Cross-Country racing – where next for the UK?
Great Britain is in an enviable position. We have the 2021 men's Olympic cross-country mountain bike champion, Tom Pidcock, along with Evie Richards, a 2021 UCI mountain bike cross-country (XCO) champion.
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With such incredible performances, you might expect that the current racing scene is flourishing in the UK, with the ability to deliver such talented riders. However, the truth is that cross-country racing is struggling and has been for some time.
As a country, we are blessed with incredible and diverse riding in all parts, with general riding booming since the global pandemic. Although, the increase in people riding bikes has not been seen at cross-country races, and my question is, why not?
The numbers of entrants and events themselves are dwindling. Some regional areas are struggling to host series, which has a knock-on effect, meaning riders have to travel further afield to compete, further reducing entries.
So where does the problem lie, how can the issues be resolved, or are people happy for cross-country as a race discipline to dwindle and disappear?
We might have a current World Champion and Olympic Champion, but so does Switzerland, and as a nation, many would agree they are at the top within the sport, with the Top 10 of any World Cup event usually featuring at least 5 Swiss racers in both male and female races. Switzerland has, and perhaps a few other European countries, a fanbase that elevates athletes to household names. Athletes like Nino Schurter (recently 9 time World Champion) will be known around the country like Harry Kane in Great Britain (or at least England). Switzerland's big fanbase can lead to sponsorship, which means investment in the sport, which will usually result in more racers and more talent emerging.
Some people might argue the problem is cycling wide, and while it is to an extent, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and Dame Sarah Storey are names that many non-cyclists will have heard of, even if they are not overly familiar with the type of cycling each has competed in. Within mountain bike downhill, there is a fanbase that extends beyond the appeal of those who ride and compete themselves, and I am sure that many people who tune in to watch World Cup and World Championship events have never ridden a downhill bike.
Downhill has an appeal that extends beyond the racers - it is cool. Cross-country is not, and to my knowledge, never has been. But why? Is it something as simple as the clothing usually chosen or something more abstract, such as the difficulty and cost to film for TV? The ability to attract and enable TV is a huge factor for any sport, enabling sponsorship and funding to compete without relying on lottery-funded Olympic medal targets. As a sport, cross-country racing has failed to attract any mainstream coverage since at least one sport in the 1990s.
Perhaps the Olympic medal achieved by Tom Pidcock will increase the sports funding to British Cycling and increase cross-country participation. Still, I have my reservations and only hope that I am proved wrong.
British Cycling as an organisation can also do more. Hopefully, with our recent medal success, things will change with the focus and spending coming away from the velodrome and spread wider across all disciplines such as BMX, which has also had recent success - a form of cycling that deserves more financial support.
What can we do as riders, and what can the sport improve and raise the profile?
I would like to see the cross-country short track format be adopted at more regional weekend events. The compact race format is fun to watch, and when organised within a current event, such as the British Cycling National Series, it should mean less work is needed to organise. It would be more visible to both spectators at the venue and potential media.
Another big change needed is more support for race organisers. This is something that I have personal experience with, having organised two UCI level National Series events in previous years. Despite reasonable numbers and a very supportive council and landowner, the event struggled to break even, not accounting for personal time. The problems were costs that British Cycling had enforced. Increasing entry fees is not the answer, as this will only detract some riders. I believe the only answer is for British Cycling to support and fund the National and regional level events to encourage more people to become race organisers.
Racing also needs to be viewed as less elitist, which might sound silly as, ultimately, if you enter a race, you are there to compete. Still, I feel cross-country particularly struggles with this aspect. I am sure some riders would question why pay to race and not finish highly if you can use that money to go and ride somewhere and have fun? But racing, regardless of where you finish, can be fun, especially if the race is geared up so that it can be fun for all.
As autumn and winter approach, I am sure there will be many cyclocross leagues preparing to host events around the country. While it is not hugely successful in some regions, including Wales, where I live and compete, you can get upwards of 100 on the start line in each category. Cyclocross is a sport with many similarities to XC; it also has a cult following in certain European countries. It aims to broaden its appeal across the Atlantic in the USA, much to the frustration of certain short-sighted pro-riders who choose not to travel to compete and fail to see the larger picture. There is also a big crossover between the sports. Many top racers on either cross-country or cyclocross will choose to race the other in the "off-season", with both Tom Pidcock and Evie Richards having huge success in cyclocross already. This crossover dates back all the way back to the beginning of mountain biking. If cyclocross can seem to flourish as a niche sport, surely cross-country can as well.
Within road cycling, the ability-based category system is quite successful and while road cycling is also struggling to a point, for very different reasons to XC, what the category system aims to achieve is ensuring that people can compete against similarly paced people. While you might not be in the elite category, you can hope at least to be competitive against those around you.
Can mountain biking adopt a similar ability based system? Do the racecourses need more thought? Increasing technicality may be seen as a positive, potentially when attempting to attract riders who feel technicality good, or is it better to limit the technicality and just ensure everyone can get around. Within the current system, if a racecourse has a technical line (A-line), alternative sections can be put in, which are less technical (B lines) with the format designed so that A-lines are fastest. But this can also be negative, and I am sure some people will be put off taking part in an event if they know it is technical or will have to use every B line.
I also believe more needs to be done on the sport's image with less negativity thrown towards "roadies" who choose to wear lycra or people who enjoy climbs and pushing themselves physically and technically.
If a more positive attitude can be adopted, if the sport can attract more entrants, and if the fast, furious racing of CXC can potentially attract some coverage, then perhaps the sport can grow and start to flourish and maybe Evie and Tom will not be the only champions we have.
But to everyone else and those who ride mountain bikes generally and likely never considered entering a cross-country race before, I say try it. Enter with no bias or prejudgements and try for yourself; even if you have no aspiration or expectations of winning, they can still be fun. If there are no races nearby, try a cyclocross race as you can take part on any bike, with regional events always being filled with mountain bikes and increasingly gravel bikes.
Have you seen any XCC (short track) events as that sounds very similar to what you have suggested.
They are on a course that is usually fully within view from one location with a mix of technical sections and up/downhill. I find them exciting to watch and also at World Cup events helps give an insight into form and also top placed riders are gridded, which encourages participation.
For me the format for XC is wrong. I watch a lot of bike racing and as much as I want to enjoy it XC is just dull. Too oftens ends up as a muddy ITT with limited overtaking. The courses provide limited overtaking opportunities, there's no choice of lines and so it comes down to the start and a battle of endurance. Bikes and bike handling are so good that mechanicals and falls rarely come into it.
I enjoy watching MTB downhill for the same reason I like watching downhill ski-ing - split times and extreme skill. I've never ski-ed and have no desire to ride downhill but the sport is highly engaging. Short runs, three split times to build excitement, extreme skill, and a hint of danger.
I wonder if there is a middle ground for XC? Rather like motocross? Have venues where the whole course is in view of the start/finish area and is built on a hillside so you can build in endurance elements (cycling uphill) and technical (some of the smaller jumps/moghuls you get in DH & BMX). Short laps (but a bit longer than XCC) and more technical. Three split times per lap. Hilly long-course BMX racing.
Is there also a place for trials riding? I'm old enough to remember Kickstart and Junior Kickstart getting huge viewing figures on telly, yet again because of the technical skill and split timing.