By Mary Atkinson
After Tom Pidcock’s spectacular and dominant victory at Tokyo 2020 in the men’s XCO (Olympic Cross Country Games) mountain bike event, just eight weeks after an incident in which Pidcock broke his collarbone after being hit by a car while training with his INEOS Grenadiers team, there has been increased attention to the sport and that’s why you should check it out. In particular, the sport’s most elite and popular series, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
The elite mountain biking season largely falls under the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, with cross country, as seen at the Olympics, as well as downhill, e-bike and mountain bike races. under 23 years old. Other national, multinational and Under-23 events are also held throughout the year, but do not attract the same notoriety as the World Cup.
The season typically begins in May of each year and continues through September with around six to seven races in a normal season. The World Cup generally takes place in areas known for ski resorts for their circuits. Which are all-terrain, technical, hilly and often dirt-based. Including aspects such as big descents and climbs, obstacles, forest and rocky trails, about 4 km to 10 km long. Runners typically complete around five to seven laps, with an average run of one hour 20 to one hour 40 minutes at the elite level.
While each course looks and behaves differently, there are certain aspects that are required at each location. Such as climbs, descents and important passages and the rule that paved roads cannot be more than 15% of the course. The price for winning an XCO race? 300 championship points and a cash prize, with points awarded up to 38e place.
However, before the main event on Sunday, riders participate in a shorter race on the Friday / Saturday weekend, which basically functions as a qualifier for the main XCO race on Sunday. This is called short track cross country (XCC) races. About twenty minutes either on a shorter circuit modified since the main event on Sunday, or on an entirely different circuit.
These shorter circuits are approximately 1 to 1.5 km, or six to eight laps. XCC races award points to the top 40. The winner, gaining 125 points, the second 100, the third 80 and so on. Which, while significantly lower than the 300 awarded to the XCO winner, can be significant in tight championship battles.
Those who place in the top twenty-four in the XCC race will start from the top three rows with eight riders per row. While the starting position doesn’t have to be the pinnacle and the end as runners like Pidcock show this season, it is still vitally important to avoid wasted time. Especially when he faces dominant and talented forces such as Mathieu van der Poel whom road cycling fans may know from his incredible Strade Bianche winning sprint or his recent stint in the Tour de France yellow jersey. Mathias Flückiger, silver medalist at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Nino Schurter, seven-time XC world champion, and Leona Lecomte who won all the XCC races this season in the women, in her first elite season, not to name a few prominent runners.
Now that you know the basics of how it works, why should you check it out?
First of all, and as briefly mentioned, the XCC and XCO races are much shorter than the road racing stages that you may be used to during larger cycling events such as the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. which can last up to six hours. In comparison, XCC and XCO range from 20 minutes to an hour and 40 minutes, due to the intensity of the mountain biking discipline. This produces a more digestible viewing for a casual cycling fan and for those of us who can’t devote a lot of time to a sport.
Second, something all sports fans love to hear, the UCI MTB World Cup is completely free on Red Bull TV, both live and on demand. This means you can enjoy the races as they happen, when you have the time, or even watch races from previous seasons. With entertaining comments from Rob Warner, a 1996 downhill winner who also owns a successful YouTube channel, and Bart Brentjens, a former Dutch mountain biker and current team manager.
Another reason to watch is the fact that women’s races are also and often more exciting than men’s. Leaving hours of incredible racing in every location, in both elite categories.
So far, the 2021 season has been dominated by 21-year-old Loana Lecomte, who has won all of the women’s races at the XCO World Cup. Lecomte also won the title of French champion outside the World Cup at the hands of three-time world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Which, although being able to leave the first place often out of reach, leaves interesting battles for the other places and points of the podium.
The series also welcomes a wealth of multidisciplinary talent, something more and more common, especially among the young dominant forces in cycling. Seen in riders such as Pidcock who comes from a cyclocross background, Van der Poel, quadruple cyclocross world champion, and very established and older riders like Nico Schurter, seven times world champion. Other names outside of mountain biking who also have multidisciplinary background include Wout van Aert, the Belgian silver medalist in the Tokyo 2020 men’s road race.
In women, the same multidisciplinary crossover mainly with cyclocross can also be seen. Examples include Evie Richard’s of Team GB, two-time U23 cyclocross world champion who placed 7the at Tokyo 2020 and who was the 2018 Commonwealth XC Silver Medalist. Jolanda Neff, Tokyo 2020 XCO race winner, French three-time world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and more.
The last two XCO racing weekends of the season will take place on 4e at 5e September in Lenzerheide, Switzerland and the final in Snowshoe, USA from September 18e to 19e.
Image: Peter Dean via Flickr