Twin sisters Ava and Isabella Holmgren made a steady march towards the top of junior women’s cyclocross during the 2022–2023 season. Their season was a breakout one even before going 1–2 at the World Championships. For Ava: Pan-Am Junior Champion, Elite National Champion, and Junior Champion at the Besançon World Cup. For Isabella, 7th among the elites at Koppenberg, Junior National Champion, and podiums at World Cups Zonhoven, Benidorm, and Besançon.

While their season-long palmares proved them medal contenders, when Isabella won and Ava came second, it was as if the sisters and Cycling Canada burst onto the international scene. Canada had never medalled at Cyclocross Worlds within any age group, and now, suddenly, the country had two World Championships medals.

Let’s get to know these two sisters, Challenge riders, a little better.

Firstly, World Champion Isabella goes by Bella. The twins are not identical and in fact are different in stature and riding style. We asked Ava to describe the sisters as Challenge tires and she summed up their differences succinctly: “Bella would be Limus and I would be Baby Limus because we are twins, but we are not identical. She’s a bit taller than me. Or I am a bit shorter than her!”

Cycling is very much a part of the Holmgren family. Their parents met while riding bicycles. Their father, Rob Holmgren, is a cycling coach and Canadian National Team lead for cyclocross. The sisters cite their older brother Gunnar, a professional mountain biker, as inspiration. Six years older than the sisters, his rise through the ranks helped show them the way.

As Canadians, the sisters live an ocean away from the World’s most competitive cyclocross. This season, with the support and companionship of their father, the sisters spent months abroad. In fact, each sister was in Europe’s Schengen Zone just shy of the 90 days allowed as a North American “tourist” without a visa. They are lucky to go to a small school that was willing to help them to stay on track for their spring 2023 graduation date.

Although the sisters obviously made a quick adaptation to European racing, the experience was still eye-opening. “Everything is amplified,” said Bella. “Everything is very different.The atmosphere. It’s so much bigger in Europe. There’s so many spectators and fans and sponsors.”

“There are a lot more racers,” said Ava. “Everyone is good and everyone will fight for every position.”

Before heading “across the pond” for the back end of the World Cup schedule, the twins wrapped up some hefty accomplishments at home. Ava was Junior Pan-Am Champion for the second year in a row and took the elite title at Canadian Nationals. Bella was third at junior Pan-Ams and then won the junior title at Nationals.

Note that at Canadian Nationals, Ava “raced up,” winning elites, while Bella won the junior title. It was Ava who came up with the idea that she would race elites. While she was clearly a contender for the win, there was another consideration: the honor of representing Canada in the Maple Leaf National Champs jersey. If Ava could win elites, she could wear the jersey next year when the sisters become U23s. Likewise, Ava already had the Pan Am junior jersey to wear for the rest of the current season. It made sense for Bella to contend for the junior Maple Leaf, so she could wear it in junior races for the remainder of the season.

Nationals went as well as it possibly could for the sisters as both earned a Maple Leaf jersey.

Going into World Championships, Ava had a goal: to win the first World Championships medal for Canada.

Bella’s goal was a bit different. She explains that she prefers to set process goals rather than outcome goals. She focuses on what she needs to do to ride her best race. “I wanted to focus a lot on corners and not get overexcited” said Bella. “I wanted to stay calm for the technical elements because it was slippery and then push as hard as I could on the more straightforward sections.”

The junior women’s race was the race most impacted by weather at the World Championships. After training on a drying and fast course all week, an unforecasted rainstorm rolled in before the junior women’s race. As had worked well in Besançon, the sisters went to walk and observe a portion of the course before the race. That’s when it started to rain.

The sisters had trained on Grifo and Baby Limus all week, but suddenly, Baby Limus or Limus became the choice. Ultimately, both chose Limus. “I went with Limus tires because I tend to favor more grip over less rolling resistance,” said Ava. “I like to be confident in the corners.”

“We just decided Limus would be best,” said Bella. “A few of the junior boys from Cycling Canada rode the course immediately before our race. They debriefed us and said it was slippery.”

Sure enough, Limus proved advantageous. “A few minutes in, I noticed a lot of tires were slipping around,” said Ava. “I saw someone on the side who had just fallen. I knew Bella and I had a bit of an advantage because we had chosen Limus over Baby Limus. I knew that I could trust my tires.”

Riding max effort while finessing the turns, both riders were 100% engaged in racing until the very end. Then each had a moment when she suddenly realized what was about to happen. “Once I got to the last finish straight, it sort of hit me,” said Bella. “I was really overwhelmed with emotions. Ava was right behind me in second place, so that just made it even better.”

“When I knew Bella was ahead and we were about to finish, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, is this really going to happen?’” said Ava. “I remember celebrating the entire finish straight.”

At the finish line, the sisters celebrated with a family hug. They were especially delighted to have their mom there for Worlds as she often has to stay home when they travel.

As far as the future, the sisters’ long term goal is to become cycling pros, yet in what discipline or disciplines, it’s unknown. While each acknowledges a love of cyclocross, they also enjoy road and mountain biking and want to remain “multi-discipline” for as long as possible. In the immediate short term, they are working through the visa process with eyes towards more European racing.

And another goal? Neither sister can bunny hop barriers with enough consistency to do it in races…but next year…..