When I was a young impressionable teenager, mountain biking was all about Cross country “XC” racing. MBUK featured coverage of the races and I put up posters of world cup riders like GT’s Rishi Grewal and Raleigh’s David Baker on my bedroom wall. In the 1990’s XC mountain biking was uber cool!
|XC team photo used to sell a bike. Very 1990's!|
Skinny lycra clad racers don’t make much of an appearance in magazines or in brand marketing anymore. The big names in the sport are EWS riders like Richie Rude and Jared Graves. Selling bikes in recent years is all about dramatic shots of burly Enduro bikes, with riders in baggy shorts throwing themselves off a precipitous mountain ledge in a shower of stones.
Roll into a trail center wearing lycra, on a bike with 100mm of travel and wait for the stunned silence and awkward glances from the padded and full face helmet crowd resting in the back of their VW Transporters. At XC races there is an obvious lack of youngsters coming into the sport. It’s the same old faces every season and none of us are getting any younger! The guys winning the local races now are the same as 10 years ago. Where are the young guns coming in to knock them off their perch? My gut tells me they are either indoors on the X-box, or styling it up with their mates at the local downhill trail. A XC race is no longer a ‘cool’ place to be.
At my local events, race entries have dwindled. To take a benchmark, the Gorrick Open category is where many aspiring young riders, including myself, cut their racing teeth. The races used to regularly attract fields of over 100. I spent my formative years desperately battling for a top 10 position. Last February there were only 11 competing in Open at one of the rounds. The knock on effect is that organisers are planning less races. When the 2018 Southern Series was announced, there were only 4 dates. Worse there are just 2 Gorrick Spring Series events this year. We’ve got used to both series being fought out over 5 or 6 rounds.
Part of this (especially in Gorricks case) I feel might be down to the lack of available venues, but no doubt fewer competitors means organisers have had to tighten their belts when negotiating with landowners.
Another challenge is strength in other areas of the sport. Gorrick have followed the trend, replacing one of their XC events with a gravity Enduro race. There are also many cyclocross races and the popularity of road riding in the UK on the back of our professional athletes successes, has also shifted the spotlight away from mountain biking. There is a local road sportive somewhere almost every weekend throughout the year and weekly races all through the summer.
There is however the sense that things may be changing. A number of the major brands have recently announced new XC focused race bikes and smaller brands seem to be following suit. Advances in technology mean that a XC bike is now a far more capable machine. This means that courses are getting more gnarly and technical. Races are no longer fought out on forest fireroads. The twisty, rocky singletrack is now scattered with dramatic drops and gap jumps. This provides striking, photogenic images for marketing, and a more appealing perception of fun and excitement rather just the threat of burning legs and lungs!
|Nino Schurter at the World Cup in South Africa February 2018|
Sections of the latest World Cup courses look more like Downhills tracks. This has added to the drama of the sport and we all have a new hero in Nino Shurter to idolize. I watched the first round of the World Cup in South Africa last week, transfixed to Redbull TV for the whole 2 hours. (Another one of challenges of XC racing in a world of quick fixes, is races lasting over 90 minutes, compared to a downhill run of 3.) I was in awe of the skill on show, shoulder to shoulder racing the whole way ending in a sprint finish! As an advert for the sport you couldn’t do better.
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