After Tom Pidcock’s Tokyo 2020 spectacular, dominating, gold win in the Men’s XCO (Cross-Country Olympics) mountain biking event, just eight weeks following an incident where Pidcock broke his collarbone after being hit by a car during training with his team INEOS Grenadiers, there has been increased attention to the sport and, this is why you should check it out. Particularly, the sport’s most elite and popular series, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
The elite mountain biking season falls largely under the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, with Cross-Country, as seen in the Olympics as well as downhill, e-bike and under 23 racing taking place. Other national, multinational, and under 23 events are also held across the year but do not attract the same high profile as the World Cup.
The season usually begins in May each year and continues until September with around six to seven races in a normal season. The World Cup generally takes place in areas well-known for ski resorts for their circuits. Which are off-road, technical, undulating and often dirt based. Including aspects such as large descents and climbs, obstacles, forest, and rocky trails, at around 4km to 10km long. Riders usually complete around five to seven laps, with an average race lasting one hour 20 to one hour 40 minutes at the elite level.
While each course will both look and ride differently there are certain aspects that are required at each location. Such as, significant climbs, drops and pass sections and, the rule that paved roads cannot make up more than 15% of the course. The prize for winning an XCO race? 300 championship points and a cash prize, with points awarded down to 38th place.
However, before Sunday’s main event, riders compete in a shorter race on the Friday/Saturday of the weekend, which in essence works as a qualifier for the main XCO race on Sunday. These are called cross-country short track races (XCC). Lasting around twenty minutes either on a modified shorter circuit from the main event on Sunday, or a different circuit entirely.
These shorter circuits are around 1 to 1.5km, six to eight laps long. XCC races award points to the top 40 finishers. The winner, earning 125 points, the second-place finisher 100, the third 80 and so on. Which, although is significantly less than the 300 awarded for the winner of the XCO, can be significant in tight championship battles.
Those in the top twenty-four of the XCC race will start on the front three rows with eight riders per row. While starting position does not have to be the be-all and end-all as seen through riders such as Pidcock this season, it is still vitally important in preventing time loss. Especially when racing against dominant and talented forces such as Mathieu van der Poel who road cycling fans may know from his incredible Strade Bianche winning sprint or recent Tour de France yellow jersey stint. Mathias Flückiger the Tokyo 2020 Olympic silver medallist, Nino Schurter the XC seven-time world champion, and Leona Lecomte who has won every XCC race this season in the women’s, during her first elite season, to name just a few prominent riders.
Now you know the basics of how it works, why should you check it out?
Firstly, and as briefly mentioned both the XCC and XCO races are significantly shorter than road race stages you may be used to through cycling’s more prominent events such as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia which can last up to six hours. In comparison, XCC and XCO range from 20 minutes to an hour 40 approximately, due to the intensity of the mountain bike discipline. This produces more digestible viewing for a casual cycling fan, and for those of us who cannot dedicate lots of time to a sport.
Secondly, something all sports fans love to hear, the UCI MTB World Cup is completely free to air via Red Bull TV, both live and on-demand. Meaning, you can enjoy races both as they happen, when you have time, or even watch races from prior seasons. With entertaining commentary from Rob Warner, a 1996 downhill race winner who also has a successful YouTube channel and Bart Brentjens, a former Dutch mountain biker and a current team manager.
Another reason to watch is the fact the women’s races are as equally and often more exciting than the men’s. Leaving hours of incredible racing in each location, in both elite categories.
The 2021 season so far has been dominated by 21 year-old Loana Lecomte, who has won every woman’s XCO World Cup race. Lecomte also claimed the French national championship title outside of the World Cup from three-time world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Which, although may leave first place often out of reach, leaves interesting battles for the other podium spots and points.
The series also hosts a wealth of multi-disciplinary talents, something becoming more and more common especially in young domineering forces across cycling. Seen in riders such as Pidcock who comes from a cyclocross background, Van der Poel, a four-time cyclocross world champion, and highly established, older, riders such as Nico Schurter, the seven-time world champion. Other names outside of MTB also possessing a multidiscipline background include, Wout van Aert, the Belgian Tokyo 2020 men’s road race silver medallist.
In the women’s, the same multi-disciplinary crossover primarily with cyclocross also can be seen. Examples include Team GB’s Evie Richard’s, a two time under 23 world cyclocross champion who placed 7th at Tokyo 2020 and who was an XC 2018 Commonwealth silver medallist. Jolanda Neff, the Tokyo 2020 XCO race winner, French three-time world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and more.
The final two XCO race weekends of the season will be held on the 4th to 5th of September in Lenzerheide, Switzerland and the final round in Snowshoe, the USA from September 18th to 19th.
Image: Peter Dean via Flickr