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Top 5 mountain bikers who crossed over to road racing

Mathieu van der Poel
Mathieu van der Poel (Image credit: Getty Images)

Mountain biking and road cycling have long been opposing sides of the sport, but although traditionally, dedication and focus on a singular discipline has been considered key to becoming the very best, the past decade has seen a number of athletes prove that cross-discipline competition can lead to a more well-rounded athlete and greater success. 

Below is a roundup of WorldTour road cyclists that originated, or have seen success, in the fatter tyred side of our two-wheeled sport. 

Egan Bernal

2019 Tour de France champion Egan Bernal began his racing career competing in mountain bike events, which helps to explain both his ability as a bike handler on the road and his speed and fearlessness on descents. Picking up on the enthusiasm of his father, German, for racing and cycling, Bernal started racing off-road at the age of eight. He won that first race and with it an 18-month membership to his local cycling club, which fostered his ambition and talent.

Bernal kept winning as he rose through the age groups and by his late teenage years had established himself as Colombia’s leading junior. He represented his country at the World MTB Championships in 2014 and 2015, winning a silver and bronze medal, respectively. During these years, he made only occasional appearances on the road, but felt the road scene was where his future career lay.

Following that second podium finish at the MTB Worlds, he was expecting to race for an Italian under-23 team on the road, but he ended up making the leap straight into the elite ranks thanks to his agent, Paolo Alberati.

He had been trying to interest Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec team boss Gianni Savio in an Italian rider, but Savio was looking for a climber. Alberati suggested he take a look at Bernal, whose UCI test results indicated he was a physiological phenomenon. Savio was so impressed he signed Bernal up to a four-year contract.

Competitive right from the start on the road, Bernal signed with Sky for the 2018 season, winning the Tour of California and producing a string of superlative performances. In 2019, he claimed the biggest title of all, becoming the first Colombian to win the Tour de France.

Peter Sagan

The all-time record holder for the green jersey points competition at the Tour de France with seven titles and a three-time world road race champion, the Slovak raced every discipline except track when he was a kid.

In 2009, he finished fourth in the under-23 race at the World Mountain Bike Championship and might have advanced into the senior ranks but for an offer to turn pro on the road with Liquigas at the end of that same season.

Sagan returned to mountain biking in 2016. Looking for a new challenge and motivation after almost seven seasons racing on the road, he decided to target a gold medal in the MTB cross-country race at the Rio Olympics.

Although canny tactics saw him go from the back of the grid to third place on the opening lap, his lack of experience ultimately counted against him. He flatted twice early on in the race and on both occasions had to run with his bike for a distance to the pit area to get a replacement. Sagan finished 35th, a lap down on Olympic champion Nino Schurter.

Jakob Fuglsang

Astana Pro Team leader Jakob Fuglsang started in mountain biking in his native Denmark, working his way up the ranks to represent his country. In 2007, he won the world under-23 cross-country title and was among the favourites for a medal the following year at the Beijing Olympics. In the end, he finished 25th. He also took the 2008 Absa Cape Epic title.

By that point he was already turning plenty of heads in the road world. Seventh in the Tour of Denmark in 2007, he won his home tour the following season, earning a pro contract with the CSC-Saxo Bank team from 2009. 

At that time, Fuglsang said he had unfinished business in mountain biking, insisting he planned to return with a view to capturing the world cross-country title. However, a steadily blossoming road career has meant this objective has had to be put on ice.

Now in his mid-30s and regarded as one of the best climbers in the pro peloton, Fuglsang enjoyed his best season in 2019, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Critérium du Dauphiné and his first Grand Tour stage at the Vuelta a España.

Mathieu van der Poel

The Dutch sensation, who is the son of ex-road pro and world cyclo-cross champion Adri van der Poel and the grandson of Tour de France legend Raymond Poulidor, made his reputation racing off-road, but in cyclo-cross rather than mountain biking. In recent seasons, however, he has devoted more time to competing on the MTB circuit with a view to winning the Olympic title in Tokyo in 2020

Crowned Dutch national champion in the road and in mountain biking in 2018, van der Poel underlined his all-round talent by finishing second in the MTB World Cup that year and finished the subsequent cyclo-cross season as the world champion.

In 2019, he progressed even more spectacularly, taking three World Cup wins as he finished second overall in the competition behind Nino Schurter and claiming the European cross-country title. He was equally impressive on the road, where the Amstel Gold Race and the Tour of Britain overall title were highlights among his 10 wins.

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot

In 2015, the French rider became the first rider in history to hold the elite world titles for road, cyclo-cross and mountain biking at the same time. Ferrand-Prévot has always combined all three disciplines, and generally with immense success.

In 2009, at the age of 17, she won the junior MTB cross-country title having already claimed the European time trial and XC titles earlier that same summer. The titles continued to pile up in the years that followed.

In recent seasons, though, she’s been set back significantly by injury, first as a result of a serious training crash at the end of 2015 that left her with a broken leg and scuppered her hopes of an Olympic title in Rio, and, more recently, as a consequence of an arterial issue in her left leg.

Following an operation to rectify that problem in early 2019, Ferrand-Prévot has begun to shine again. She won her first XC World Cup race since 2015 and went on to win a second world cross-country title later in the year, backing that up with victory in the world MTB marathon championship.

Rather than splitting her focus for the Olympics as she did in 2016, Ferrand-Prévot is devoting herself entirely to the mountain bike event for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. 

The future

With the advent of gravel bikes and the rise of competitive gravel events such as Dirty Kanza in the USA and Dirty Reiver in the UK, more and more professional road cyclists are seeing an opportunity to head off-road in search of a new competitive environment and a fresh challenge. 

EF Education First's 2019 season saw Lachlan Morton win GBDuro and take on Dirty Kanza and Leadville alongside Alex Howes and Taylor Phinney. Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina also took to the same gravel roads. 

In addition, Svein Tuft recently retired from road cycling to make the switch to non-competitive gravel riding, and Laurens ten Dam has recently taken a similar step but will continue to compete. 

Finally, former Red Hook Crit winner, Colin Strickland, successfully transitioned to gravel with his win at Dirty Kanza 2019.