When I reached out to Stimulus-Orbea, the current team of the prodigiously talented Holmgren twins – who have each signed a two year deal with Lidl-Trek – I did not expect the reply to come from Ava Holmgren herself. “Bella and I would love to speak with you!” wrote the 18-year-old Canadian referring to her twin sister, Isabella, current holder of junior world titles in both cyclocross and cross-country mountain bike.
At Ava’s suggestion we waited until the pair had a short break in their busy, multidisciplinary season before sitting down to speak over Zoom. Appearing side-by-side on screen at their parents’ house in Orillia, Ontario, Ava introduces both herself and Bella explaining that: “sometimes people get our names mixed up just because, I think, they know that we're twins even though we don't look alike.”
As fraternal twins, the Holmgrens are easily distinguishable, but it is not only their appearance that sets them apart. Ava, the more outgoing twin, serves as the spokesperson for the pair, while Bella is much quieter and seems happy for her sister to do the majority of the talking. They do, however, display some classic twin tropes such as finishing each other's sentences as well as referring to each other as a duo more often than speaking individually.
The twins have been rising through the ranks for some time but it was a 1-2 on the podium of the junior race at the Cyclocross World Championships in Hoogerheide earlier this year – Canada’s first cyclocross medals at that level – that marked their arrival as two very exciting young talents.Ava and Isabella celebrate finishing second at the 2023 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
“During the first few World Cups I remember fighting for the podium, which was new for that year,” recalls Ava, who is also the elite national champion. “The year before I was around the top 10 but, after the first few World Cups, I kind of had the idea in the back of my head that maybe the first medal for Canada was possible at the World Championships. So it was kind of a thought throughout the entire season. But I think leading up to Worlds is when I really thought it was possible.”
“We had been to two other [cyclocross] World Championships before the World Championships in 2023. So the feeling of knowing that it really could be possible to podium just created this really good vibe. And it was different than the other two. And I think it was different in a good way. I think it added to the confidence and helped us in the race.”
The twins’ friends and family had come from Canada to support them including their parents, former elite mountain bike racer, Lisa Holmgren, and national coach, Rob Holmgren. The twins have three other siblings including their older brother, Gunnar, who races on the cross-country mountain bike circuit and recently claimed the Pan American title in that discipline.
Their childhood, the twins say, revolved around the sport: “Our parents actually met through cycling and it's kind of been in our family ever since,” says Ava. “As soon as we could walk, I think, we've been on bikes with training wheels."
She describes how they would spend their Wednesday evenings at a local race series: “we would do a race and it was more like our family time that we could do every single week.”
With their father as their coach, the pair spread their talent across mountain bike and cyclocross racing. While they enjoyed road racing too, there was little opportunity for them to do so and their career on skinny tyres took a brief hiatus.
“We started mountain biking, and we did provincial races. And then we also did a few road races just in the province,” Bella recalls. “And then we sort of stopped doing road for a few years because there wasn't much racing and opportunity around where we live. And then I think cross started a few years after we started racing mountain biking.”
Having conquered the Junior World Championships in one discipline, the twins set their sights on a similar feat at the mountain bike event at the Glasgow ‘super worlds’ in August. With Bella selected for the road race and Ava missing out, the latter channelled her focus towards tackling the technical Glentress cross-country course.
“Leading up to Worlds I felt really confident on the bike,” she recalls. “I got a lot of good training sessions in and my legs were feeling great. I was able to get to the venue a week before the first training day and you could ride some of the trails. I rode one of the best flow trails in my entire life. It was amazing. So leading up to Worlds I was on a really big high.”
Isabella Holmgren on her way to winning the XCO Junior Women's race at the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships (Image: Michal Cerveny/SWpix)
Unfortunately, that high would soon become a painful low: “Then on the first training day I got through all of the features really well, I was feeling really good on the bike. And I felt also really confident. And then once I got to the final feature of the course, which was kind of like a jump and a drop, I guess I was feeling overconfident. And I just made the slightest mistake. I know I didn't do it well, and I just went over the bars and broke my collarbone.”
The memory is an emotional one even months later, but Ava’s own disappointment was somewhat alleviated by her sister’s success.
“I immediately knew like, once I hit my head, it was over with. I was done. I wasn't doing the relay, I wasn't doing Worlds, which was really hard to take, especially with the great feeling,” she recalls. “And then I had a couple of rough days afterwards, but I was able to get myself together to come out and watch my sister win the World Championships, which was a really good feeling after having such a bad week.”
