Ones to watch during the 2019 UCI BMX Supercross World Cup season
The UCI BMX Supercross World Cup kicks off on 27-28 April in Manchester, Great Britain, with the first two rounds of the season.
The series will continue with the stops in Papendal, Netherlands (11-12 May), Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France (8-9 June), Rock Hill, USA (13-14 September) and Santiago del Estero, Argentina (28-29 September).
The UCI BMX World Championships will take place in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, from 23 to 28 July.
Qualification for Tokyo 2020 is at stake; the process started in September 2018 and will finish in June 2020. A total of 24 athletes in each gender will qualify for the Games.
The Netherlands and USA currently lead, respectively, the men's and women's Olympic Qualification Nation ranking.
The top two nations will get three spots, while the nations ranked third to fifth will get two places.
Exclusive! Mariana Pajon: "The injury made me stronger"
Exclusive! Mariana Pajon: "The injury made me stronger"Double Olympic BMX champion Mariana Pajon was out for more than seven months with torn knee ligaments. In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel the 27-year old Colombian opens up about her difficult time away from the sport. She even had to learn to walk again. Now back on the bike, it seems the newly-crowned Pan-American champ hasn't lost a step.
The BMX queen is back!
Mariana Pajon's long-awaited comeback is one of the main talking points of the season.
"This season is very important for me because I'm recovering from an injury and I've entered the Olympic qualifiers late, but the process has been good", 'la Reina del BMX ' told the Olympic Channel exclusively.
The Colombian didn't lose her winning habits though: the 28-year-old finished first in both national championships races (Copa Internacional Mariana Pajon) and was also victorious in a race in San Juan, Argentina, amassing points towards qualifying for Tokyo 2020.
"My goals for this season is just simply to feel the same as before, to be able to give my 100 percent again, to be in a race and know I can fight and be myself again," she added.
"I know I'm not at 100 percent yet, but I'm giving it all to be strong again."
Women to watch
The 'BMX Queen' will face stiff competition in the women's field.
Laura Smulders has dominated the Supercross World Cup series for the last three seasons.
In 2018 the 25-year-old Dutch woman became the first BMX rider, male or female, to win World Championships, European Championships, and overall World Cup title in the same year.
And it seems that the London 2012 bronze medallist is still hungry for more. In 2019 she has won every event she competed in, including the first two rounds of the UEC European Cup in Verona, Italy.
Smulders' younger sister Merel will also be one to follow closely. The 21-year-old has already managed to climb into the women's elite top 10 and also snatched a silver medal at the last World Championships.
And we shouldn't forget about fellow Dutchwoman Judy Baauw, who won bronze in Baku and finished third overall in the women's standings in 2018.
Australia's Saya Sakabibara, who won the final World Cup round in Argentina last September, is aiming to improve on her overall runner-up position from last season.
In January the Japanese-raised 20-year-old, won the Oceania Championships and showed glimpses of her talent finishing second in one of the two European Cup races in Italy.
Speaking to the Olympic Channel, she said: "I always want to win. Last year I ended the season with my first-ever World Cup win, in Argentina at the last round, which really felt amazing. I really want to get that back this year, and improve my overall performance."
The current world number five is Alise Willoughby.
The 2017 world champion and Rio silver medallist, who's coached by her injured husband and Olympic silver medallist Sam, collected several wins on the American circuit and finished third in the U.S. national championships behind Felicia Stancil.
"I'm back into the Tokyo Olympic selection process, and coming back into the World Cup scene and racing that was a big part of this year," she told Olympic Channel. "I've been through the (Olympic qualifying) cycle twice now and I think I know what I'm getting into, but you can always be more consistent and always do it just a little bit better," she added.
"Obviously I got silver in the last Olympic Games, and going one better is the ultimate goal."
After topping the world standings in 2018, Niek Kimmann will be the man to beat.
Following a difficult 2017, last year the Dutchman had his best season in World Cup to date as he claimed three wins on the circuit.
But he failed to reach the final at the World Championships in Baku, one of his biggest regrets.
"If I could do one race again, it would be the World Champs," he told ad.nl.
The 2019 World Championships will take place in Zolder, the same place where he won the title in 2015 when he was just 19.
"I have good memories, that track suits me perfectly," the 23-year-old added.
His main goal, though, will be the European Championships in Valmiera, Latvia.
"This season I have set my sights on this," Kimmann said. "I already have a World Championship and a World Cup title, but I haven't been able to ride a good European Championship yet."
Kimmann will also look to collect Olympic qualifying points and ensure the Netherlands finish as one of the top two nations, so they can send three athletes to Tokyo 2020.
In that scenario, Joris Harmsen, Dave van der Burg and Twan van Gendt will likely fight for the remaining two spots.
French Dream Team
France can also field a strong and deep men's team, led by reigning world champion Sylvain Andre.
The 2017 World Cup winner took gold in Baku beating his teammate (and two-time rainbow jersey holder) Joris Daudet on a photo-finish by just 0.006 seconds.
The 27-year-old then clinched European bronze in Glasgow.
"I want to be world champion again and win more World Cups," he told L'Equipe.
Andre also revealed his Tokyo 2020 ambitions to Le Parisien: "I clearly want to go there and win a medal. Going there on a holiday trip doesn't motivate me."
French reigning champion Romain Mathieu and Jeremy Rencurel can help the country continue dominating men's BMX, alongside emerging talents like Mathis Ragot and junior European and World Champion Leo Garoyan.
Connor Fields targets World Championships
Rio 2016 gold medallist Connor Fields will skip the Manchester and Papendal World Cup legs to be ready later in the season.
"I made the mistake last year of lining up before I was ready and BMX is not meant for you if you are not 100 percent ready to battle," the 26-year-old told the Olympic Channel exclusively.
"My main goal for the season is the Zolder World Championships. I enjoy that track and I have had success there before so that's the big one."
The first American to win Olympic BMX gold, Fields suffered a head injury during the U.S. national championships last season and his best World Cup finish was seventh in Argentina.
"This was by far the toughest year of my career," Fields posted on social media after dropping from world number two at the end of 2017 to 17th in the rankings.
"BMX is a dangerous sport but I had been pretty lucky for quite a long time with avoiding injuries for the first five or six years of my career," the Olympic champion said. "Back-to-back injuries in 2018 and early 2019 have been a tough challenge, but things are coming along nicely and I'm confident I'll be back to top form very soon."
He started the 2019 season on a high note by winning the Queensland International Cup in Brisbane.
"The men's class in BMX has gotten better and more competitive each year. There are upwards of 20 guys who can realistically land on a podium any given weekend.
"Performing well at the World Cup rounds I do and building momentum into the 2020 season is my plan."
The 2019 schedule
UCI BMX Supercross World Cup
27-28 April Manchester, Great Britain Rounds 1-2
11-12 May Papendal, Netherlands Rounds 3-4
8-9 June Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France Rounds 5-6
13-14 September Rock Hill, USA Rounds 7-8
28-29 September Santiago del Estero, Argentina Rounds 9-10
UCI BMX World Championships
23-27 July Heusden-Zolder, Belgium
Tokyo 2020 Test event
12-13 October Ariake Urban Sports Park