The UCI management committee recently met to discuss rule changes across several cycling disciplines, one of which was downhill mountain biking.
After already reducing the Female Elite field size to 20 for the downhill finals for the 2016 season, for 2017 it will be further reduced to 15, while at the same time the number of points required to qualify is being raised from 30 to 40. The junior men’s field is being reduced to 30 participants, and the junior women are being moved to a separate event.
UCI claims this is being done, “in order to better protect the integrity of the course and therefore improve the quality of competition.” It should also be noted that a number of top Elite racers have been pushing for this change.
On the surface it appears that UCI has decided to cut back in other categories in order to favor the Elite Men. While the initial reason given is to protect the race course and improve the competition, a later statement by UCI President Brian Cookson would seem to indicate that TV ratings are the real driving force:
“While it is important that we safeguard the essence of our cycling disciplines, we also need to be brave and embrace change in order to give our sport real meaning to those who are watching live or on screens across the world. The changes announced today show that we are moving with the times to ensure that our disciplines are presented in the most compelling way possible, and are rooted in the desire to attract and inspire even more fans into cycling.”
My take on this statement is that the UCI places fans above competitors, and TV ratings above development of the sport.
Several mountain biking publications are taking a harsh stance on these new UCI rules. Singletrack Magazine in the UK even goes so far as to point out that the rules disproportionately affect women and may not be legally defensible. While I don’t wholly disagree with the criticism, as the parent of a Cat 1 female downhill racer I have also seen the pandemonium of a busy practice day and blown out race courses once the top men get to race. On the other hand, for those trying to garner enough UCI points via North American races alone, a lot of travel will be required, which can be very difficult for self-supported racers.
On the Junior Women’s side, moving them to a separate event may actually improve the competitive experience, however reduced media exposure may prevent them from gaining recognition and sponsorship, thus discouraging them from making a career of it.
With my daughter not being eligible for the UCI Junior category until the 2018 season, I plan to watch closely to see how it all shakes out.
Most of the criticism so far has come from the UK, so we want to get a sense of the reactions to this here in the US, from both racers and fans. Please continue the discussion in the comments section below.