Henrique Avancini on the Brazilian World Cup MTB Course He Helped Design, and What the Race Means for Local Riders [Interview]

Henrique Avancini on track for the 2022 World Cup course in Petropolis, Brazil. Photo: Fabio Piva / Red Bull Content Pool

To say that a World Cup round in Brazil during Henrique Avancini’s tenure as a professional cross-country MTB athlete is a big deal is an understatement. It’s been nearly two decades since a mountain bike World Cup happened in the country and the first round of the 2022 XCO season will kick off in Petrópolis, Avancini’s hometown.

We caught up with the hometown hero a week ahead of the race to learn how he started mountain biking and became an unlikely hero to a future generation of South American mountain bikers, and what to expect on the course that he and his father helped build.

Can you tell us about your first bike that your father put together for you?

I’ve been in the sport 25 years now. We have very humble beginnings let’s say. And my old man opened like a bike shop. He was always into cycling and when I was about seven or eight years old, he opened this small bike shop and one of the customers drove into his garage with the bike on the roof and cracked his frame in half.

And this frame was actually my first mountain bike. He was a tall guy and my father took the the pieces of the frame and rebuilt it, doing a small 26-inch mountain bike. And that was my first mountain bike and basically was filled with some leftover parts from the service shop. And luckily, I still have the frame. I missed a corner like two years later on a race and I re-cracked the frame and broke it again. So I have the remaining half of it on my wall. It’s nice to see when I come here for training and for gym sessions, I have a reminder of where everything started.

What was it like starting on that bike?

I never really had any type of ambition for riding bikes (at first). To me it started as something that I really liked and I liked to explore new mountains, new trails. So as soon as I was able to start riding on my own, that was my thing — getting up crazy early, (I would) start riding at maybe 4AM before school, and then I would go to school, or I would have my lunch break, and I would spend it riding my bike or I would jump on my bike and catch a sunset up the mountain.

And I always had this thing, of trying to get faster. So I was always clocking my own times, trying to beat myself. And I loved to race, since my first race when I was eight-years-old, I always loved the fight and the fight on course — overtaking people getting overtaken. I just like this type of action. And I always liked to have pretty big challenges. So most of the time, I was racing up categories, just to get beat by all the guys (in a higher category) to have a go against them. So even if I thought it was hard to win I wanted to race the guys that were better than me.

When did you realize that you could be a professional?

Avancini at the UCI XCO World Cup in Snowshoe, USA on September 19, 2021 / Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.

It came by necessity. I had to help out my family somehow. And when I was getting older, the sport actually helped me to get a better education, to go to different countries to get to know different futures and also it helped me to get into university. And when I was at uni, that was probably the moment, the benchmark to make the real choice.

So, by that time, around 10 or 12 years ago, I couldn’t really think about being a pro in Brazil. That wasn’t real, and I had to try something overseas, so I had to try to get a chance in Europe. From 2009 to 2011, I spent three seasons racing in Europe and I got a pro contract.

And that was a very, very hard moment — being someone that just signed with a small team and getting paid 5 to 8,000 euros per season. It was hard to get through that time and to establish yourself.

What was the mountain bike scene in Brazil like at that time?

So I was born and raised in Petrópolis, which is a mountain area, just a one hour drive from Rio. And the place is unreal for riding bikes. We have good weather all year long. We had a good variety of terrain, a lot of natural trails. And lately, the last five, six, seven years, the trail building future just kicked in with people. And everyone that owns a property wants to have a mountain bike track, and that became a big thing in the area. And nowadays the riding facilities that we have around here are pretty good.

(Back then), a few places, like, there is this place I remember I went with my father for my first ever mountain bike ride and it’s still there. It’s kind of like an unofficial bike park. So it’s a land that the owners just let us use, so everyone’s always adding or maintaining or creating a new line.

It’s interesting. You have all types of features and different types of lines. So I think it’s a place I like to go, first of all, to remind me of my origins, my roots. And also, to see where cross country, enduro, downhillers, they kind of share the same mountain and to me that’s pretty cool.

It looks like the last mountain bike World Cup in Brazil was 2005? How do you think this one will be different?

First of all, if you look globally, it’s much, much bigger than it was in 2005. So that’s one starting point to think about. And when you think about what mountain biking is today in Brazil, and what it was in 2005, the boom of the sport in the last decade, and in the last five, six years, is unreal. And now the mountain bike community, the mountain bike industry in Brazil, the mountain bike media and the following, it just sets the benchmark.

One of the strongest bike markets in the world these days is Brazil. So all of that just happened and everything was adding on top and a lot of people were putting in work to improve and to get to the next level and the World Cup actually happened as a consequence of that, and I think it’s gonna be mind blowing for everyone. Some of the guys on teams here are just buzzing you know — they can’t believe how into mountain bike people are here. The type of vibes that we’re going to have for this World Cup, it’s gonna be interesting for everyone. And people are going to remember this one for a long time.

Do you feel like Brazilian riders are at a disadvantage geographically when trying to compete in the World Cup?

