The World Cup has arrived in Rock Hill.
This isn’t the Quidditch World Cup, or even the soccer version. It’s the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup’s final leg, which determines the men’s and women’s world champions.
Rock Hill is the fifth and last stop on the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup circuit. The event began in April in Manchester, England, before hitting Papendal, The Netherlands in May. After a three-month break, the tour picked up again in Sweden in August. Santiago Del Estero hosted the fourth round earlier this month.
Phillips, Pajon in the driver’s seat headed into final World Cup leg
Englishman Liam Phillips leads the men’s elite division by 120 points, courtesy of victories in three of the four stages. Dutch riders Niek Kimmann and Jelle van Gorkom trail in second and third place. Barring a complete collapse, Phillips is a heavy favorite to seal the deal this weekend in Rock Hill. Connor Fields is the top-ranked American, sitting in eighth place.
Colombia’s Mariana Pajon leads the women’s standings by 30 points over American Alise Post. Pajon won the Dutch and Argentine legs of the World Cup, while Post won the Swedish leg and placed second in the opener in England. Both have an excellent shot to win the World Cup title this weekend.
Venezuela’s Stefany Hernandez is a dark horse in third place, a further 80 points behind Pajon and Post, who raced in Rock Hill last spring during the USA BMX National Championships. Pajon has yet to ride in Rock Hill, though she has previously visited the track.
World Cup impacts Olympic qualifying
Much like the USA BMX National Championships back in March impacted Olympic qualifying, the UCI World Cup series also helps riders earn points to get closer to Rio 2016. Countries have to qualify for the Olympics, and then the amount of riders that each team can take is determined by a sort of power rankings.
American Olympic hopefuls would be more worried about beating out a crowded field of competitors to make their country’s team, because the United States is almost a lock to qualify for Rio. Pajon is a lock to make the Colombian team, but the country is less automatic.
“But ultimately, if you’re racing on Saturday night thinking about the Olympics, you’re not present, you’re not doing your best,” said Fields. “It’s like a football team in Week 3 thinking about the Super Bowl. You’ve got to perform on that day and take care of business.”
“But,” he added, “I think I speak for all of us when I say it’s in the back of our minds. You’d trade a hundred World Cups for one Olympic gold medal, all day long.”
Can’t escape the rain
Apparently, the Rock Hill stop of this year’s World Cup isn’t the only one hit by crummy weather. All four previous legs have suffered either rain or heavy winds, and both in some cases. The prognosis for Friday and Saturday is more of the same, which could slow down the racing, but is widely preferable to windy conditions that can knock riders off balance.
That also might partly explain why a native of Manchester, England, known for its dreary climes, has fared so well on the men’s side.
“But we’ve got a roof,” said Phillips, alluding to the covered BMX facility in his native city. “But it’s been a running joke because every stop we’ve been to this year it’s rained.”
As Fields quipped after Thursday’s press conference, if you’re enduring a drought, plan a BMX race.
Pajon got an early start in the sport
Pajon, 23 years old, won the Olympic gold medal in London in 2012, and is hoping to defend her title next year in Brazil. She received her first bicycle when she was 2 years old and still has it, training wheels and all.
“I was born into a family of sports. My dad was a car racer, so we’re all like super extreme,” Pajon said Thursday. “My brother raced BMX, so I wanted to be like him.”
World Cup tour director, riders very fond of Rock Hill track
Johan Lindstrom, who runs the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup, had high praise for the Novant Health BMX Supercross track on Thursday.
“We have five stops on the tour and of course those vary,” he said, as the rain poured down just beyond an overhang. “There are tracks that we have to bring in everything from bleachers to all of the space, and then we have Manchester, which is a complete indoor track and you don’t have to bring anything. But overall, the set-up here, the location, it just makes for a fantastic setting.”
Pajon is a big fan of the Rock Hill facility and mentioned that a BMX track in her native country is being designed based on Novant Health.
“It’s fast, it’s not that technical, but good for racing,” she said. “It’s gonna be a tight race, super-cool to watch.”
And Post pointed out that even the little things at Novant Health BMX Supercross Track are appreciated by the pro riders.
“When you ride dirt tracks, something as simple as asphalt all around the hills and all around the roads is very nice,” said Post. “Definitely world class.”
Go watch the races
The event runs Friday and Saturday at Novant Health BMX Supercross Track, located off Cherry Road, near I-77; gates open at 3:30 p.m., on both days. Autograph sessions with pro riders will be held from 4 p.m. to 4:45. Races begin at 5 p.m. on Friday with daily awards at 8:50 p.m. Riders warm up Saturday at 5 p.m., with races beginning at 6 p.m., and awards at 9:50 p.m.
Parking is free. One-day tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children (ages 6 to 18), and $5 for seniors (age 50-plus). Two-day passes are $15 for adults, $8 for children and seniors. Children 5 and younger get in free, and tickets can be purchased at the gate or online at www.RockHillSCBMX.com.
Rock Hill’s Novant Health BMX Supercross track will also host the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup in 2016 and the UCI BMX World Championships in 2017.