Mountain Bike Racing Struggles to Matter

Brian Lopes is all smiles about XCE, but he's winning its races.

Turn out for a cross-country mountain bike race these days and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll get depressed. Compared to its glory days, XC is about as tired as an old nag. Junior fields might have a few kids in them, but they’ll tell you they’re just keeping their legs fresh for cyclocross season. It’s nothing like it was.

Cyclocross, on the other hand, continues to grow because manufacturers see their sponsorship dollars go further there. Groms and their parents can race on the same day, stand around and cheer each other on on the same race course, and then stay and watch the pros battle. Can you imagine getting to ski a world cup downhill slope the morning before the pros bomb it? Or have a softball game on Wrigley Field a few hours before a millionaire takes the mound? That’s just part of the unique attraction of cross.

Meanwhile XC keeps using the same basic model it has for decades, somehow expecting growth. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

It’s true that there’s nothing more pure than racing on singletrack in the woods, but in great contrast to cyclocross, XC courses are unfriendly to spectating, the learning curve is spectacularly hard, and the fun-to-pain factor is so heavily loaded to the latter that it’s no wonder that the world governing body of cycling, the UCI, finally launched a new racing format this year, the Cross Country Eliminator, or XCE, to try to push cross-country, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

So far, the best thing that can be said is…yawn.

XCE has a gated start like four-cross or BMX, but otherwise is more about fast starts and sustainable power over the course of about four to five minutes of racing on a tiny, one-kilometer track. It resembles what you know as cross-country mountain biking in only the vaguest way.

Brian Lopes, at the ripe old age of 40, won the opening round last month in Houffalize, Belgium, but he also told Bike Magazine recently that the courses aren’t nearly technical enough. XCE resembles nothing like what you might face as a typical mountain biker in any genre, from freeride to cross-country. Weak sauce.

And while Lopes says four cross died for legitimate reasons — courses were incredibly expensive to build and their huge berms, jumps, and walled sections could be rough on the ski-slope environment — XCE isn’t nearly as interesting to watch. Does a racing format matter if nobody wants to watch it?

Meanwhile, all of this is happening in the context of ever-more-popular DH, which is growing globally as terrain parks proliferate (especially in Europe, but also in Colorado and on other ski hills in North America).

So why isn’t more energy being poured into DH? Answer: The Olympics. USA Cycling is funded to get Americans onto Olympic podiums, period. And there’s no DH in the Olympics.

The UCI isn’t as singularly focused, but it walks in close step with the same national governing bodies that are hot for nothing but Olympic glory. So the UCI largely ignores the growth of DH and other gravity events even as the next generation of racers finds them a welcome alternative to the Lycra worn by Mom and Dad.

But perhaps the stodgy old UCI is wising up ahead of USA Cycling, because there’s, yes, another format coming to racing. 2012 will see a non-points (i.e., test run) circuit of Gravity Endurance racing, which combines the ruggedness of downhill with the V02 max required of cross-country. GE may gain official World Cup status as early as next season. What is it? Bombing top-to-bottom on Whistler, but with flat sections that require lots of pedaling. Ditto, a 20- to 40-minute run down the Alps or the Dolomites. All of which bodes well, since these are events that dovetail perfectly with where the sport is going, so fans can readily identify. Rather than say, cross country, which is where it’s been.

{ 11 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Joe Jacobs

    You folks are all missing out on the fun of XC racing. We had a blast at the opening race of the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series a very popular XC race series in “The Natural State.” http://www.arkansasoutside.com/the-battle-for-townsends-ridge/ We love cyclocross too (we have a series of those races too) but it doesn’t replace racing over a distance and course that we love to ride on a regular basis. DH? really? It’s cool to watch sure but if you want something that the majority of mountain bikers can participate in it’s XC.

  • Kyle

    Very insightful.

    I love racing XC, and I always will. But the lack of interest and support is not helping this subculture within a subculture survive. Hate to admit it, but XCE might single handedly kill off what little respect us XCers had left…and most of those heckles will come from riders/racers/fans with much baggier clothing.

