For elite-level cyclocross athletes, the Christmas break is anything but a respite.
For these passionate and talented cyclists looking to climb the ultra-competitive world rankings, it's one of the most intense stretches of the year.
That was the case for a trio of local athletes — twin sisters Ava and Isabella Holmgren and Ian Ackert, all from Orillia — who helped Canada make a mark on the international cyclocross stage.
The trio are members of the Stimulus Orbea Cycling Team that surpassed all expectations at Kerstperiode, a series of elite races between Christmas and New Year's in Europe.
Each of the Orillia athletes delivered podium performances, racing in seven races over the two-week period, supported by Cycling Canada.
The goal of the team was to gain experience on the highly technical European courses while learning to repeatedly perform their best against the highest level of competition, noted Cycling Canada's head cyclocross coach, Rob Holmgren.
They did just that — and more.
The team started and finished their two-week campaign with World Cups and earned podium finishes in both, which is a remarkable feat for a Canadian in a sport dominated by Europeans.
The Stimulus Orbea teammates were the only Canadians to reach the podium. In some of the races, the junior women were required to race with the elite women as they did not hold a separate event.
The results are as follows:
At the World Cup event in Gavere, ther course featured heavy, thick mud with plenty of climbing and lots of running. Ian Ackert finished second in the junior men's division, while Isabella Holmgren finished first among junior women (28th among elite women) and Ava Holmgrem raced to a third-place finish in the junior division (50th among elite women).
At the Superprestige Heusden-Zolder, Ackert was 10th on a fast circuit held on the grounds of the Circuit Zolder Motor Speedway. Ava Holmgren was third among junior women (23rd among elite women) and Isabella Holmgren earned a fourth place finish among junior women (28th among elite female competitors).
Next up was a classic night race — the Superprestige Diegem — held in the town centre of Diegem, 20 minutes from Brussels. This was a muddy, technical track interspersed with high speed roads through town. Ava Holmgren finished first among junior women (22nd among elite women), while Isabella was right behind, finishing in second place (26th among elite women). Ackert finished in eighth spot among junior men.
On New Year's Day, the local athletes rung in 2023 at the Sven Nys Cycling centre. There was heavy, thick mud with some long climbs, running and technical descents/corners at the X20 Trofee — Baal. Once again, the twin sisters from Orillia ruled, with Isabella finishing first, followed by Ava in second place. Ackert raced to an 11th place finish in the junior men's race.
The local athletes continued their stellar results at X20 Trofee — Herentals at a course that featured a bit of everything including fast road, cycling on a running track, steep run-ups and technical, steep descents with muddy corners, suiting mountain bike skills. The training at Hardwood Ski and Bike paid off as Ackert raced to a fourth-place finish. Ava Holmgren earned a second place finishe, while Isabella Holmgren finished third.
The next event was the X20 Trofee — Koksijde. This race has been held since 1969 and although not a World Cup this year, the race has been on the cyclocross World Cup circuit since 1996.
This course is almost entirely deep sand with steep climbs and descents, requiring riders to have excellent technical skills and running ability. Isabella Holmgren raced to a first-place finish among junior women — 15th among elite women racers. Ava Holmgren finished second among junior athletes and 21st among elite women racers. Ackert did not race in this event.
The gruelling series concluded with a World Cup race in Zonhoven. This iconic race features 'de Kuil' which is a large sand bowl in which riders enter at high speeds, fuelling crashes, followed by steep sandy climbs. The junior women faced pouring rain during their race, challenging their skills to the max.
Despite the conditions, Isabella Holmgren managed a third-place finish, while her sister finished fourth. Ackert did not finish.
In addition to the demanding race schedule and keeping up with their Grade 12 studies, the cyclists were responsible for shared grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning for a crew of 18 athletes and staff.
They were grateful to receive mechanical support from the Team Canada mechanics to keep their bikes running smoothly.
The team is now training for the final two World Cups of the season on Jan. 22 in Benidorm, Spain and Jan. 29 in Besancon, France.
Their cyclocross season will culminate in Hoogerheide, Netherlands Feb. 3-5 where they will represent Canada at the Cyclocross World Championships.