It’s not only because the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships 2020 will take place in Albstadt in June that the Worlds will be European dominated but also because there are 17 Europeans among the top 20 of the men’s world ranking list. Currently, in second place, the green of the Brazilian flag is shining behind the name of Henrique Avancini. From Sunday onwards, he will be fighting for victory alongside Manuel Fumic from Kirchheim in the renowned Cape Epic stage race. He is the first Brazilian to become world champion in a cycling discipline which is not the only reason his history is remarkable. Avancini tells it self-reflectively as a biography of the underdog who learns to believe in himself, but also against the background of colonialism. And the 31-year-old gives a deep insight into the mechanisms of a discipline.
The race, with which Henrique Avancini was really noticed on the European stage for the first time, takes place only 45 minutes away from Albstadt, in Münsingen. In April 2013 he surprised all the favourites and won the Bundesliga classic in the Swabian Alb.
From 2009 to 2011, he was an U23 rider in an Italian team, however, he did not make the breakthrough. At the 2011 World Championships in Champéry, Switzerland, Avancini was 25th – not a result that would get him good professional contracts. And even later the classic victory in Münsingen was only a singular event on the European stage for the time being.
Henrique, you appeared in world class sports in 2018 at the age of 29 when you first stood on the World Cup podium and finished the season in fourth place. What is the reason for this steep results curve?
Everyone is wondering how I was able to develop so strongly. I didn’t actually change much, but I changed my attitude. I changed how I deal with different situations. When I compare my physical tests from 2013 or even the end of 2012, I haven’t improved much.
Then what makes the increase?
My first major victory was in Münsingen in 2013, and it was the first time I presented myself in Europe. It was the first time that I was in shape to win a race against big names. I remember that José Hermida was second, a world class athlete at the time. But from that time on, it took me another five years to stand on a World Cup podium.
In Münsingen there were also five cyclists from the top ten of the world ranking list, but when you meet strong racers in smaller races, you don’t have to worry so much. When you, like me, arrive alone in the World Cup, you start thinking a lot more. There they all are, the big names, the trucks, the bikes and everything else. There is so much information for your brain, even if you don’t realize it. The tracks are harder, more technical and when you see Nino (Schurter, World Champion) looking at lines, you think, oh, that must be a problem, even though it may not even be that difficult. These things have an impact.
You mean it drains mental energy?
Being in good physical shape is one thing. To be in good shape in a race is another. You have to be mentally really well prepared for that. I come from a different country, a different culture which is why it took me a little longer to understand everything and to put all the pieces together.
Why did your culture play a role?
We Brazilians see ourselves differently. Traditionally we talk mainly about our lack of (good) conditions. That has always annoyed me. When a Brazilian athlete comes to Europe, when they see the training centres, the structures a European has, the Brazilian will immediately categorize themselves as less. One of the first things I learned was that I don’t have the conditions, but that I can create them. That’s why I never explained my less good results with worse conditions.
When exactly did you learn that? When you rode in a European team for the first time?
Yes, that’s when I felt it. When I was young, I thought all I had to do was come to Europe and then everything would be easy. But when I was there, I realized that I still have a lot to learn, that I have to develop my career, that I have to build my body. In the end Andrea Marconi (Team Manager) told me: Maybe you don’t have what it takes to become a top cyclist. You actually don’t even have what it takes to ride in Europe. Maybe you should go back to Brazil and race there.
What was your reaction to that?
I have started to work very hard on my skills, to train harder. I told myself, okay, forget about the talent, I don’t have it. But I will take the time to build up the ability to train more than all the others so that I can say at the starting line: nobody has trained more than me, nobody has made that effort. Sure, it’s a lot harder to get there, but if I have the same speed I can beat them because my path to get there was much harder.
You mean that creates a different consciousness, a different ability to suffer?
I was never very good at anything by nature. Not in school, not in sports, nowhere. Not the first time I kicked a ball or had to read something for the first time. However, I was able to improve myself everywhere. I was never a top rider, but today I am second in the world ranking, third in the world cup. I never even saw this coming. I was just working on these individual pieces. For example to recover better, to get better technically, to become a balanced person and so on. And all of a sudden I was there. Life just follows (laughs).
