When the UCI Indoor Cycling World Championships last visited Dornbirn in 2008, a small girl from host country Austria led the delegation from Malaysia at the Opening Ceremony, clutching the country’s sign in her hands. Her name was Julia Walser.
Back then Julia was seven years old. She had only started artistic cycling seven months earlier when she accompanied her grandfather to his club, RS Gisingen. “I could already ride a bike and enjoyed riding as often as I could,” she explains.
Few could have guessed that the girl taking her first steps onto the UCI World Championships stage that evening in Dornbirn would become one of Austria’s greatest artistic cycling talents. Although it was a defining moment in Julia’s life, her memories of the event have faded with time. “The only thing I know for sure is that I said I definitely wanted to be back there again one day,” she recalled. The “there” in question was the UCI World Championships.
Nine years on, Julia Walser’s artistic cycling career has come full circle as she prepares to return to Dornbirn for the UCI Indoor Cycling World Championships (November 24-26). She is Austria’s top rider and one of the country’s biggest medal hopes on home soil. “My ultimate goal is to become World Champion,” she said.
Junior World Record holder
Her career highlights already make for impressive reading. The starting score for her programme is the third highest at this year’s championships. She broke the Junior UCI World Record in 2016, only to set a new benchmark in October 2017 of 181.17 points – a score that would even have put her in contention among the men.
Julia is also the only woman in the world to have mastered the German handstand, where both legs are straightened and pressed firmly together high above the head, and reveals in her profile that it is her favourite exercise. The only other current rider to have perfected this move is reigning men’s UCI World Champion Lukas Kohl (Kirchehrenbach/GER).
Nevertheless, this remarkable level of ability does not necessarily guarantee a medal, as Julia learned the hard way at the U-19 European Championships in Prague, Czech Republic, this spring. On an extremely challenging surface, a far-from-perfect routine meant she slipped to fifth place despite being the top seed in the event.
“It took me a while to realise what happened at the European Championships and for me to deal with it,” Julia explained, “but I think it has made me stronger.” She demonstrated this in fine style during the autumn season. “I set a new world record and performed consistently well. What more could I want?”
A UCI World Championships on home soil brings its own challenges, and the combination of expectation from local fans and a self-imposed pressure to deliver a particularly strong performance can put riders under considerable mental strain. Understandably, competing in front of a home crowd is an exciting prospect for Julia, and that “the way your country welcomes you and the way you perform” make it different to any other event. “Having said that,” she added, “for me it’s still just a World Championships where I’ll try to show what I’ve been working on all year.”
First UCI World Championships at 15 years old
Julia has the added benefit of having gathered vital experience at last year’s season finale in Stuttgart. The then 15-year-old made it into the Final 4 at the first attempt before learning a painful lesson in front of 6,000 spectators, suffering a heavy fall when attempting the Maute jump from the saddle to the handlebars. In a fine demonstration of her fighting spirit, she completed her programme. While her debut World Championships may not have ended the way she wanted, finishing fourth while still a teenager was still a remarkable achievement.
With a highly competitive women’s field awaiting her, Walser is well aware of the need for perspective. “I’ll try not to forget that this is only my second World Championships,” she said. Austria’s artistic cycling national coach Günter Nicolussi added: “The prospect of a gold medal is there in Dornbirn, even though it will be a very tough challenge.”
With six athletes, including Julia, setting their sights on the title, the contest will likely be decided by form on the day and a healthy dash of luck.
One youngster will have her fingers firmly crossed for Julia. Younger sister Nora, 8, has been emulating her older sibling and role model on a fixed-gear bike for the past two years and is already the best rider in her age group in Austria. Nora will follow in her sister’s footsteps in another way this Friday as sign bearer for their homeland at the Opening Ceremony in Dornbirn.