Cycling at the… Winter?! Olympics

By Megan Flottorp

2021 gave us a lot of glorious Olympic cycling in Tokyo. From BMX to mountain biking and road racing, the summer edition boasted 22 events in five disciplines. With the Winter Olympics fast approaching, though, have you ever wondered if your beloved sport of cycling might have a place amidst the ice and the snow?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. After a snowy edition of the Cyclo-cross World Cup unfolded in Val di Sole last December, there has been a renewed interest in the idea of bringing this dynamic cycling event to the Winter Olympics. If the current bid succeeds, the dream could become a reality by the 2030 Games.

Aert in action during the 2021 Cyclo-cross World Cup in Val di Sole. © Profimedia

So, as many of us contemplate scenes of blustering snow or kaleidoscopic icicles from our cosy windows (or are gearing up to tackle the elements with a set of winter tyres), let’s take a closer look at how the petition for cyclo-cross at the Winter Olympics has been shaped and what else the future of competitive winter cycling might hold.

Val di Sole

As mentioned above, part of the 2021/2022 cyclo-cross World Cup was held on sections of snow in the Italian Alps in an attempt to convince the IOC that it should be in the winter Olympics. Vermiglio sits at an altitude of 1,261 meters at the foot of the Passo del Tonale that divides the Trentino and Lombardia regions.

Over the years, Val di Sole has established a name for itself in the mountain biking world for cross-country and downhill, with cyclo-cross races usually taking place in the Milan and Veneto regions. However, this year an exception was made. Leading up to the event, organisers in Val di Sole were deliberately maintaining the snow to show that a cyclo-cross event in these conditions is a viable and exciting option.

Remember that—as a rule—all Olympic Winter Games sports must take place on snow or ice.

Fem van Empel
Dutch Fem van Empel celebrates as she wins the women’s elite race of the Cyclocross World Cup race. © Profimedia

So, how did it all play out? Well, thanks to those snowy conditions, the 2021 Val di Sole UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup was one of the most exciting races of this season. The women’s elite race came down to a nail-biting finish, with 19-year-old Fem van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) winning her first World Cup cyclo-cross race, mastering the snow and holding her nerve in a theatrical ending. For the men, Wout Van Aert (Jumbo – Visma) put in a commanding display to win his first World Cup round of the season, going on to remark after the race: “It was a real sport you saw today. A lot of spectacular things happened and sport on the highest level with amazing scenery. I guess this has proved that you can do cyclo-cross wherever you want. You can do it in a park in the biggest cities in the world or the mountains here.”

An Olympic debut?

So, if the riders are happy to compete on the snowy terrain, how do we get from here to Olympic glory? The International Cycling Union (UCI) first discussed it as an Olympic sport with the International Olympic Committee in 2014. This means there is undoubtedly support at the top for the initiative.

Indeed, inclusion would be a perfect way to get the audience-friendly sport of cyclo-cross into the Games and would heighten cycling’s visibility at a time when the focus tends to be elsewhere. Yet, the process to its actual inclusion is not all smooth sailing. It is important to note that with variants of road, track, BMX and mountain biking included, cycling’s administrators already have a tough time convincing the International Olympic Committee that it needs more two-wheeled action. Whether the events in Val di Sole convinced them that there might just be room for one more remains to be seen.

Maybe this is just the beginning

But for those of you who think cycling’s association with the Winter Olympics doesn’t make much sense at all—consider just how closely related the two already are. Think, for example, of how aero handlebars mimic the downhill ski racer’s tuck or the array of athletes who have taken a path from skiing to cycling—Primož Roglič, we are looking at you! And, of course, you don’t need us to remind you that one of cycling’s most famous climbs, Alpe d’Huez, is just one example of what is essentially an access road to a ski resort.

Therefore, the likelihood of this relationship finally being realised at the Winter Olympics isn’t just a pipe dream. With the underground sport of ice bike racing gaining momentum, fat bikes becoming more popular, and renegade riders already taking their suped-up BMX bikes to the slopes, it is probably just a matter of time before the link between cycling and winter sports comes full circle.