On Sunday, 12 August in Mont Sainte-Anne, Canada Team Spur's Alan Hatherly controlled an explosive race in the U23 Men's category to win his first-ever UCI XCO World Cup.
The result in Canada, on "one of the hardest tracks on the [World Cup] circuit", according to Hatherly, is the South African's most memorable result in a roller coaster season of racing. The 22-year-old broke both his wrists in February in a mountain bike stage but bounced back in April to claim a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. He then defended his African Continental and South African Championship titles recently.
For those in the know, UCI World Cup racing remains the pinnacle of the sport, and Hatherly was eager to deliver on his potential on the biggest stage. Passion, skill, dedication to training and pure grit have brought him a second (in 2017) and a third-place result this year in U23 World Cups. But the top step of the podium had eluded him... until Sunday!
Hatherly and his Team Spur support staff, mechanic JP Jacobs and team manager, Tim Bassingthwaighte, made their way from a cold and wet Cape Town, South Africa to the ski resort of Mont Sainte-Anne, outside Quebec City, Canada last week. The trio immediately set about negating the jetlag from the 6-hour time difference and negative effects of the long-haul flight.
A special training plan was hatched with a shift in the usual race preparation. Hatherly took a look at the course on Wednesday and knew he'd have his hands full on race day, trying to contain the best young riders on a physically demanding track. The Mont Sainte-Anne race course had cut out one major climb from previous years, but would still be a dogfight for all of its six laps. "The course here is one of the most natural of the year," Hatherly said. "There's nothing man-made on it and the climbing is really tough, which makes it one of the hardest tracks on the circuit."
Technical rock gardens littered the course and were made treacherous with wet roots and muddy sections in between. Alan was up for the challenge: "I worked hard to dial in my lines for the race. With two long-haul international flights to get here, I needed to ensure I was race ready as soon as possible," Hatherly said.
The race got underway on a sweltering Quebec summer's day. Alan lined up in the front row for the all-important explosive start. It was the usual frenetic cloud of dust when the starter's gun was fired, with riders jostling for positions on the shorter start loop. Staying in touch with the front group was vital as the technical course means bottlenecks at the more challenging obstacles, or when other riders fall.
"I aimed to be in around fourth or fifth position in the start loop, this allowed me to be aware of any attacks which may have come off the front," Hatherly reflected. "The bottom of the climbs here are all wide open and then it goes into singletrack at the top, so I knew I didn't need to be up front early on. There was an opportunity to move up on the big climbs."
Sitting fifth wheel in the lead bunch, Alan put in an attack up a grass climb midway through the first lap and started dictating the pace. "I rode a pretty hard pace to try and split the group and test the riders with me. On the second lap Joshua Dubau [France] attacked up the climb and I went with him and we distanced ourselves from the group," Hatherly said. "Chris Blevins [USA] was the only one who could come with us."
"Unfortunately Josh crashed on the descent soon after attacking me, so it was just Chris who was able to stay with me." The pair of Specialized riders then worked together to extend their lead over their chasers. "We kept it wide open to get the gap as early on in the race as possible, so we could play tactics towards the end of it. Having the buffer puts you in a good position to play the tactical game. Whereas if [the chasers] are hot on your heels you don't have time to work out the strategies. Chris and I pulled together, rotated and kept it steady through to the last lap," said Hatherly.
Aware of Blevins' technical prowess, Hatherly watched him like a hawk. After four laps out in front, the pair knew it would come down to the decisive final lap. "I knew I had to make a move on the climbs. As we hit the second major climb of the lap I put my head down and went for it." described Alan.
Pushing right to the edge of his limits, Hatherly took a steeper inside line while Blevins opted for the safer, wider line. The effort required to summit the small rise paid off as Hatherly gained a good few meters of Blevins. "I managed to get about a 10m gap or so on Chris and I knew I had to keep the pace up and just push through to the line. I think he made a mistake at the top in the rock garden and that gave me a bit of extra time," he said.
Dropping out of the trees towards the line, Hatherly had wrestled the gap out to around 30 seconds. A few grass bends and high fives later and Alan crossed the line to claim his first U23 UCI XCO World Cup victory!
"It's unbelievable to finally get the win. We've been working for this now for longer than two years obviously, but I feel likes it's been possible for the last two years and to finally have pulled it off is massive. With all the ups and downs of this year: broken bones, anemia mid-season... it's not ideal! To bounce back towards the end of the season is incredible. It's four weeks now till World Champs and two weeks to La Bresse. Some exciting racing is still ahead so it's time for some big training to prepare for the final two-three races of the year. I'm happy there's some racing left to chase another top step!"
"I am so stoked that all the effort has paid off. The last few weeks have been so hard but to walk away with the win makes it all worth it. I just want to say thanks to everyone back home for all the support, it makes the victory that much sweeter," Hatherly said.
Hatherly now spends a few weeks in Europe before the final round of the UCI World Cup in La Bresse, France and the XCO World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in September.
Source: Team Spur press release