The UK has a strong history of hosting the Olympic and Commonwealth Games Mountain Bike events as well as hosting a score of great World Cup rounds but this year marks the first time ever the off-road rainbow bands of the sport will be contested on British soil - in Scotland.
It's no surprise the races are held in the northern nation, as Scotland is home to one of the sport’s most iconic downhill races in Fort William and to some of the finest cross-country mountain bike trails and trail centre riding in the world – both of which have stepped in to host these events. These are also the first ever multi-discipline UCI World Championships ever to be held, and we will see 13 different disciplines raced across the 10 days of excitement.
2023 World Champs, Fort William, Downhill 2, by Red Bull Content Pool
As a UCI “street-legal” sport, mountain biking has only been around since 1990, or at least that was when it was fully ordained as a World Championship-worthy race (there was a “vague” World Cup before this). Back then it was the high-rise trails of the Colorado Rockies that hosted the race. On that legendary opening day for the sport, it was local lad Ned Overend who took the stripes in the men’s XC elite event, beating young Swiss racer Thomas Frischknecht and Britain’s Tim Gould to the line.
In the Woman’s cross-country it was Juli Furtado who led a US clean sweep of the podium, while Greg Herbold and Cindy Devine took the Downhill honours, with Britain’s Dave Hemming taking silver in the junior DH race.
Two years later, (1992) Scotland hosted the first ever UK round of the Grundig XC World Cup, on the horrendously boggy and muddy trails of Strathpeffer, where Thomas Frischknecht out-plodded John Tomac to take the win. The following year Newham Park in Plymouth took over as the UK venue of the World Cup, and held its spot, on and off for a few years.
In 2002 Fort William hosted the first ever UK round of the Downhill World Cup, where Aussie Kris Kovarik took the men’s title and Britain’s Tracey Mosely took her first ever World Cup win in the women's race, the first of six she would take on the rugged highland slopes during her lengthy reign at the top of the sport. The venue also hosted the 2007 UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Championships – so, naturally, Fort William will have no issues hosting this year’s title race.
2023 World Champs, Fort William, Downhill, Rachel Atherton, by Red Bull Content Pool
There are few, in any race tracks or World Cup rounds that carry the respect, applause and atmosphere of Fort William. The track was first etched out by local bikers way back in the 90s and runs some 2.8km long and drops around 550m of altitude down through Aonach Mor, in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
Known for its rocky and technical rattle, which will always make for spectacular viewing; although if you don’t have reservations already then you will only be able to watch the elite finals on TV or online, as all tickets are sold out.
The first DH qualifiers kick off the MTB racing schedule on the 3 August, followed by the elite qualifying and junior finals on the 4 August, and then the elite final on the following day.
The elite final should prove to be a battle for the ages in so many ways, where old hands the established racers of the moment duel it out with a couple of young guns, who do look rather likely to upturn the medal barrels. While the final start lists are still being inked we can predict that the women’s race will be as fierce. With British comeback legend Rachel Atherton returning from injury and as a new mother, she's for sure determined to take her sixth set of elite rainbow stripes, and all on a course that she has learned to master so well over the years. Only a few would bet against her doing just that.
2022 UCI MTB World Championships Downhill Höll, by Suvi Loponen
However, despite winning the first round of the UCI 2023 DH World Series in Lenzerheide, Atherton was unseated in the following round by current World Champion Valentina Höll of Austria. Höll is something of a child DH protégé who has well and truly made good on her promise and won on the slopes of the Bill in the past as a junior, making her the odds-on favourite for the title. Pushing Höll hard all season long has been 2020 World Champion Camille Balanche of Switzerland, who must pose the biggest threat to Höll and Atherton, although if you were looking for a long-shot bet, you could do worse than an evens-on for newly striped British DH Champion Harriet Harnden, an amazing all-round talent who glistens on the right day.
When it comes to this year’s men’s title race a wide-open battle royale is expected, with a bunch of established French favourites heading the charge, with multiple World Champ Loic Bruni followed by countryman Lois Vergier leading the obvious front-line dive for the line.
