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'Awesome': Area sisters rule world cyclo-cross championship

Isabella Holmgren finished in first place, while her sister, Ava, was second at the world championship, earning first-ever medals for Canada

Isabella and Ava Holmgren, twin sisters from Orillia, share a lofty spot at the very top of the world when it comes to cyclo-cross racing.

The 17-year-olds made history at the 2023 UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships in the Netherlands Saturday, taking the top two positions in a gruelling race that featured the best junior women’s racers from around the globe.

Isabella won the world title, finishing the race in just over 42 minutes. Her sister, Ava, was just 20 seconds behind. No Canadian had ever made the podium at a world cyclo-cross championship.

“I came here to get Canada’s first-ever medal ... and what happened was something even better: My sister won,” an emotional Ava Holmgren said following the race, after sharing an embrace with her sister, her mom, Lisa, and her dad — and coach — Rob Holmgren.

“I just celebrated for her and for our country and for our family … today was awesome,” said Ava.

Isabella agreed.

“It feels like a title for us both,” Isabella Holmgren told reporters. “We both worked really, really hard this season and we pushed each other and helped each other. 

“I’m really happy to get the title but also to share the podium with my sister. I don’t think it could have gone any better than it did.”

She said it was particularly meaningful to hear the Canadian anthem at the medal presentation.

The win came on a challenging course in Hoogerheide that had been dry all week. However, the night before the race, it rained and light rain fell throughout the junior women’s race, making the conditions surprisingly slippery. 

The Holmgren girls chose a full mud tire despite training all week on a less aggressive tread, explained their mom.

This proved to be a wise choice as the Canadians had excellent traction with smooth cornering and speed out of the transitions. 

The race started on a long asphalt uphill where Ava sat in the top 10 and Isabella was several places behind.

Ava quickly made her way forward and was with the lead group by the end of the first lap. 

The leaders seemed to hesitate coming through the start/finish stretch so Ava attacked to push the pace leading into the second lap. This stretched out the group, forcing riders to hit their limits and make some errors. 

Isabella was pushing to make contact with this group. As the race stretched out, she surged ahead, powering up the longest and most difficult climb on the course to take the lead. 

Ava knew this was possibly a race-winning move and stayed within seconds of her sister. 

Race favourite Lauren Molengraf had led the race at some points early on, but suffered a crash and some difficulty in the slippery corners. 

As the race went into the second half, Isabella showed her strength and composure, riding smoothly while Ava gave everything to keep her in sight. Molengraf then suffered a rear flat, requiring a stop in the pits to get her other bike. 

By the final lap (five laps total) Isabella had established a 20-second lead, taking the victory in a finishing time of 42:13. Ava won a silver medal, finishing just 20 seconds behind her sister.

In all, there were 47 junior women representing 20 countries in the contest. 

The two medals capped an incredible and, to many, improbable season for the Orillia athletes.

Just last week, Ava Holmgren won a World Cup series stop in Besancon, France, becoming the first Canadian to ever top the podium in Europe. She shared the podium with Isabella, who finished third.

Cycling and competing on the world stage seems to be in the family’s blood.

The twins’ brother, Gunnar Holmgren, is a former Canadian national mountain-bike champion and is also a world-class cyclo-cross racer.

They get it naturally. Their parents met through cycling and have passed on their passion to their kids.

Ava and Isabella say they hope their success on the world stage will inspire others to try the sport that has long been dominated by European athletes.

“I hope (our success) means that we’ll have more races in Canada and inspire more athletes, esp young women to hop on their cyclo-cross bike and maybe do a race,” said Isabella.

The family will be heading back to Canada Monday — and that means a return to school at Nouvelle Alliance (Barrie) for the local athletes, who are both in Grade 12.

On Sunday, Orillia's Ian Ackert raced in the junior men’s event at the world championship, coming in 11th place and was the top North American finisher in an extremely fast event with a deep talent pool of junior men’s cyclists.