Dealing with setbacks is an unavoidable part of elite sport, but for riders of the twins’ age it can be tricky to navigate. However, being able to enjoy her sister’s success even while her own World Championship dreams had been dashed helped alleviate Ava’s disappointment, and having each other to race against and learn from, she says, means their maturity when it comes to the sport belies their years.
“It helps us, I think, to grow more in that sense, and to be a little bit more mature, because we've made the mistakes of what someone would do when they lose or being a bad sportsmanship [sic], but now we know what it's like to be more mature off the bike and on the bike when stuff doesn't go our way. So I think it's helped us in that sense as well, not just physically but also mentally.”
They are competitive between themselves – “we push each other because I don't want to lose to her and she doesn't want to lose to me,” says Bella – and when I ask whether they both have similar strengths on the bike, they answer for one another. Bella, says Ava, “is good at anything that she can set her mind to and she's also really good at the very hard races where you're pushing the entire time.”
While Ava, her sister tells me, is technically skilled but also “very good at the tactical side of racing, especially on the road, she just knows where to be and when to be there. She does a lot of research before a race to know the different sections of the course. And the previous years how the race played out and stuff. So I think she's definitely very good at that part because I think that's something that not a lot of racers will think about or put time into.”
Ava and Isabella on the podium of the 2023 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (Image: SWpix)
Ava describes having spent hours watching highlights videos of the Women’s WorldTour races on YouTube during a period of illness. “And so it gave me this brief introduction to the women's side of road cycling. And so after that, I just started watching more and more races.”
That research will stand her in good stead for next year when both she and Bella will race some of those same races with their new team. The Holmgrens are part of a growing trend across both the men’s and women’s peloton of signing riders straight from the junior ranks and into the WorldTour. In the age of the youthful, multidisciplinary superstars, the twins are set to join the likes of Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel in balancing their off-road and road ambitions and are amongst five juniors that the women’s Lidl-Trek team have signed to their ranks for 2024.
“After our one-two at Cyclocross Worlds, we met with someone from Trek and that's really when the conversations started,” Ava explains. “After a couple of discussions we thought that it was the best option for us.”
“We just spent a week with the entire team – the men's and the women's team – and just getting to know everyone, we already feel a sense of welcoming in the team. And it was a really fun week, I had a really good time. So that definitely helps for looking forward to the next year of racing.”
The pair have so far balanced the three disciplines of cyclocross, mountain bike, and road by taking two off seasons throughout the year, and being selective over how many days of racing they take part in, all carefully presided over by their dad who, says Bella is “really good at making sure we get a good balance of everything.” But that is all about to change.
“We're going to focus mainly on road next season,” says Bella. “We'll do a bit of cyclocross this year, definitely the World Championships and maybe a few World Cups. But yeah, the main focus is going to be road for next year. And, if there's time and if it works with the schedule, then we'll definitely want to do some mountain bike racing. But the priority is going to be road for the next bit.”
The leap from the junior ranks into the WorldTour, not least to such a high-profile and successful squad, is a huge one, and has to potential to heap pressure on such young shoulders, but the twins are pragmatic as ever.
“I think there's definitely always going to be a little bit of pressure just because it's a very big step from junior racing up to the elite field and on such an amazing team that has a lot of success and a lot of successful riders. So that's definitely a little bit nerve wracking,” Bella says.
“But at the same time, the team has been super welcoming, like Ava said, and they're really wanting us to develop and grow as athletes. So I think that's helpful to take down the stress a little bit, and they're not putting unrealistic expectations on us because they know that it's a very big step, and that it's going to take time.”
Ava explains that her main aim is to learn from her experienced teammates: “doesn't matter if it's their first year racing or on the WorldTour, or if it's their 15th year racing – I think there's something to learn from everyone,” she says.
Until very recently, the twins hadn’t considered making cycling their job, it was simply their lifestyle, and something they enjoyed.
“But then like the past year, I'd say we've definitely thought about it a bit more…and I think that's when we started to realise that we could make it,” says Bella.
With world and national titles between them you could argue that the twins have made it already, but with a whole new world to conquer in the Women’s WorldTour, their star is still on the rise. Ava won’t be answering their press requests for too much longer.
Cover image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix