Last May, Puck Pieterse burst onto the elite mountain bike scene with a marvellous victory in her first-ever elite UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race.
The day after her 21st birthday, Pieterse staged an attack in the final lap of the cross-country Olympic (XCO) race in Nové Město na Moravě which saw her take her first elite mountain bike gold medal, ahead of World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot.
She was crowned XCO European Champion in June before going on to take silver and bronze at the World Championships in August in the cross-country short track (XCC) and XCO disciplines respectively.
Fast forward to the end of the mountain bike season, and she’s decimated the overall standings in both the UCI XCO World Cup and UCI XCC World Cup with four victories and a further six top-three finishes.
What came next for the burgeoning mountain bike star? Cyclocross, of course. The discipline in which she has already previously achieved elite National and U23 European and World titles.
After such an impressive 2023 mountain bike season, Pieterse felt it was important to have differentiation between the two disciplines before she started her cyclocross account, which resulted in her taking a few weeks to reset before her first race of the season.
“Before the mountain bike season, I didn’t really know where I would stand. I was really happy about how it went, it almost couldn’t have gone any better. It really put things into perspective that I can be up there with the level that the others have,” Pieterse told Cyclingnews.
“It was good to have a clear separation between the two seasons because otherwise, it’s a bit like you’re just going on and on. My form was still quite good, it wasn’t that I was too tired to still race or train but I think it was good to have some separation between the two and load up the batteries a bit mentally to continue racing and it came in quite handy.”
Towards the end of 2023, Fenix-Deceuninck named Pieterse as the leader of their women’s team competing across cyclocross and mountain biking, in a step towards a ‘multidisciplinary philosophy’ for the team.
Pieterse’s personal ambitions in the different disciplines remain at the centre of the scheduling of her calendar for the year, and the team allow her to have autonomy in choosing a path that best suits her.
“We discuss at the beginning of each season what the goals are, what I want, what they want, and then we see what’s smart,” she explains. “We always look a bit at how it goes as well. Last mountain bike season, if I wasn’t doing well in the World Cup standings I probably would have had a shorter mountain bike season, I wouldn’t have gone to the States and I would have started for example my ‘cross season earlier.
“Throughout the season we always see how it goes and what is smart. Usually at the beginning we just make a plan and then we can really make an overview of how to fit everything in but they just give me a lot of freedom which is really nice. They give me the full freedom to choose to do the same or something different. I have been able to really choose my own programme.”
The turn of the New Year brought two clear goals for Pieterse on the mountain bike and ‘cross circuits, while the bigger picture for the years to come remains undetermined.
“For this season for ‘cross, it’s definitely the Worlds in Tábor at the beginning of February. As for the road, I don’t really know. I don’t really know for the upcoming years for example if I will lean more towards the road or will stay on the mountain bike, I’ll still have to see,” she said.
“For now, the focus is really on the ‘cross Worlds and after that the Olympics on the mountain bike. Then I’ll see how I will continue, maybe I will do a season more on the road to see how I like that, or maybe I’ll make a combination of the two; road and mountain bike. I don’t really know yet where I will end up.”
Pieterse is part of a particularly strong triumvirate of young Dutch riders who are turning their hand to multiple disciplines and pushing each other to new heights in the process.
Among others, elite cyclocross World Champion Fem van Empel (Visma-Lease A Bike) provides strong competition for Pieterse, as does U23 cyclocross World Champion Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions). The two compete across both cyclocross and road cycling, a discipline in which Pieterse also competed last year and secured fifth place at Strade Bianche and one we may see her feature in more regularly in future.
“We can only make each other stronger,” she says about competing against Van Empel. “How it’s been for the last year for example and the year before, it’s very nice to keep seeing each other and keep competing against each other because you keep each other sharp as well. Also with Shirin as well, you race your race but you always race a bit against each other in the race as well. It’s really a good dynamic I think to make each other stronger in that way.
“I know now how Fem races, I know how Shirin races. That comes in handy of course, but besides the racing, we can really talk to each other quite well. We’re actually friends, so if I want some tips if I’m going on the road I would definitely ask Shirin what I could expect for example.”
In women’s cycling, the likes of Ferrand-Prévot and Marianne Vos have blazed a trail for modern multi-discipline careers. Pieterse credits their impact as well as highlighting other current riders who inspire multidisciplinary success.
“For sure, they are both great pioneers of the sport of course. It’s more of an inspiration, you can see that it is possible, same with Mathieu [van der Poel], Wout [van Aert], [Tom] Pidcock, they all make combinations of the disciplines. They show that it’s not impossible to combine disciplines or that you really have to choose. Of course, you have to make some smart decisions sometimes, like this ‘cross season I skipped the Europeans because I was resting from mountain bike. You can’t always perform at your top level, but it’s for sure possible to do great things between the disciplines I think,” she says.
“It makes complete riders, and you see more and more the combinations,” she adds. “Cross and road is a really popular combination, but I also see in the mountain biking community there are more and more riders that also want to do maybe something on the road or experience something in the winter in ‘cross. It is becoming more and more popular to do more than one thing.
“It’s also always really nice that you have a bit of overlap between the riders in the different disciplines. In the summer you see different riders than in winter, or some riders you see all the time which is also nice. It’s really good to have a big group of people you can have a bit of fun with and talk to. Every rider that does especially the mountain bike World Cups because it is that much all over the place that they just love to travel.”
Pieterse’s talent across multiple disciplines was nurtured from a young age and as such has meant that it became second nature for her to combine the three as she matured.
“My dad always went into the forest when I was younger, so eventually I went a few times with him. At my local club, there wasn’t anything mountain bike related, they only had road racing and a bit of ‘cross in the winter. When I started to really compete at first it was just road and then in the winter cyclo-cross. Within two years I started to do more mountain biking again with the races as well, but because it wasn’t really supported in the club where I was, it was a bit less. From under 17, I started doing more mountain biking and less road,” she explains.
“For me, it’s so normal to do all three, it wouldn’t be normal for me to do for example only road or mountain biking or focus on ‘cross all summer. I don’t know how others do it or how they feel about it but for me, it’s always been normal so I don’t really have to think about it or about the pressure or anything, it’s just how it has always been since I started competing,” she adds.
There certainly looks to be a bright future ahead for Pieterse in whatever path she chooses. She continues to strive for an elite rainbow jersey after finishing second in cyclo-cross last year and will be vying to take the World title from rival Van Empel this year on 3 February before targeting the Paris 2024 Olympics on a mountain bike in July.