Conversations between fans of the different mountain biking disciplines occasionally turn to “who’s the greatest champion of all time?” People have strong opinions. And while it’s generally regarded that there’s more longevity in cross-country Olympic (XCO) events than gravity there are also exceptions to that convention. Let’s look at some of the historical performances and see which of the riders to have earned the Rainbow Stripes of UCI World Champion stand out.
The most World titles in Men’s Elite individual XCO go to Switzerland’s Nino Schurter, with seven gold medals, including the last four in a row. Factor in two silver medals, and that’s a current UCI World Champion whose total is starting to feel unassailable. But turn the clock back 12 years and it was four-in-a-row for Julien Absalon of France who looked unbeatable at the time, and went on to win a fifth gold in the same event in 2014. If we count his two bronze and two silver medals, he’d have nine in total, equalling Schurter.
In XCO Women’s Elite, Norway’s Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa stands alone with four UCI World Championships wins. Alison Sydor of Canada, one of two women with three golds, won hers back-to-back in a dominant streak running 1994-6, and also finished second an astonishing five times – putting her on an uneasy honour roll, and perhaps helping Poland’s Maja Włoszczowska (one gold and four silvers) sleep more easily at night.
In almost any other sport we’d double-take at Denmark’s Annika Langvad bagging five UCI MTB Marathon (and one XCO) World titles so far – including the last two. Could she make it three in a row to equal the superb six titles for Norway’s Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (11 years between first and last)? In the men’s Marathon, Alban Lakata of Austria and Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser are paired on three UCI World Championships apiece (Christoph Sauser also won the 2008 XCO).
In Cross-country Team Relay, Switzerland’s Nino Schurter once again provides the standout stat with four titles (12 years between the first and most recent, and at the age of 33, don’t think he won’t extend that tally), with three riders tied on three wins: Italy’s Marco Aurelio Fontana (might we see him on an E-MTB at this year’s UCI World Championships?), and the French duo of Jordan Sarrou and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who could each still add to their totals.
Both aged just 21, Sina Frei and Filippo Colombo have been half of the last two victorious Swiss relay teams, and look set to crop up again when we update this feature in the future (especially considering Sina Frei’s U23 individual title). The other member of that quartet, Jolanda Neff, shows her versatile prowess with World titles in Women’s Elite XCO (2017) and UCI MTB Marathon (2016) as well as three consecutive UCI U23 Mountain Bike World Championship victories, three overall MTB World Cup wins, a national cyclo-cross title and a pro road career. Neff’s prolific versatility puts her right up there with the very best, and aged just 26, we may still see much more from her…
In Men’s Elite Downhill, Nicolas Vouilloz claimed seven UCI World Championship titles between 1995 and 2002 - including five in a row -, three consecutive Junior titles and five overall UCI World Cup wins (not that we’re counting those… nor are we counting the fact that he subsequently became a rally driver, but it certainly adds to the Frenchman’s legend). The only man ever to have got close is the big South African Greg Minnaar. His three UCI World Championship victories – and four silvers and three bronze – along with three overall UCI World Cup titles (which we’re not counting) are not as many as Nicolas Vouilloz, yet he’s earned the nickname The GOAT: Greatest Of All Time.
In the Women’s Elite Downhill, Anne-Caroline Chausson has a staggering nine UCI World titles: the French rider was untouchable with eight straight victories from Cairns in 1996 to Lugano in 2003 that followed on from her three-in-a-row Junior titles (plus five consecutive overall UCI World Cups, and even an Olympic medal in BMX). Britain’s Rachel Atherton is still shooting for that top spot with five rainbow jerseys (and three silvers and a bronze), plus six overall UCI World Cup titles…
Australia’s Caroline Buchanan has won the UCI 4X World Championships five times (alongside an impressive BMX career). Anne-Caroline Chausson won both UCI Dual Slalom World Championships (the fore-runner to 4X) in 2000 and 2001, then the first two UCI 4X World Championships, while Anneke Beerten of the Netherlands has earned her three 4X titles, three silvers and a bronze over a highly consistent ten-year span. The only man to win three UCI 4X World Championships titles is USA’s Brian Lopes.
So who’s the greatest UCI World Champion of them all? Chausson. No, Schurter. Or is it Dahle Flesjaa? Or Vouilloz? It’s not something that can be judged by headline statistics, the total number of titles, the career longevity, the code-switching panache or even the heroic multiple near-misses. What makes a true champion is also about the riders’ dedication and talent, the entertainment and inspiration they provide, and the combination of pride and humility with which may of these amazing athletes carry themselves.
And just maybe the best is yet to come.