However, the current form books would point to the young duo of Jordan Williams (UK) and Jackson Goldstone (CAN) as being in with an excellent shout for glory, while you can never discount the experience and race day peaking skills of Greg Minnaar, and perhaps even past double Champion Danny Hart as a long shot for a home medal, as both have from and experience on this track.
The X-Factor - XCO, XCC, XCR and E-MTB & XCM
The superb and demanding trails of Glentress and the Tweed Valley mark the spot for the cross-country events this year. Kicking things off on the 6 August will be the 96.5km (3,200m elevation gain) cross-country marathon (XCM) race. Alan Hatherly and Matthew Beers (South Africa), Henrique Avancini (Brazil), Andreas Seewald and Lukas Baum (Germany), Cameron Mason (Great Britain) and defending champion Sam Gaze (New Zealand) are the form riders. The women’s field will comprise decorated athlete Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (France), Jolanda Neff (Switzerland) and a bevy of British riders such as Annie Last and Isla Short.
The XCM is followed by the short track qualifying (900m laps) on 8 August, and then the e-MTB and Team Relay race on the ninth (3.72km loop with 162m elevation gain per lap for both, with the XCO being very similar). The short track finals will take place on the 10 August, and then cross-country (XCO) finals are spread out over the next three days, culminating in the elite races on the 12th.
2023 nino schurter lenzerheide riding.jpg, by Liam Mercer
Based on the familiar and well-groomed forest trails of Glentress the XCO course is a thriller both to ride and watch, with lots of fast and steep forest trail climbing (two main climbs), huge rock gardens, jumps (including a three-meter gap jump) and twisted descents, of the kind that would not have been out of place in a downhill race a decade or two back. This will be a fast and very intense race, and of course that plays well to punchy and dynamic skills and strengths of both Nino Schurter (Switzerland) and Tom Pidcock (Great Britain, yet to be confirmed to start), although Mathias Flückiger (Switzerland) will surely be in the mix to spoil the expected party between the headline duo, while potential podium incomers could well include Lars Forster (Switzerland) and the brilliantly multi-talented Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), who has not raced too much MTB so far this season but is taking part in both the road and MTB world champs.
While the crowd will doubtless put their cheers behind Pidcock, others will be hoping that the grand master himself and defending champ, Schurter, makes this an astounding elite title number 11. That in turn may potentially lure him into racing into 2024 and the Paris Olympics in a bid to match Julien Absalon’s record double Olympic Games gold medal haul, which would lay to rest doubts as to his GOAT status (he is due to retire at the end of 2023).
When it comes to the women’s XCO race then it has to be French phenomenon Pauline Ferrand-Prevot who leads the charge in her title defence and a bid to make it five XCO elite titles. That said, in recent times she’s been shown a muddy pair of heels by young Belgian cyclo-cross ace turned mountain biker Puck Pieterse. Though, they will surely not have things all their own way, with Anne Terpstra (Netherlands), Loana Lecomte (France) and others running close behind should either falter. Despite neither having the best of seasons so far you can certainly never discount the ability of Britain’s Evie Richards and her Trek teammate Jolanda Neff (Switzerland) to pull off an amazing ride, and both are prone to getting things perfectly right on their day.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, by SWpix.com
As for the other XCO disciplines, it’s always tough to predict – as you never know who will, or will not commit to riding events outside of the showcase XCO, which carries the most prominence in the endurance races, and with some riders (such as van der Poel) expected to also ride the road race, and with the marathon also being incorporated within the same championships, this disparity may prove even bigger gamble this time around. Will the XCO contenders risk their reserves? Either way, this will be a superb week and a bit of spectating for all cycling fans, be that in person or on the small screens.
Where to watch
Although most of the downhill days are sold out, there are still tickets on sale for other events, with the short track qualifying and marathon being free to attend (do check ground space in advance). Full details and schedules are on the official World Champs website.
For TV coverage, depending on where you live (or where a VPN may help with geo-restrictions) then BBC2 and 3 (some events on the red button and then iPlayer), GCN+, Eurosport, FloBikes (North America) and several international broadcasters will offer live coverage and highlights – and we believe that the UCI will also offer coverage on their YouTube channel.
[Words by Steve Thomas]
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