The up-coming UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, mark the 30th year of this major annual event. To celebrate the occasion, we jump through time to recall just a few of the stand-out characters and stories from those three decades. And like all good stories it starts at the very beginning, 1990.
The first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships were staged in Durango, USA, where the medals table was a tour de force for the North Americans.
The USA’s Ned Overend won the Men’s cross-country from Thomas Frischknecht, an amazing Swiss rider who went on to become cross-country Olympic (XCO) UCI World Champion in 1996 and cross-country Marathon (XCM) UCI World Champion in 2003 and 2005. In the Men’s downhill (DHI), it was a USA clean-sweep: Greg Herbold winning from Mike Kloser and Paul Thomasberg. The USA’s Joey Irwin won the Junior (Men’s) downhill, while the Women’s XCO saw another clean sweep: the USA’s Juli Furtado winning from her compatriots Sara Ballantyne and Ruthie Matthes.
Only in the Women’s DHI was the hosts’ stranglehold broken, with Canadian riders taking gold and silver: Cindy Devine and Elladee Brown, from bronze medalist Penny Davidson of… where else, the USA. This ground-breaking event confirmed some amazing riders with worldwide recognition for the first time.
"Deadly Nedly" Overend was an exceptional athlete and a fitting recipient of the discipline’s first rainbow jersey. Although 1990 marked his only UCI World Championship win (he took bronze the following year), he claimed six US national titles and competed in cyclo-cross and road racing across three decades. Overend was inducted to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1990. Downhill 1990 UCI World Champion Herbold didn’t join him there until 1996, but the fearless rider, nicknamed “Hairball”, paved the way for gravity riders in the coming years.
Finding her Hall of Fame place in 1993, Juli Furtado was not just a phenomenal rider but a visionary for bicycle design and a leader for women’s cycling. The "Rugged Racer" was an international skier-turned-road-racer before embracing XCO. 1990’s Women’s Downhill UCI World Champion, Cindy Devine (2003 Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee) was brought up on the ‘North Shore’ of Vancouver, British Columbia, and got into the emerging mountain bike scene hanging out with friends: “Oh, I’m good at this? I think I like it!” she recalled some 27 years later as Canada saw its second Women Elite Downhill UCI World Champion crowned: Miranda Miller.
The 1991 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships were hosted in Italy but it was another American providing the standout performances: John Tomac. Having narrowly missed the 1990 DHI podium (on a bike with road-style drop handlebars!) the American won the 1991 XCO UCI World Champion title and came runner-up in the DHI. There have been discipline-hopping riders before and since (consider Mathieu Van der Poel this year) but few with the chutzpah of the former BMX National Champion, pro road racer, team owner and bike brand pioneer Tomac.
Canada 1992 saw another podium for Frischknecht, another victory for Furtado and the first Junior Men’s DHI UCI World Championships title for a 16-year-old French rider called Nicolas Vouilloz. His victory in Bromont, Quebec, was followed by another at home in France then in the USA for three consecutive Junior titles. Then, such was his masterful skill and utter dominance, Vouilloz won the Elite Men’s title for an astonishing seven out of the following nine years. Ten rainbow jerseys in 12 years… let that sink in.
Another of Vouilloz’s victorious years was 1998 at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada. Underlining the power-shift from the all-American championships eight years earlier, French riders won eight of the nine classifications. The roll-call is peerless: among them, Under-23 XCO UCI World Champion, one Julien Absalon – who went on to win five Elite World titles, five European titles, seven UCI World Cup overall titles and 33 UCI World Cup races – a count that many thought would be surpassed by Nino Schurter in the last race in Lenzerhiede, Switzerland. Olympic Champion in 2004 (Athens) and 2008 (Beijing), Absalon was thwarted in his attempt to claim a third Olympic title when he punctured on the first lap in London 2012.
Winning the rainbow jersey in the Junior Men’s DHI in 1998 was Frenchman Fabien Barel – who progressed to three Elite titles, and six national downhill titles before switching to Enduro.
Taking the Women’s DHI title was Anne-Caroline Chausson. The third of her amazing nine UCI World Championship titles in ten years, during which she also picked up two Dual Slalom and two Four-cross (4X) rainbow jerseys. That was after she’d blazed the trail for Vouilloz with three consecutive Junior UCI World Championship titles.
Mont-Sainte-Anne 1998 produced the kind of medal table where riders the quality of Frenchwoman Sabrina Jonnier (double DHI UCI World Champion, Junior UCI World Champion, double European Champion, triple European Champion), the Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå (six-time UCI World Champion and Olympic XCO gold medalist), the Swiss Christoph Sauser (XCO UCI World Champion and double XCM UCI World Champion) and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal (better known on the road, winning the Giro d’Italia, but here earning a silver medal in the Junior XCO) just get a passing mention!
In the 90s we loved Denmark’s Henrik Djernis winning three XCO titles, the USA’s Missy Giove taking the Women’s DHI in 1994, Frenchman Cedric Gracia’s Junior DHI win in 1995 (the second of his three podiums), and Italy’s Paola Pezzo taking two XCO titles to match her two Olympic golds. Fast forward to the noughties and our stars included the South African Greg Minnaar, the Australians Sam Hill, Chris Kovarik and Tracey Hannah – and the American Aaron Gwin
In Val di Sole in 2008, we saw the Swiss Nino Schurter edge out his countryman Matthias Flückiger in the Under-23 XCO, while a young Peter Sagan won the Junior XCO title. The DHI pendulum swung towards Great Britain, as Gee Atherton won the World title from Steve Peat (who claimed victory the following year), Josh Bryceland took the Under-23 title ahead of Sam Dale, and Rachel Atherton took the first of her five World titles.
2012 saw more talented youngsters emerge with wins for Loïc Bruni (Junior DHI) and Jolanda Neff (Under-23 XCO) while Minnaar was romping back-to-back DHI titles and Schurter started his long reign – he’s now on the verge of becoming the most successful XCO rider of all time. Bruni stepped up to win the Elite class in 2015, 2017 and 2018, and wants to impress further.
But there are a dozen or more riders in each discipline who all genuinely believe they have what it takes to claim the next set of rainbow stripes, and earn their place in history.