And you follow this idea of life.
I see life as an opportunity that God has given me. At the end of the day, we’re not here for a long time, but it should be a good time. You should use your time to become a better person. I’m not just speaking for the sporting side of things. As a human being, I always try to pause and analyze myself. What am I doing good, what am I doing wrong, where can I improve, how could I avoid the mistakes? When you look at life in this way, you don’t see mistakes as weaknesses, but as lessons.
Henrique Avancini was born on 30 March 1989 in Petropolis which is in the mountains, 60 kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro. He started mountain biking at the age of eight, his father had opened a small bike shop. He has a sister who is also his physiotherapist at home.
At the end of 2014 he signed with Team Cannondale Factory Racing, one of the world’s best professional teams. A year earlier this would have been possible, too, but Henrique Avancini decided not to do so, because he did not yet feel ready to take this step into a team of world class people.
In 2017 he stood out in tenth place in Andorra for the first time in the World Cup and then he made a big splash at the World Championships in Cairns, where he finished fourth. In spring he had already won three Cape Epic stages together with Manuel Fumic.
In 2018 he achieved two fourth places in the Cross Country World Cup and one victory in the Short Track World Cup. At the end of the season he became world champion in marathon. He was the first Brazilian to wear the rainbow jersey, which is given to the title winner in the cycling disciplines.
Henrique, you once said in an earlier interview that it would be harder for Brazilians to become top cyclists than for Europeans. Why?
Europeans probably don’t realize what it means when a South American athlete is on the same level. This is not really accepted by the Europeans. This is normal when you look at the historical aspect. We were dominated by the Europeans, they brought their culture to us, they used our country to develop theirs. It was always a position of superiority.
Except in football, right?
I mean, to be accepted does not yet mean to be respected. People accept that Brazilian footballers are really good, but they don’t respect them. And this is an issue for us Brazilians, because we accept this constellation. It’s hard to break this mentality…
and it’s your mentality, too?
Yes, it’s my mentality, too. I help them (the Europeans) so that they can see me as they see me. The way I behave helps the Europeans to maintain the image of a Latin American. I have been around for some time now, now I show consistency at the top and I show a certain attitude. Sometimes I go to the front of the race, not because I’m stupid, but to show that I can ride in front. This shows: you can ride at my rear wheel, I am strong enough, I have the skills. They accept that, but there is still a long way to go before reaching respect, it’s another process. It begins to scratch their honour. But I also understand why
You need to explain this in more detail.
If you take the Swiss, for example, you have the Nino generation, before that you had the Sauser generation, before that the Frischi generation (Christoph Sauser as World Champion and World Cup winner, Thomas Frischknecht as World Champion and World Cup winner). You have three generations of world champions. All around there are good trainers, good physiotherapists, good mechanics, a good national team. When Nino showed up, he already had the good environment. I had to build it up myself, from scratch. When I was able to close the gap to the Swiss and the French, I not only closed the gap of one generation, but of three. It is much more complex. To get into a top team was a long journey. Once I made it, it was again hard to understand how things work, what I had to do to get better. How we work together at Cannondale, how I could be valuable to the team.
Presumably the difficulties in Brazil cannot only be found on this metaphysical, cultural level, but also in very practical obstacles.
Yes, exactly. Most Europeans usually drive maybe 500 kilometres to get to a race. When I was young, I had to sell personal belongings to buy a plane ticket. I arrived with a jet lag, had to find a place to sleep, look for someone to hand me bottles during the race. These things were all much harder for me. Just to be at the starting line.
And how was it with the material, which is so important in cross-country.
I was never supported with material, one season I competed with two sets of tyres. I remember my first World Championship in 2006 (as a junior in New Zealand). When the French team was gone, I went to their trash can and took the chains they threw away. The whole next season I rode with those chains. They were still good enough for me.
