A few thoughts on Mountain Bike racing

As I was watching the US Cup live stream from Fontana last week, I recalled the pain and suffering I went through racing there last year. I recalled the amazing descent of the backside of the course; the blown out switchbacks and lemon-squeezer rock drops that required infinite precision whilst your heart rate was still hovering around maximum. And then I looked back at the screen and I didn’t see any of it. I saw a line of ants riding along a trail. The helicopter view didn’t give me much perspective on the steepness, and I realised quickly that my interest and understanding about the race would have been so much less if I had not competed there the year before. With about 6000 views on race day, the Fontana live-stream didn’t reach a huge audience, but it’s definitely a lot more than would ever show up at an event and watch it live. So what is the value of MTB racing on a live stream, and what are we trying to achieve by putting it up there on the internet?

XC Mountain Biking appeals to me because it has no pretense of being cool. If you think it is cool, try walking through a supermarket in lycra (anywhere but Boulder…) and see the looks you get. You aren’t cool to be an XC mountain biker, and that releases me from any care of what other people think. This is the beauty of it. It’s also what will always restrict the viewership of the sport to those who compete. Without a fine understanding of what it’s like to climb up a piece of singletrack as hard as you can, the TV coverage will mean nothing. Without understanding the infinite dilution that happens when you display technical riding in video form, there is no beauty in the sport. Even with huge investment on the part of Scott Tedro, the helicopter footage didn’t achieve anything other than provide XC racers who weren’t racing an extra chunk of video to watch whilst riding the rollers.

So what’s the point? Good question. The only answer I can come up with is a “pathway to the top” for young riders. That is Tedro’s stated goal anyway – to elevate North American cross-country racing to be the best in the world. To some extent, it’s working really well. At the first round of the US Cup in Bonelli, Todd Wells was the first American home in 12th place. The field was by far the strongest seen in the US, away from the Windham world cup. But then there’s the flip side. Progress in USA Cycling “XCO” style racing relies on the accumulation of points. The races are short enough that only a good call-up will guarantee success. Those points are given to the top riders in each race (generally 15 or 20 deep, depending on the classification). With stronger fields, home-grown riders aren’t able to accumulate points, and thus aren’t able to progress through the ranks.

Listen to a couple minutes of commentary from Mr Tedro below to see how riders outside the top 30 are treated on the start line:

In a race where start position is beyond critical, the disregard for the last half of the pack is a little comical. Furthermore, it’s the last 70 people in that race that paid their own way to get there. They are the hopefuls, spending their own money to travel to the race. Without them, the whole event would be financially unviable. In summary, those are the people that need to be treated the best. They are the ones that get to choose whether to line up at a US Cup or not. On a practical note, the call up procedure could have been world cup style – the top riders filter into the front row just before the start. That would have allayed concerns over the riders at the front.

Now some comparison with other styles of racing in the US. There’s a big “sanctioning divide” that forms a barrier between the US Cup,and other events like the Breck Epic and Whiskey 50. But it’s the financial model that we need to focus on, and then talk about the racing afterwards. The Breck Epic is designed to attract riders to Breckenridge, Colorado for a full week. They have an accommodations sponsor, who fully understands the potential of riders being in the town for an extended period of time. Restaurants benefit from very hungry riders being there for seven whole days. Sponsors have an event village that has traffic for more than 30 minutes before a warm up. The event mainly focuses on the amateur fields, with a small pro class that is used as a “headline” to drum up media coverage, create some great photos and stories which are used towards attracting more amateurs next year. The model works. I don’t know the insides of the finances, but it’s a sustainable event. Self perpetuating.

Now let’s look at the Whiskey 50: 1600 amateurs fill the town, selling out every hotel, motel and house rental in the region. The town funds the event, as they know they will get a return on their investment. The event makes money, makes people happy, and creates a huge audience for professional riders to race in front of. It’s a holistic approach.

There are other approaches that work well, too. Mainly led by Mike McCormack, the “expo” style event such as the Firebird 40 puts a race in the middle of a dealer camp. The brands who come to show their wares have a guaranteed audience. The riders have something to do other than race, and the festival style atmosphere makes everyone smile just a little bit more than otherwise.

There are events that are financially sustainable, contain real mountain biking, audiences, returns for the promoter, the professional teams and the amateur teams, and they don’t need helicopter footage to do it. But these aren’t the UCI/USA Cycling sanctioned events. Here lies the divider. Even die-hard USA Cycling critics such as McCormack would agree that seeing a young rider pull on a national jersey for the first time and take the start line at the world championships is an amazing thing. But these well-run, fun and unsanctioned events are already at the point where licensing would be a hinderance to them, rather than a benefit. The burden of a licence is so strong that the Breck Epic can use “unsanctioned” as an effective marketing tool.

But do we simply give up on creating a pathway for our young riders to succeed? For me, the Olympic and World stage is a great thing. Competing against everyone in the world is too good to give up on.

Should, eventually, other promoters look for a way to allow riders to get to the world stage? Here’s where we need to get into some details. Pro mountain bikers come in two varieties. Number one: the paid kind. We can count a handful in the US. Todd Wells, Russell Finsterwald and Howard Grotts. A few others, maybe. They have world cup goals, and they make their fame through this world stage. They hone their early talents in USA Cycling races. They also do unsanctioned events.

The second kind of pro: the unpaid kind. All but a handful of people in the US fall into this category. Even people who look and sound very “pro” get paid nothing but a plane ticket at the very most. They have real jobs that they don’t talk about, or they have doting parents. Or huge credit card debt.  The unpaid pro is the lifeblood of unsanctioned events. Most of the time they also start out on the USAC circuit, and then they manage to move to more fun and entertaining events, and the good ones keep their loyal sponsors as they do this. These riders get recognised (fame is too strong a word), and often times they have successful cycling careers that last a long time. But this route yet to lead to a paid gig. You can’t make the jump at a later date. You either start off racing USAC races, get picked up by a factory team and earn a living, or you don’t ever get paid. Unsanctioned events are too new to yet create a salaried pro.

It will be awesome when these sustainable mountain bike events such as the Whiskey 50 get to the point where they can sustain both a pathway to the top, and have the ability to create paid pros too.  I think it’s possible, and the reason why is that we have hard working promoters who have found a way to tap into the enthusiasm in the mountain biking public. That mountain biking public, the ones who pay for their own bikes, do whatever races they want to, and generally put a number on their bike for fun rather than fury is the key to creating a complete mountain bike scene is the US once again. I’m an optimist. I’m looking forward to the future.