Oro-Medonte teen cycles to National Championship

Oro-Medonte teen cycles to national championship

Gunnar Holmgren wins U23 division at Canadian Cyclocross Championship; ‘It’s pretty exciting,’ says hard-working athlete

With a wide, satisfied smile on his face, he savoured winning a national cyclocross championship.

“It feels pretty good,” understated the Oro-Medonte Township teen of his well-deserved win last weekend in Peterborough. “I won it when I was a junior, but this is a category above and one step closer to the elite level which is the real deal.”

The next day he proved he is the real deal, winning the UCI race on the same course but against the elite men and U23 men.

It is quite a feat for a 19-year-old to win the U23 division at a national championship. And while Holmgren is careful not to sound cocky, he did have high hopes heading into the race.

The hopes were grounded in reality. The week before nationals, Holmgren was the top Canadian at the Pan-American Cyclocross Championship; he finished fourth in the U23 division against top riders from the United States, Canada and beyond.

“I also had some good races in the States earlier in the season, so I knew who I was racing against,” said Holmgren, noting the Pan-Ams were “kind of a dress rehearsal” for the provincials in Peterborough.

In addition to feeling confident and primed for success, Holmgren believes the weather helped him. It snowed the day before the race and during the race.

“There was lots of moisture and it was really muddy,” he explained. “I think that ended up playing in my favour and I was able to ride it pretty well.”

Winning nationals means Holmgren was awarded the victor’s jersey. That coveted red and white shirt, adorned with a maple leaf and proclaiming him national champion is a symbol of his success.

“I get to wear the jersey in Europe this winter and all next season leading up to nationals … it’s pretty exciting,” said the driven, hardworking athlete.

After competing for eight consecutive weekends, Holmgren is taking a brief one-week respite. But then, it’s back to the rigours of training.

Then, just before Christmas, he is off to Europe where he will compete in a variety of high-level races, culminating with the world championship in Denmark in February.

“There is a two-week block of racing, called Christmas Period, which is very big in Belgium where we race every other day,” said Holmgren.

Those races feature the “best of the best” and will include past and present world champions.

“I have a good ranking internationally right now, so that gives me a pretty good start position in these races, so it gives me a chance to podium in some of them, maybe,” said Holmgren.

Following that, he will participate in two-week training camp prior to the world championships.

“I have been racing against some of the top guys in the States who have been there before and they’ve had some impressive results,” Holmgren said. “I know I can hang with them … we’ll see.”

While he craves good results, the experience is also valuable.

“There is so much to be learned and down the road when I want to make the Olympic team or I’m at the Olympics, I’ll know what I have to do on that day.”

He said each competition and each course provides important information that can be called on in the future. It’s a future he hopes involves the Olympics.

“I’ve proven I’m one of the best (cyclocross) racers in Canada but cyclocross is not in the Olympics yet,” he said, while noting there is a campaign underway to have the unique sport included in a future Winter Olympics.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the elite athlete has another path to the world’s biggest athletic event – mountain biking.

Long before cyclocross, he was an elite-level mountain biker and he continues to pursue that sport in the summer months. In fact, in September, he qualified for the world championships, started 95th and ended up 35th in a field featuring the globe’s best mountain bikers.

“For now, my ticket (to the Olympics) would be mountain biking … and that’s why I’m still pursuing both sports,” he said.

He said a key to success in both pursuits is the team behind him. He likens the Team Hardwood Next Wave support team to a pit crew.

“They allowed me to do as many laps as I needed (in Peterborough) and cleaned my bike for me,” said Holmgren. “The race day support was really good. It is a team sport and the team isn’t just players. They’re like a pit crew in racing.”

But someone has to drive and Holmgren loves it enough to sacrifice much.

In addition to pushing his body and his mind, he must give up many of the things that teenagers enjoy. It’s also meant extending his high school graduation by over a year; he is finishing his final course, on-line, so he can obtain his diploma from Nouvelle Alliance, a French Catholic secondary school in Barrie.

To him, it’s all worthwhile.

“I just like to ride my bike and I like the racing that comes with it – the battles between teammates and friends,” he said, noting he has also enjoyed becoming a mentor to younger riders on the Hardwood Next Wave crew. “And the travelling is pretty good, too.”

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