    I’m a supporter of anything on two wheels, and if the growing popularity of gravity races helps push themselves in the Olympics, you can bet I’ll be watching. We’re all in this together.

    …but I’ll still be that guy pushing record on Strava and making sure my bibs line up on my existing tan line.

  • Josh

    Between the resurgence of DH, the explosion of Super D and Enduro, mountain bike racing is healthier than it’s been since the 90s.

  • Sandor Lengyel

    You have to be kidding me.

    High school XC mountain bike racing is one of the fastest growing sports here in California. High school league races are getting 500+ racers week after week. The local high school in my neighborhood has more kids on the Mountain Bike team than the varsity football team. Many high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area are fielding 30-50+ on their MTB teams, and these kids are fast!!

    Check out the results link from one of the NorCal league races. Hundreds of high school racers showing up week after week, hammering.

    http://nationalmtb.org/results/norcalmtb/2012/RiderResults1.html

    Yeah, mountain bike racing is dead… right.

  • moe

    400+ racers at BUMPnGrind last weekend. 60+ racers at Skyway Epic in Alabama 2 weeks before (up againt ITU Off Road World Championship the day prior). 300 racers at Cohutta 100 3 weeks before that. From where I sit XC is looking strong.

  • Ron

    Maybe at the elite level MTB racing is less popular than road racing, and sure, cyclocross is the happening thing right now. But the MTB racing scene is very healthy again in Norhtwest. We have many races to choose from, including the NW Epic series which is selling out at 400 riders per event. The fomat is either 30 or 60 mile race options, with the final being a 50 or 100. So is it really “struggling to matter”? Depends on your definition of “”matter” I suppose . For me and the 399 other riders at the last Epic, it matters!

  • alison

    Well,
    I don’t know but our midweek series in Salt Lake City has 150+ racers each week and the weekend races pull in 300-400 strong. Not to mention our cross races–400 riders. I think we are doing pretty great right here in Utah. We are starting up the HS mountain bike leagues for the first time this fall and expect to have great turn-outs. So, I guess if anyone thinks mountain bike racing is dead–it is certainly not dead of the local level.

  • Stephen Durham

    Michael, I’m not sure what your local XC scene is like, but your article goes against everything I’ve seen and experienced around here in Arkansas. Our trails are in great shape and tons of new people are constantly showing up for XC races and Weekend long MTB Festivals.

    Kids and parents race on the same day at our XC, we get to cheer pros on for the final race of the day on the same course, and it’s very spectator friendly.

    As for the learning curve and fun-to-pain factor… Maybe it’s time you put down you’re laptop and hit some trails… Judging by this wording you seem a little out of touch with mountain biking.

  • Yoshi

    The WORS Series in Wisconsin gets averages 600+ racers per event over a 12 event series. They had 840 racers just a week ago – all XC Racing. The MNMTB Series in MN, is not far behind with 300-400 racers per event… That’s close to 1000 racers per event with overlapping races that are pretty close to each other…

    The Jr races at WORS are also growing. I’ve also seen had lead more Jr rides / riders this season than ever before.

    One thing I could not disagree on though is how lame XCE is… WTF is that all about? As far as courses – the sport needs to get back to the day of longer laps and longer races. I know there is an endurance segement – but top XC level races should be 2-3 hours – look at top level road races and stage races – they ride for 100+ miles a day for days on end… Something is working there.

  • Anna

    Yoshi: race distance was altered to make it better for spectator. It doesn’t make it any easier as a sport, you race harder for a shorter amount of time. XC racing isn’t a grand tour so why compare it to one? Power outputs and technical demands are VERY different between the two.
    I was at the 2013 Wisconsin PROXCT and certainly I think it struggled for numbers, especially in the elite, considering the size of the US.
    This is a problem felt where I live (another country) as well. Grassroots racing is very strong but look towards the elite ranks and it all gets a bit shit.
    We have 100km races all around the country that get upwards of 3000+ participants. But they’re not likely to make the switch to moving through any XC ranks anytime too.
    Everyone’s cries of “XC isn’t dead…in our local area its awesome…” is exactly my point. Locally, grassroots level, there are still strong scenes. Just doesn’t seem to go anywhere from there.

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