz – who went on to win the XCM World title in 2009, and was still hitting the Marathon podium as recently as 2017. The Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalist still knows how to turn on the endurance, at the age of 47, finishing fourth in the 2019 eight-day Absa Cape Epic, paired with her compatriot Nadine Rieder (not far behind Włoszczowska and Switzerland’s Ariane Lüthi in an event won by the formidable duo of Denmark’s Annika Langvd and road specialist Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands). The 2003 Men’s Junior XCO winner was Jaroslav Kulhavý (CZE), beating a 17-year-old Nino Schurter into silver medal position.

In 2010, South African Burry Stander won XCM bronze - the African continent’s first XCM medal - a year after he had won the Under 23s XCO UCI World Championships.

It was four years after Stander’s victory – and a year after his untimely death in a training accident – that South Africa hosted the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships, in Pietermaritzburg, when victory went to... Jaroslav Kulhavý, 11 years after the Czech rider earned his first XCO rainbow stripes as a Junior. It also saw the second of four Marathon world titles for Annika Langvad.

Many more legends have been made in XCM. Take these three battling European men: Belgium’s double World Champion Roel Paulissen: bronze in 2006, silver in 2007, then finally the top step with back-to-back golds in 2008 (Villabassa, Italy) and 2009 (Graz, Austria).

Then there’s the brilliance of Switzerland’s triple UCI World Champion Christoph Sauser, whose podium adventure started with gold in 2007 (Verviers, Belgium), down to silver in 2008, bronze in 2009, up to gold again in 2011 (Montello, ITA), gold in 2013 (Austria), bronze in 2014 then silver in 2015 – that’s as well as five Absa Cape Epic wins, 2008 UCI XCO World Championships victory and a bronze at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Sauser handed the baton to Austria’s Alban Lakata who so far has four silvers: 2009, 2013, 2014 and 2016, and three golds: 2010, 2015 and again in 2017. If he hadn’t been involved in a mass crash last year, could it have been four?

We’ve witnessed the emergence of the South Americans. Reflecting the recent strength in road racing – and pre-empting the current wave of UCI WorldTour talent – Colombia’s double Olympian Hector Páez claimed silver in 2006, then bronze in 2013, 2015 and 2018. Last year he was joined on the podium by the Brazilian Henrique Avancini on the top step. The 2018 UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Champion has also continued to show his class in the shorter distance format having finished third in the final XCO standings of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.

Marathon celebrates some of the strongest women in world cycling, starting with an undeniable legend Rita Dahle Flesjå . Along with four XCO UCI World titles and an Olympic gold (Athens 2004), the Norwegian has six XCM World Championship rainbow jerseys, starting with three in a row: 2004, Bad Goisern, Austria; 2005, Lillehammer, Norway (where she became the only female rider to win the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships on home soil); and 2006, Oisans in the French Alps. Then 2008 Villabassa, Italy; 2013 Kirchberg, Austria; and 2015 Selva di Val Gardena, Italy.

Gunn-Rita’s record is unmatched but there are other big stars in Women’s Marathon. Her last XCM podium was the bronze medal in Singen, Germany, 2017, at the age of 44. Alongside her was fellow Scandinavian, Annika Langvad who won the fourth of her five – so far – XCM titles. The Dane is the current reigning UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Champion, with back-to-back wins in 2017 and 2018 at Auronzo di Cadore, Italy. These victories sit alongside Olympic appearances, a pro road contract and three consecutive Absa Cape Epic wins.

Which leads us to Jolanda Neff. The 2016 UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Champion is a force to be reckoned with in XCO: she is 2017 UCI World Champion, triple Under 23 World Champion and double World Cup overall winner in the speciality as well as riding as a professional on the road.

At the age of just 26 there is surely much more to come from the super-talented Swiss rider.

No nation has ever had a clean-sweep on either the men’s or women’s podium. And only once has a nation celebrated both UCI World Champions in the same year: Switzerland in 2007 with Sauser and Petra Henzi, another classy Marathon racer who podium’d four times at the Worlds and whose name is one of many that make up XCM’s rich history.