THROWBACK THURSDAY: EUROPEAN XC RACERS OF THE 90S WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING

Taking a hardtail blast back to the past to remember the greats

EURO XC STARS OF THE 90s

By: Steve Thomas

Although there had already been a version of the mountain bike “World Championships” held in 1989 at Mammoth Mountain, it was of the unofficial variety and lacked true representation of the “world.” As the history books will record, it wasn’t until the following year that the sport gained true “World Championship” status when Ned Overend and Juli Furtado became the first XC riders to enjoy official UCI rainbow jerseys after their victory on their home turf in Durango, Colorado.

Thomas Frischknecht. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Although there were a few European riders in attendance in 1990 (don’t forget that finishing behind Ned on the podium were future Euro stars of the era Thomas Frischknecht and Tim Gould), history books will also tell the story of how from 1990 on, the Europeans had arrived and would forever be a force to reckon with. While “Frischi” has maintained a constant presence in the sport as both a racer and team owner/manager of the Swiss Power team that helped put the great Nino Schurter on the map, there were many cross-country riders who achieved winning dominance that we thought the modern world should be reminded of.

Tim Gould, Great Britain

Briton Tim Gould came to mountain biking after a successful domestic career as a cyclocross and road racer; he dominated the legendary Three Peaks Cyclocross for many years. Along with his original Ace Racing/Peugeot teammate David Baker, Gould arrived in America in 1988. And with his outstanding climbing abilities, he started earning NORBA and World Cup victories.

He finished third in the first World Championships at Durango and took the win in the hill-climb event (yes, that used to be an actual event!). Humble and friendly, Tim suffered health issues during the mid-’90s but returned to racing for Schwinn for a few years before retiring to take a job as a postman in his native Derbyshire.

Even before the ’90s arrived, Euro pioneers Tim Gould (L) and David Baker brought their winning ways to America in 1989. The Brit duo would remain competitive into the next decade. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Henrik Djernis, Denmark

Like his early Ritchey teammate Thomas Frischknecht, “Henk” came from a cyclocross background and was a multi-time Danish champion in the discipline (in addition to the amateur World Championship in 1992). The “Great Dane” Djernis was a dominant figure in XC racing during the early ‘90s and gained notoriety as a late-season bloomer who delivered three Worlds titles (‘92, ‘93, ‘94). Djernis gained added renown when he made a highly visible (and lucrative) switch from the hardtail Ritchey squad to a full-suspension Pro-Flex. After retirement, he quietly opened a bike shop in his native northern Denmark.

Henrik Djernis was known for winning the season-ending World Championships (which cynics would point out was always just in time for contract renewals!). His move from Ritchey to the Pro-Flex team was a celebrated moment that contributed to full-suspension bikes gaining acceptance. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Bart Brentjens, Netherlands

The lanky Dutchman Bart Brentjens (aka “Bartman”) took the first-ever men’s XC Olympic title in Atlanta in 1996, which he added to his World XC title in 1995 riding for American Eagle. Bart was a prolific winner of World Cup races throughout the ’90s, and in 1994 he took four World Cup rounds and the overall title. During his long career, he also took medals in the Marathon World Championship. In 2005, he won the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa and has continued to race on and off ever since. Over the course of his long career, Brentjens rode for American Eagle, Specialized and Giant and ran his own pro team for several years (and rode for it). Bart is now a commentator on the World Cup XC races for Redbull TV.

In addition to being a 10-time national XC champion in Europe, Bart Brentjens was also an Olympic and UCI World Champion. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

 

Rune Hoydahl, Norway

Norwegian racer Rune Hoydahl was something of an understated star of the mid-’90s. He won 11 World Cup rounds during his career, including one downhill World Cup race, making him the only male rider other than John Tomac to do so. Most of his time was spent riding for Giant, and 1995 was his standout season, during which he won five back-to-back World Cup races.