The positive thing is, I never thought little of myself for these things. Maybe I got that from my parents. When I was a kid, we went through some tough times. We lived in the country and had some bad circumstances. My father and especially my mother made sure that I never saw myself as a poor person. No matter if I only had one set of clothes, they never allowed me to think little of myself.
Did the world champion title in the 2018 marathon anything for you?
With that you have a symbol, you have become a reference, perhaps a role model. It’s quite symbolic and deep. It made me realize what I can achieve and of course people are more interested. It gave people in my country pride and confidence. Personally, the title opened some doors for me. To be honest, it also took a lot of pressure off me. For years I talked about winning something big. A lot of people might have had doubts, so I proved it. Now I can enjoy what I do much more. I’m more relaxed than ever before.
Has the way you are seen in the scene changed as well?
Last year I had the impression that something had changed. People understand me better now. In the beginning it might have been difficult to understand me and my motivation, but now people can understand better why I am like this and what this has to do with the culture.
You’ve become a father. Did that change anything for you?
I think it’s kind of everything combined. Being a father, but also the things that happen at the same time, the projects that we have initiated. A second team, a race service and so on. It’s business as usual and I’ve got older too.
For 2019 Henrique Avancini intended to win a major (cross-country) race. Apart from winning another short track competition in the World Cup, this didn’t work out. At the Cape Epic he finished second with Manuel Fumic. But he was able to realize his other goal of riding a constant season among the best. He improved in the overall World Cup standings from four in 2018 to three in 2019 and was in the top five in five of seven Cross Country World Cup races. However, he did not succeed in doing so at the start in Albstadt where he only finished 18th. On Sunday, (15th March) the Cape Epic starts, another big race like this.
2020 is the Olympic year. What are your goals?
My first big goal is Cape Epic. I dream of winning that. This year more than ever because it will be the last time together with Mani (Manuel Fumic ends his career at the end of the season).
Manuel Fumic takes a special position in your career.
Yes, Manuel is very important for me. He is a unique person. It is really hard to find someone who is this positive. The vibes are always better when I’m around him. I think he is also generally a great guy for our sport. He’s like a big brother for me. He makes me laugh when I’m sad, he corrects me when I do something wrong, he gives me advice when I’m facing a challenge.
Together you were second behind Nino Schurter and Lars Forster in 2019.
Yeah, but this year there’s a better chance. I’ve learned from a few mistakes.
In 2020, everybody’s talking about the Olympics. How’s that for you?
In 2016 at home in Rio, I was completely focused on the Games. In the end it was too much (Avancini was 23rd). This year I don’t feel the same pressure. For me the Worlds in Albstadt has the same importance. In Albstadt I plan to be in my very best shape at the start. Last year I didn’t succeed because I made mistakes after the Cape Epic. In Albstadt in 2019 I was in my worst shape during the whole year.
What are your plans for the World Championship?
I have not yet won a medal at a cross-country world championship. In 2017 and 2018 I was fourth which was close. This year my goal is to win. Of course I know that this sounds very ambitious, but I believe that I can reach the goal.
Nino Schurter and Mathieu van der Poel are the dominating figures. Do you think you can beat both of them?
They are great talents, no question. Nino is the best mountain biker ever and still the rider to beat. They talk about Mathieu as the best cyclist of this time. I am grateful to be able to ride at the same time and it is a privilege to be on the same list with these talents.
But I have also learned that great talents are not necessarily so open to change. I know they are hard to beat, but there is one freak who still believes that (laughs).
What are you most looking forward to at the Worlds in Albstadt?
I am really looking forward to the huge crowd of spectators. I hope it will be the biggest crowd in the history of Albstadt. And then I hope that I can make something really big of it.
Residence: Petropolis, Brazil
Profession: professional bicycle racer
Marathon World Champion 2018, 2 Short Track-World Cup victories, World Cup overall third 2019, second at Cape Epic 2019, third at Cape Epic 2018, fourth at the Worlds 2017, 2018, Brazil Athlete of the year 2018
Further information on: www.wm2020albstadt.de
Photos by Michele Mondini and Shaun Roy (Absa Cape Epic)