All eyes will be on current XTERRA World Champion Solenne Billouin as the XTERRA World Cup makes its debut in Taiwan. The race has brought out the top five world-ranked women and Billouin will no doubt be a key player. The young French athlete rose quickly through the ranks of XTERRA and, although she has reached the pinnacle of the sport, her limited experience makes her a unique World Champion. She is excited for new opportunities on the World Cup circuit, hungry for stronger competition, and looking to open her season with a victory.
“It’s a big opportunity for us as athletes because XTERRA is still a small sport. I feel lucky to be in this sport while it’s growing. We are the first athletes racing in the World Cup,” Billouin says. She is also looking forward to more competition as the World Cup races will attract more top professionals to the select seven stops on the circuit.
“I really hope it’s going to help the sport grow and give more visibility and depth to the athletes racing. It’s a lot of logistics and it’s expensive to travel to all these races. I hope everyone will make the move to race the World Cup for the level and depth to increase.”
With bigger start lists and world cup status, Billouin says it will change the way races are viewed. “There’s more pressure because it’s now a world cup and everyone will want to do well,” she says. Moreover, the new World Cup circuit has made her look at the season more strategically. “Now it’s not just a one day race—you have to be in shape all season—so that’s why it’s a big change. You can’t just show up to one to win. It’s more tactical to be in shape all season.”
Billouin also is looking forward to the two World Cup formats on offer: the full distance and short track. The five short track events on the World Cup circuit are open to elites by invitation only, and take place either the day before or after the full-distance race of the same weekend. The sprint-like format consists of a 400m swim, a 6-8K bike, and around 3K of running. It’s full speed all the way and is often over in under 40 minutes.
"Now it’s not just a one day race—you have to be in shape all season.”
“I really like the challenge of two formats; the long distance and short track,” Billouin says. “Sometimes the body can be really bad one day and good the day after or the inverse. It gives us more chances to perform,” she says.
In the 2022 XTERRA Short Track Series, Billouin placed 6th in Italy, and 3rd in France, Czech and Germany for an overall 4th in the final series standings. But this year there will be additional pressure for a podium finish as short track results mean additional World Cup points. Each of the five live-streamed short track races offer a maximum of 20 points, which will undoubtedly play a crucial role on the series leaderboard.
Heading into the World Cup opener, as the world champion, Billouin is a strong favorite. However, coming off three months of racing cyclocross, the 25 year-old athlete says her preparation hasn’t been fully focused on XTERRA.
“Cyclocross is my first sport, my passion. It’s something I really like to do,” she says, adding that she feels a little caught between both sports. “But I realized this winter that if I want to do XTERRA on a high level, I can’t do cyclocross every winter. I will probably not be at my top level for Taiwan because I haven’t trained for the swim and run like I used to do. But at the same time, I’m super happy to go and I think my body will remember. Cyclocross gave me a lot of intensity on the bike. Maybe it wasn't the perfect winter but I really think that I can value what I did.”
"Maybe it wasn't the perfect winter but I really think that I can value what I did.”
Realizing she needs to focus only on one sport isn’t the only thing she has come to know. “Only just last year I thought maybe I could be professional and sport could be my job,” she says.
Her realization meant making some changes, including acquiring an address. “I traveled for two years, living full-time in a van. It was just a cheap way and also the nicest way to go to the races and to explore Europe,” she says.
Originally, Billouin set out in the van to travel and do a little bit of sport on the side; but, somewhere along the way (perhaps when she became a podium regular), she decided she wanted to do more sport than anything else. The world title confirmed her feelings and since this past winter she has been living in Denmark with her partner. “I decided to stop [living in the van] because it's super nice, but it’s too challenging to also be at a high level of sport.”
Being the best in the world is something new for Billouin. Although she has been racing cyclocross since 2013, she has only been racing XTERRA since 2019 (elite as of 2020).
“I’m quite new to triathlon so I feel I’m lucky because right now everything I do is not perfect. I’m still improving even when it’s not perfect so I know I can improve even better. I don’t have this stress of having only small changes. There are a lot of things I can improve and a lot of things I can change to be better,” she says.
Obviously, Billouin is doing a few things right. Living in a van not only fed her sense of adventure but it also taught her to be flexible and adaptable. “I’m really a nomad compared to the other girls. I really like the adventure way of myself. I like training in new places and I hate my training to be boring so I like to travel and discover new roads,” she explains. Her innate thirst for adventure also helps when she travels to race. While other athletes might struggle to travel and adapt to a new place, it comes naturally to Billouin. “When I travel to a race, I don’t mind being away from home because I don’t have a home. It’s my lifestyle. So it’s not complicated for me to go away to race in different places.”
“When I travel to a race, I don’t mind being away from home because I don’t have a home."
She applies the same mindset to her training. “The plan on paper will never be the one you follow. You always have to adapt to what happens around you and in your life,” she says. “You have to adapt and accept that if you change the plan, it’s ok.” Not only did her perspective help her train through the cold Danish winter but it will be a big asset for her first time in Taiwan. Billouin plans to arrive in Taiwan two weeks before the race to acclimate to the humidity, the time zone, and the technically challenging bike course.
Her flexibility and limited experience might be advantages but, she admits, they are also a source of weakness. “Sometimes I don’t know which philosophy to follow,” she says, explaining how she is still figuring out which training methods work best for her. “I am always questioning myself and I’m really looking forward to the time where I can say: ‘Now I know what I’m doing and I feel confident’.” But what appears to be a lack of confidence is just an athlete on the way to their best performance—and that should make every competitor pay attention.
Make no mistake about Billouin, while she might be unsure of the nuances of high performance, she is a top competitor, because what’s the one thing she has that no one else has this season? She smiles. “A World Championship title.”
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