The last two weekends I had the opportunity to race for USA Cycling at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Snowshoe, West Virginia and Mont Saint Anne, Quebec! I competed in the U23 cross country events, racing against the fastest mountain bike athletes from development, factory, and national teams around the world.
We flew out to the East Coast and made the drive to the Appalachian mountains a couple days before my race in Snowshoe. The downhill and cross country athletes had been training and competing all week, and we arrived in the middle of the World Cup scene with famous riders and bikes everywhere. I quickly assembled my bike in time for course practice, and rode a few laps with some of my USA teammates. The course was a mix of fast grass sections and extremely technical descents in the woods. It had rained during the previous week, and the woods was still wet and muddy with very slippery roots. One downhill in particular required precise line choice and braking control to avoid crashing over the bars, and even some of the best riders struggled to figure it out. I felt good on the technical sections but I still practiced them several times until I was confident I could ride everything well on race day. We watched the elite short track race on Friday evening, and it was incredible to see all of the athletes in person after watching them on TV for the past five years.
My U23 cross country was the first race of the day on Sunday, which made for an early morning. After the final preparations and a good warm-up on the road, I found myself lined up on the last row of a World Cup start. I initially left a little space to the 70 riders in front of me, and then sprinted through the gaps as they opened up on the uphill start climb. This strategy worked well and I gained almost 15 spots in the first few seconds. I put power down through the faster sections of the course and fought to hold my position before the singletrack bottleneck. This is an inevitable part of racing a World Cup from the back, and I had to hop off my bike and wait for nearly 30 seconds as the leaders rode away. When we emerged from the singletrack the race was strung out to a single file line, and everyone was going full gas in an attempt to make it back towards the front. I dug deep just trying to hold on to the wheels in front of me, and lost a few positions as riders sprinted around me. I tried to stay calm and recover on the technical descents, but the intensity and stress of the start lap had already sent me into the red zone. I was on the edge of blowing up, and was forced to back off a little. I focused on riding at my limit on the climbs and flats, while also executing my lines on the descents. By nature of the fast and technical course the race spread out quickly, and I was only able to gain a few more positions before getting pulled with a few laps to go in 60th overall. This was a decent first World Cup experience, and I was happy with my start despite not moving up as far as I had hoped.
After watching the elite riders battle for the win and celebrate on the podium, the World Cup weekend was over as quickly as it had started. I stayed in Snowshoe for two more days to recover and catch up on schoolwork (including taking one of my midterms remotely) before flying out to Quebec for the next World Cup. I arrived in Mont Saint Anne on Wednesday to some beautiful warm and sunny weather, but rain was already forecasted for the weekend. I had several days to settle in to the lodging and finish my school assignments, which was nice to take the stress away from racing. The course in Mont Saint Anne is notoriously the most challenging course in the World Cup circuit, and I loved it. The climbs are steep and sustained, and the descents are loamy with several big rock features. There are multiple line options on every part of the course, so it took multiple laps to ride every line and figure out which ones would be ideal on race day. Unfortunately it didn’t rain until the night before our race, so all we could do was predict how the course would change and hope for the best. I spent some time at the Bear National Team house talking to the other riders about what to expect, and used their compressor setup to switch over to mud tires. I also visited the Cannondale Factory Racing house to borrow a set of rollers for warm-up, and got to sit in at their team meeting as the 4 riders and 15 support staff prepared for a muddy race the next day.
On race day we woke up to cold and drizzly weather, and apparently it had rained almost 2 inches overnight. The u23 men were the first race of the day again, but that meant we had the “best” course conditions. Luckily I had a friend pick me up to drive to the venue, and we warmed up on rollers underneath a ledge (my first time riding rollers but it was a good challenge). After my warm up I put my layers and a rain jacket on, and tried to stay as dry and warm as possible until the last minute of call ups. The start was as fast as always, and the spray of water that made it hard to see more than a few wheels ahead. I tried my best to navigate the chaos in the pack as we sprinted up the first climb, and put in a hard effort to move up a few positions. At the top of the first climb the course dropped into a singletrack descent with two separate lines, and I was forced to take the A line because of my position. Unfortunately this was the wrong decision, as one of the riders crashed on a rock feature and caused a major bottleneck. I had to get off my bike and wait as I watched all of the riders behind me fly down the B line on my right. I ended up losing all of the positions, and at the bottom of the descent another rider crashed in front of me. By the end of the start lap I was back to square one, in nearly last place with a gap to the riders in front of me. Although I was frustrated, I refocused on riding the best race I could from that point forward. I felt really good on the steep climbs, catching riders one by one. The descents were full of slippery rocks, so I rode intentionally and focused on making good line choices. Some riders around me were crashing left and right, but I did my best to avoid the chaos and gained positions. The course conditions got worse with every lap as the mud got torn up and dragged over the rocks, so I decided to run some of the most difficult sections to avoid making mistakes and losing time. This strategy paid off and I gained almost 20 positions over the course of the race. On my last lap I had a small crash and pulled my foot out of my shoe, but I put it back on quickly and kept moving forward. It was an all out effort and I was starting to cramp, so I was almost happy to get pulled just before one lap to go. I finished 46th overall in my second World Cup, a solid improvement over the previous weekend in extremely challenging conditions!
On Sunday afternoon I watched the elite races with all of my U23 teammates, and went out to the world cup afterparty to celebrate with all of the athletes that night. I really enjoyed the whole World Cup experience and tried to make the most of these two weeks on the circuit, on and off the bike. While my results weren’t quite what I had hoped and feel like I am capable of with a better start position, it was a good introduction to world cup racing and a valuable learning experience for all of my races in the future. I’m already looking forward to one more race during this trip, collegiate nationals in North Carolina this weekend!