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Island cyclists ready to conquer world cyclo-cross championships

Events takes place in Tabor, Czech Republic
Evan Russell of Mill Bay celebrates as he crosses the finish line during last year’s national cyclo-cross championships at Layritz Park. Russell looks for more success this weekend at the world championships in the Czech Republic. JAY WALLACE, WHEELHOUSE CYCLING SOCIETY

Jon Watkin will feel sort of like a proud poppa this week. The Victorian was the race ­director of the Canadian cyclo-cross championships in November at Layritz Park. The product of that event will be on display when Canadian champions and podium finishers from the nationals at Layritz will represent the country in 23 classes at the UCI world championships Friday through Sunday in Tabor, Czech Republic. That includes national champion Evan Russell of Mill Bay in the elite men’s and Cody Scott of Courtenay in the U-23 men’s.

“Those two got to race in front of family and friends on the Island at nationals and if that wasn’t motivation enough, I don’t know what would be,” said Watkin.

“It’s nice that our event is a part of this storyline. I’ve watched Evan Russell grow up from youth cycling and mature into a strong rider. He is very motivated and driven. His work ethic is top notch and he trains hard and with consistency.”

Cyclo-cross is a non-Olympic discipline of cycling that consists of riding over variable surfaces, from paved roads to cobblestones to grasslands to woodland trails, and across man-made and natural obstacles that require riders to dismount and carry their bikes on their shoulders over or across the obstacles, before remounting. Cyclo-cross is raced in the fall and winter months with muddy and sloppy conditions a big part of its vibe. It is huge in parts of Europe with crowds of up 60,000 converging to watch big races.

“In Belgium and ­Netherlands, cyclo-cross is like hockey is in Canada,” said Isabella ­Holmgren, during nationals at Layritz Park.

Isabella Holmgren is the defending UCI women’s world junior champion from 2023 in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, while sibling Ava Holmgren took the silver medal. The 18-year-old fraternal twin Holmgren sisters both did well at Layritz last fall to book their places in the 2024 UCI world championships this weekend in the Czech Republic. They are from ­Orillia, Ont., but train often on the Island supported by the off-road cycling community here, which has produced the likes of Olympic mountain-bikers Alison Sydor, Catharine Pendrel, Roland Green, Geoff Kabush, Max ­Plaxton, Andreas Hestler and Kiara Bisaro.

The big money in cycling is still in road racing, however, and many cyclists use cyclo as cross-training. The Holmgrens also compete in mountain biking and road racing and signed in the latter last year with the pro Lidl-Trek team.

The 22-year-old Russell, who also studies computer science in the UVic faculty of engineering, races pro on the road for the Toronto Hustle team. With Team B.C., Russell won the silver medal in the time trial and bronze in the criterium at the 2022 Canada Summer Games in the Niagara Region. From Layritz to the Czech Republic, the Islander this weekend is racing for a cyclo-cross world podium against the likes of Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands, the defending and five-time world cyclo-cross champion, defending world road champion and a yellow-jersey rider in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.

That’s tough company but the Canadians are game.

“This is probably the strongest group of riders I’ve seen representing Canada at a cyclo-cross world championships,” national team head coach Michael Van Den Ham said in a statement.

“I’m excited to see what they can accomplish. Not only this year, but with so many new athletes, I’m excited to see how these championships lay the foundation for the future as well.”