Rune Hoydahl will go down in the record books as the only rider other than John Tomac to have the necessary bike-handling skills to win both cross-country and downhill World Cup events. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Miguel Martinez, France

To say that the half-pint sized Miguel Martinez was one of the more intriguing XC riders of the late ’90s would be an understatement. “Little Mig” was born into a strong cycling family and is the son of former road pro and Tour de France KOM winner Mariano Martinez. Starting out with road and cyclocross racing, he soon found that fatter tires were more to his taste. In 1994, he became the European Junior XC champion, and within a year he was also podiuming at the elite level as well as winning U23 world titles. Miguel finished third in the 1996 Olympics and then won the gold medal in the 2000 games.

Miguel Martinez. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Much of his off-road career was spent riding for Max Commencal’s SUNN team, which ruled the roost in both XC and downhill for several years. For the 2002 season, he signed with the Mapei pro road team and finished 44th in the Tour de France. In one form or another, he has continued racing, finishing seventh in the EMTB World Championships in 2019. Currently, his son Lenny is making waves on the French national cycling scene.

Paola Pezzo, Italy

The mild-mannered Italian blonde bombshell Paola Pezzo was very much the face of female XC racing during the late ’80s and early ’90s. It wasn’t just her good looks and fashion sense that garnered her such attention, as her results on the racetrack were just as impressive.

Paola Pezzo. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

Starting out as a teenage cross-country ski hopeful, Paola started summer training on a borrowed road bike. She soon found out that she was a good climber and was then given a mountain bike to try. The Bianchi team snapped her up, and this was when her coach and partner-to-be Paola Rosola was in charge. Pezzo found her greatest glory riding for the Gary Fisher brand, claiming two World XC titles and numerous World Cup rounds. At the 1996 Olympics, Pezzo duly took the gold medal and added a dose of glamour to the new sport with it. Amazingly, she doubled up with a second Olympic gold in the 2000 Sydney Games.

Margarita Fullana, Spain

Marga Fullana started out as a budding road racer and scored medals in junior national championships as far back as 1988. Born and raised on the cycling paradise island of Majorca, Marga soon tried her hand at mountain biking with great results. A large part of her career was spent racing for Specialized, and through the late ’90s and 2000s she won three XC World Championship titles, took Olympic bronze in 2000 and scored numerous World Cup victories.

Margarita Fullana. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

For much of her professional career, she had a close personal and coaching relationship with former Dutch pro road racer Gert-Jan Theunisse, a man with somewhat of a shady reputation when it came to doping. Unfortunately, Marga’s own career would eventually be tarnished when she got caught with a high hematocrit level in 2007 and later admitted to using EPO in 2010.

 

Silvia Furst, Switzerland

Swiss racer Silvia Furst was a major player and frequent winner on the world scene during the early days of the sport. In 1988, she finished third in the European World Championships and was a regular podium finisher in World Championships and World Cup races. In 1992, she won both the European and World Championships while riding for Specialized.

Chantal Daucourt, Switzerland

Hailing from the same region as her older compatriot Silvia Furst, Chantal Daucourt was a formidable and very friendly force on the XC World Cup scene throughout the 1990s. Daucourt spent much of her career riding for GT, and the ever-smiling Swiss racer was an accomplished all-round bike racer. In addition to her numerous XC World Cup wins, she also podiumed at the World Championships and won four European and numerous national titles. Daucourt was also a prominent cyclocross and road racer and took several national ‘cross titles during the ’90s.

Chantal Daucourt. Photo courtesy of GT Bicycles

Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja, Norway

The saga of Gunn-Rita is truly the stuff of mountain bike legend. Born and raised in a small town in western Norway, she studied journalism before trying out mountain biking for the first time in 1995. To say she took to it like a Viking to a longboat would be an understatement. Within months of her first mountain bike ride, she had signed a contract to race with the American Eagle team of Bart Brentjens. She took third place in her first-ever World Cup race, just months after starting out.

Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja won her 30th UCI XCO World Cup race in Vallnord, Andorra on July 15th, 2018, at the age of 46. Photo by Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Her racing career was to span some 23 years in all with a midway break to have her first child. During her career, she won the 2004 Olympic gold, 10 World Championship titles (four XC and six marathon) and 30 World Cup rounds—a feat unmatched by any female racer in mountain biking history. Gunn-Rita enjoyed a long stint with the Merida team. Her final hurrah came in 2018, her last year of elite racing, when she took an XC World Cup victory in Andorra at the grand old age of 46.

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