If you take a quick look back at the men’s results of this year's biggest races, there is one very common theme with three very particular colours:
Quite simply, they have dominated the 2022 season. The consistent threat that is Arthur Serrieres is often joined on the podium by the likes of the Forissier brothers, Maxim Chane and Francois Carloni. To put it in numbers, French athletes have stood on the men's elite podium no less than 21 times so far this season.
“It's hard to define how or why a single country can be so much better than everyone else, it's always a combination of factors,” explains Nico Lebrun, former XTERRA World Champion and current Technical Director of XTERRA Europe.
“In France the outdoor sports scene is massive. It's part of the culture, being outside in the mountains is a totally natural way of life. Combine this with the multitude of competitive opportunities available across triathlon, mountain biking and trail running and it's no surprise that as a nation we have a massive talent pool of athletes. For example, the French Grand Prix circuit with its tiered leagues for race teams can often be more competitive than an ITU Triathlon world cup! Add in the support from specifically cross-triathlon teams such as Organicoach and Hexatri and it's no surprise to me that French athletes are taking XTERRA to a new level.”
“It's part of the culture, being outside in the mountains is a totally natural way of life."
That is not to say that the men’s result of the 2022 XTERRA World Championship is a foregone conclusion.
There are a few athletes coming into the race who do have what it takes to rain on the French parade, and none so vocal as Denmark’s Jens Emil-Sloth Nielsen who publicly stated on the finish line at XTERRA Germany that he now knows how to beat Arthur Serrieres and dismantle the French stranglehold on off-road racing.
Born in Bjerringbro, Denmark, the 24-year old started out playing every sport available with the full support of an active family with a passion for the outdoors.
“Chasing a ball around with my teammates was cool, but my physique was always better suited to endurance sports. I had always run, but then I discovered mountain biking. As a 15-year old it was the coolest sport in the world and straight away I had a talent for it” - JN
A talent indeed. Gridded at the back of his first junior mountain bike race, he carved his way towards the front, overtaking several talented riders already on the national mountain bike program. Danish cycling took note and pretty soon Neilsen was racing internationally for Denmark, representing his country at two World Championships at both Junior and Under 23 level.
“Once I’d finished being under 23 and was moving into the senior ranks, I was struggling to get myself motivated. With a federation-run sport it's so political and structured that it just didn’t seem to fit with what I wanted to be doing. Because I came into the sport relatively late, I wasn’t part of the funded programme so I was constantly on the back foot. So I switched things up, spotted an XTERRA triathlon and thought it looked so damn cool mixing the three sports. I could do two of them really well and could just about swim. I figured even if I lost 10 minutes in the swim I could still be competitive, so I signed up.” - JN
"I figured even if I lost 10 minutes in the swim I could still be competitive, so I signed up.”
Skipping the Age Group category and entering his first ever event as an Elite, Nielsen couldn’t even do front crawl. During those first few events, he would do breaststroke around the swim course, relying on his ability to outride everyone else on the bike course before hanging on during the run.
“For the first two or three months, I couldn’t do more than 100m of front crawl. With mountain biking and running coming so easily because of my fitness, it was so frustrating that it didn’t transfer to swimming - it's all about discipline and technique. At first, I just tried to do 25km a week in the pool. I figured that was the best way to train myself to just be better. Ultimately, it made it worse because I got bored, being confined to the swimming pool and staring at the black line. So I switched to doing more drill work, less swimming but with more consistency and I joined a swim club to help find a better balance” - JN
Gradually his swimming improved and by 2019 he was regularly in the top 10, even claiming a podium finish at home at XTERRA Denmark. But if he was to realise his dream of winning an XTERRA World Tour event, something had to change.
Unfortunately for everyone, that change came sooner than planned in the form of a global pandemic.
Forced to stay at home and with international racing coming to a grinding halt, Neilsen took the opportunity to transform himself into a top 3 finisher - committing to becoming a full-time athlete, recruiting a new coach and working on strategy to become an XTERRA World Champion.
“XTERRA racing has changed so much in the last few years, gone are the days of athletes spread out in the woods racing effectively doing a time trial. These days it's tactical racing from the gun. There are 10 guys who can win the race and they all know it - everyone is now racing with a brain, analysing everyone's strengths and weaknesses all of the time and making moves to shape the race to suit them best. It costs me energy at the beginning of the race playing catch up, but other than Ruben [Ruzafa], who else is able to ride up front? It's an exciting feeling getting to the front of the race, the guys are scared because of how fast I can ride, I push the technical bits as hard as I can to try and force a gap - sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, it depends on the course” - JN
"They are going to have to make a decision to follow or see me ride away."
With the World Championship course weaving its way around the mountainous terrain of Trentino, on paper it looks like the perfect playground for the Dane. October brings mixed weather and even in the sunshine, the tree cover will leave a slick coating of moisture on the bike course, creating the perfect conditions for Nielsen to work his magic.
“I don’t have time between now and the race to become a better runner than Serrieres or Forrissier, so I’m going to have to make something special happen on the bike. When I’ve caught that front group they are going to see me take some risks and really attack hard on the climb and push the limits on the downhill. They are going to have to make a decision to follow or see me ride away. Physically I’m in the best shape I can be, and believe I have the fitness to back it up. The French just know how to race, it's ingrained, they race on instinct and make it work, so the last few weeks I’ve really focused on paying attention to every little detail, finding the small percentages of improvement that can make the difference. In Germany I wore racing flats on the run and I lost so much time sliding around in the mud, so in Molveno I’ll bring several pairs of shoes to make sure I have the perfect set up. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m prepared for everything” - JN
Nielsen will indeed need to do something special on the bike. We’ve seen time and time again that Serrieres can run down a deficit of several minutes so we know how fast he has run, but it's not clear how fast he can run. The Frenchman has been in the luxurious position of reaching the front of the race with distance to spare, so we may not yet have seen him run his true best effort over the 10km trail run.
Even with the steep sections, the course in Italy is fast. Which reduces the amount of time Serrieres has to chase and increased running speeds make that task even more difficult. All of which could play nicely into the hands of the Dane to take what would be the biggest victory of his career so far.
If the Dane has got it right, we’ll see it all unfold at 9am in Trentino this coming Saturday.
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