Oh, yeah, it’s hard, very hard. First of all, the costs; it’s a long flight. So just just to get across, it’s expensive. You’re always changing time, and you’re always changing weather as well. So it’s always the opposite, you know, summer, winter, winter, summer. So you always need to adapt. And on top of that, usually it becomes really hard to transfer your stuff into Europe. I have my own professional team, with five riders and to go over to part of the UCI World Cup, it just costs us so much.

So I think this is a great chance for Brazilians and South American riders to race a World Cup on a more equal situation. It’s a great step up for the UCI to make the World Cup a little bit more global. Actually this is the only southern hemisphere stage for the season out of nine stages. We have only three stages out of nine, that are not happening in Europe. So I think this is a process to make the base of our sport more global.

Are there a lot of local and Brazilian riders signed up for this round that you know of?

Photo courtesy of Cannondale

Yeah, you have the limitations with the UCI points, but there are a lot of Brazilians on the line. And the level — it’s getting higher and higher. I don’t know what they’re capable of delivering. When I look to the local level, maybe I have a little bit more than some of these guys at the moment, but they are in that range where it’s possible to beat me. So that would put them in a World Cup, maybe with a great performance they may be able to step into top ten, but the thing is, that racing a World Cup, it’s way more a mental thing than a physical and technical thing.

So physically and technically I see the level pretty high in Brazil now. Mentally, to be able to get to the top box, this is tricky. It takes a while. So let’s see how they do. I think maybe two, three, or four guys could surprise me and step into the top 25, top 30. I think that’s pretty realistic.

Have you ridden the course at all yet? How does it compare to other World Cup courses?

Yeah, so we started building this course in 2015 to receive national champs and the course is fully designed by me and my father since the beginning. And then after that we started to receive international events pretty much every year. And for the World Cup we just made a new path, so pretty much one-third of the course is brand new for the World Cup with some fresh features.

And we just finished building the course early March, pretty much a month ago. That’s when I did the first tests on the full lap to check times and check what we could change where. We reduced some of the gaps and some of the jumps. Some of the hits were maybe too aggressive. I think the course in general sets a new benchmark in terms of features.

Pretty much the whole course is connected. So you can create speed on every corner and speed to the next feature. So everything is connected. I analyzed it so much; the speed here and the speed there.

Visually, when you look the course, you think “this can’t be a cross country course.” So that was goal number one for media, for spectators, and also for riders. The second thing was, how do we create a course where you climb a lot — so it’s a lot of climbing on the course and technical features. But how do we make these roll really, really fast? You know, how do we get above 20Ks (12.4MPH), on our average for a cross-country race.

So it needs to be technical, but it needs to flow. So if you press on the pedals, you’re going to generate speed, and then don’t hit the brakes. So there is no hard braking on the course. You just modulate all the time. It also makes it tricky to race because once you ride it and once you understand the course and dial the lines, you tend to just like keep pressing because you see the speed coming in and you want to get faster and faster. But at some point you can hold the crazy pace for only so long. I think that’s going to be the challenge for for the front of the race, mainly how to balance the pace.

You mentioned when you were younger that you didn’t have anyone to look up to when you were riding bikes as a kid. Now with the World Cup in your hometown, you are who a lot of people look up to. How does that feel?

It feels great. When I look to my career and the things that I have built up, I feel really, really proud. I feel it’s great to bring this sensation to people to inspire people. And mainly, I think that people, once they look into my history and how I built my career and the progression over the years, it’s a good reference to have in terms of “if if that guy achieved all that, we also can try to achieve bigger things.”

And honestly, I think that’s the feeling I like the most. It’s not being an idol, it’s not being a hero. But it’s more like being someone that can be a reference to people, so they can aim to be better in whatever they’re doing. That’s what really keeps me keeps me on fire. And I like to keep going and achieve bigger and better things. So it’s just great that I can bring that in person, in my hometown on a course that I built in my country. I think all of that makes this by far the most special event of my life.

Lastly, can you tell us about your new Pedaling for a Reason project?

Photo courtesy of Cannondale

Pedaling for a Reason is my social project. Over the years, because of my background, I always knew people that were involved in social projects and at some point I thought maybe I should start helping out people in a more public way and involve my fan base for good causes.

So, I came up with Pedaling for a Reason, which started as an action to help organizations that were already doing the relevant service for the community in so many different ways. And for this year, we decided to step up, so we created our own program for professional bike mechanics. And we are giving this program to 23 people. We have a selection criteria that gives an advantage to social minorities or disadvantaged people.

And the idea is to create a flow of new professionals and insert them into the bike market so they can grow our industry in Brazil. And for that, we made a piece of art. We have a partnership with Black Tiger Studio, and they made by far the most beautiful bike that I have ridden. And after the race this bike is going to be used for the short track and the cross-country in the World Cup here in Brazil. And after that on Monday, we close the auctioning for this bike and 100% of the value goes to the project. As a rider to be able to put this type of project together and to have these partnerships and also to have the trust from people on the stuff that I bring to them is just great to me. It makes my career a lot bigger than achieving stuff for myself and honestly I really it like it that way.