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Men’s World Cup XC racing is at an inflection point. Had the pandemic never happened and the Olympics been held in 2020, we’d likely have seen similar results to the last decade or so. But, as we all know, that’s not how it went. Routines got disrupted, seasons got abbreviated, and carefully planned Olympic training cycles had to be rewritten. The result? Some of the longtime mainstays of the men’s field appear to be losing their edge, leaving space for younger riders, other countries, and even interlopers from other sports to take control. In short: Mens XC racing may be more exciting than it’s ever been.
Add to that an exceptionally spicy Olympic track, and this is one race you really won’t want to miss. Any rider who’s seen the course preview from Tokyo has likely thought “that would be hell if it rained.” The track is riddled with steep off-camber climbs, tight turns over roots, rounded boulders, and committing jumps. It looks scary when dry—but that’s not what the forecast is currently calling for. Instead, it looks likely that the men will be treated to a 60 percent chance of rain. Who will thrive, and who will just try to survive?
Here’s who to watch:
Nino Schurter, Switzerland (Scott-SRAM)
If you couldn’t tune in for a men’s XC race at any point in the last decade, you could make a pretty good guess who would win. At 35, the plainspoken Swiss star Nino Schurter has won 32 World Cup races, eight World Championships, and seven World Cup overall titles. He’s the defending Olympic gold medalist, and he also won the test race in Tokyo back in 2019.
But time may not be on Schurter’s side. In 2020 he failed to land on the World Championship podium for the first time in nine years, and his 2021 World Cup season has been spotty. While he’s not fully out of the fight, he’s dropped to 5th in the overall standings. It’s an Olympic year, which means competition is at its fiercest. Is Schurter saving something special for Tokyo? Or is his long reign finally coming to an end?
Mathias Flückiger, Switzerland (Thomus RN Racing Team)
Schurter’s countryman, on the other hand, may just be hitting his stride. Mathias Flückiger’s first World Cup win came in 2018, and after going on to win Albstadt in 2020 and placing second in the World Championships, he’s worked his way up the podium to win the last two World Cups, with time to spare. His riding style shows his years of experience chasing Schurter’s shadow—he’s aggressive, unshakable, and knows how to create speed out of trail features that other riders simply aim to survive.
It’s no surprise that the Swiss rider’s first World Cup win was on the notoriously savage Mont Sainte-Anne course. In Les Gets, France, this year, he was the only rider who appeared unaffected by the horrendously muddy conditions (besides maybe Loana Lecomte). If what we saw in France is any indication, Flückiger, 32, may be the rider best equipped to handle the course in Tokyo, especially if the weather turns foul.
The Young Blood
Mathieu van der Poel, Netherlands (Alpecin Fenix)
You knew we’d get to him, and here he is: Mathieu van der Poel, 26, is officially on the start list for the Tokyo Cross Country race. If you don’t know who he is, go look him up, we’ll wait. Hint: He’s the only rider on this list whose career achievements have their own Wikipedia page. In the last year alone, van der Poel won his fourth Cyclocross World Championship, then simply rode away from the best classics riders in the world to win Strade Bianche. After that, he went to his first Tour de France, won stage 2, and wore the yellow jersey for six days. Now he’s coming for mountain biking.
Should the old guard of XC be worried? After all, Peter Sagan tried the same thing at the height of his powers in Rio, and flatted after barely a lap. But van der Poel is a different beast—he raced a full season on the XC world cup two years ago. His first race back (the Albstadt short track) he won. Decisively. He’s got the skills and the strength, but he has yet to put together an XC win. Will Tokyo be his first? Let’s cross our fingers he doesn’t flat.
Thomas Pidcock, Great Britain (Ineos Grenadiers)
The man responsible for denying the great MvdP his first World Cup XC win is 21-year-old Thomas Pidcock, another cyclocross and world tour pro returning to mountain biking. In Nove Mesto, Pidcock and van der Poel made short work of the field, and Flückiger was the only rider able to respond. In the end, Pidcock won by over a minute—a first for the Brits in 27 years. Sure it was only the second race of the season, but it’s a little unsettling to see the defending World Champion lose by nearly two-and-a-half minutes to a guy wearing a roadie kit.
To be fair, Pidcock has said he was born to mountain bike, and he did win the 2020 U23 XC world championship last year. The only thing slowing him down at this point is the fact that he broke his collarbone a few weeks ago in training. He was back racing, somehow, in Les Gets, so here’s hoping he’s back to top form by Tokyo.
Jordan Sarrou, France (Specialized Factory)
At 28, defending World Champion Jordan Sarrou isn’t exactly young, but he is a new World Champion, and one we haven’t seen much of yet. He started racing at a young age, and at 16 left home to go to one of France’s mountain bike schools. Over the last decade he’s hovered around the top 15 in World Cups, with the occasional top-10—but his first XC win was a big one: the 2020 World Championships, where he and countrywoman Pauline Ferrand-Prévot made it a sweep for the French.
Julien Absalon, one of France’s greatest riders of all time, leads the team that both Ferrand-Prévot and Sarrou were on in 2020, but Sarrou has since moved on to the Specialized factory team. Will he be able to defend the rainbow jersey in 2021? So far, he’s been able to hang on to the front of the race, even if he still hasn’t won one yet—and he’s currently ranked third in the world cup overall.
Christopher Blevins, Colorado (Trinity Racing)
Since the beginning of his career, Christopher Blevins, 23, has been considered one of the most promising future talents of U.S. cycling—and like his young European contemporaries, he can win in multiple disciplines. As a junior, he won national titles in BMX, Road and Mountain bike racing. As a U23, he won the Pan-American XC championship, and took the silver at XC worlds.
Originally from Durango, Colorado, Blevins is yet another product of the Durango Devo team, which nurtured fellow Olympian Howard Grotts and Sepp Kuss (who recently won a stage of the Tour de France). Blevins now lives in California, where he’s studying business administration at Cal Poly. He’s also a spoken word poet, and teaches creative writing at a local juvenile hall. With so much going for him, it says a lot that he chose to put his focus this year on mountain biking for the Olympics. Hopefully, Tokyo is just the beginning for this young American rider.
Ondřej Cink Czechia (Kross Orlen Racing Team)
If you’ve been watching World Cup races this year, you’ve probably been a little surprised to hear a new name battling with the old favorites for podium position. Like Jordan Sarrou, Ondřej Cink, 30, of the Czech Republic has been on the world cup scene for a long time—but it seems that he’s finally cracked the code for success, consistently landing on the podium this season.
The Czech rider won an XC World Championship as a U23, and had good results as a first-year elite. But from 2014-2016 he seemed to settle into the middle of the pack, rarely making it into the top 10, with the exception of World Championship races; in Vallnord and Nove Mesto he was 3rd and 4th, respectively. In 2017 he moved over to the road, and raced with team Bahrain-Merida in the Tour de France, followed by another tough season of mid-pack XC results in 2018. In 2019, things started to pick up again, and Cink found himself finishing 5th in the 2020 World Championships. This year he’s ranked second in the World Cup overall. Will this, finally, be his year? He’s clearly a rider motivated for podiums at big races, so don’t count him out!
The men’s race is on July 26 at 5 p.m. local time (July 25 at 11 p.m. PST). Find viewing information here.
Photos: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool