The two highest levels of UCI World Cup mountain biking are easily distinguishable.
Cross-country racers push their limits up and down grueling courses meant to test their mental and cardiovascular abilities alike. An entire pro field is on the course at once, battling, usually aboard a 100mm travel full-suspension mountain bike or a hardtail.
In contrast, UCI World Cup downhill racers are on the track one at a time. Downhill bikes are usually fitted with 200mm of suspension travel and racers push the limits of physics while they compete against each other’s times down steep, rocky, and technical tracks.
Both formats will remain the same and there’s no sign of the two merging to form a UCI sanctioned enduro series. And yet, XC courses seem to feature more technical features than ever.
At the season opener in Stellenbosch, South Africa in March, XC racers fought for the fastest line down sections of the track that were littered with toppled trees and boulders.
“I loved it,” said Chloe Woodruff (Pivot/Stan’s No Tubes).
Woodruff has been racing since her high school days in Boulder, CO. She raced two World Cups as a junior and raced the first U23 women’s championship race in Rotorua, New Zealand in 2006. Now she races in the pro women’s field in national and World Cup cross-country races.
“I’m now fighting for a top-ten finish on my best days,” Woodruff told Singletracks. This season she finished 12th in the pro women’s field at Stellenbosch, 27th in Albstadt, Germany, and 13th in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic.
Woodruff says World Cup XC courses are undoubtedly more technical than they used to be. As a result, she was an early adopter of dropper posts on XC courses. Even though they are heaver than a traditional seat post, she doesn’t mind the weight penalty because it means a smoother transition from lung-burning climbs to an anxiety-inducing descents.
“Now, it’s not just one section of the course,” she says. “Most of the descents are pretty technical.”
Outside of spending time in the saddle to build endurance, Woodruff participates in skills camps to improve her bike handling and jumping, and she also cross-trains in the gym regularly.
And Woodruff isn’t the only one training to handle the rough downhills on XC courses. These days, most of the top pros aren’t deterred by messy, log-strewn descents either.
“You have to be able to be technically proficient to be competitive. That wasn’t the case a decade ago,” says Woodruff.
Geoff Kabush (Yeti Cycles) has seen this change first hand. Kabush has been racing professionally for over 20 years. He says that individual features in UCI courses are more technical to a point since they’re manmade, but since everyone is riding them at the same speed these days, it doesn’t allow very technically proficient riders to gain much time.
“For the most part, you either pass or fail these sections,” he says. “Some of them are steep, but they’re quite short. The technical riders can make up time where it’s a more subtle, technical flowing descent where you can use your skill to maintain momentum.”
Kabush cited the Stellenbosch course as an example of how XC World Cup courses have changed over time.
“There were a couple of really technical sections, but in between it was a very smooth course,” says Kabush.
The courses have become shorter and more manufactured over the years so that they can stand up to wet weather and be televised more easily. Course builders were asked to keep courses within a certain distance from the start and finish line, so they beefed up shorter technical sections as much as the UCI allowed.
“It almost became a competition between events, who could have the best rock garden, or the biggest drop-off,” says UCI’s Deputy Mountain Bike Coordinator, Simon Burney. “If anything, we had to start to reel the course builders in as they were becoming a little bit too extreme for the range of ability we have at a major race.”
Burney says the major way World Cup courses have changed over the years is that they are a shorter distance and duration, and are actually built up. In the 90s, the courses may have been simply a dirt road between race tape without any built-up features.
“It depends how far you go back in World Cup history, but we have had World Cups on 10-12km circuits with race durations for the winner of over 3hrs,” says Burney. Now the courses are around 4km in length with an average time of 80-90 minutes.
New Zealand’s Anton Cooper (Trek Factory Racing), says that the time and distance is good for racers and spectators.
“It’s a length of race that makes it exciting and it’s a good mix of endurance and speed at that time frame,” he said in an interview.
Cooper lost to the reigning World Champ Nino Schurter in a frenzied sprint by the width of a tire at the last World Cup stop. It would have been near impossible to tell the winner without a frame-by-frame replay.
With 16-18 cameras on the course for Red Bull TV alone, an exciting and televisable sports event is a priority.
Cooper, now 23, has been racing for 12 years. He believes the courses are more technical than they ever have been, but with a caveat. With the addition of 29-inch wheels and new suspension technology, the courses have had to step up to the bikes, and the cameras have had to adapt also.
“They focus on these sections which look visually imposing, but in reality, there’s one line that everyone’s taking, or there’s a fast line and an easy line.”
Cooper doesn’t believe it’s a bad thing, but it’s how racing has evolved over time.
“I know a lot of riders don’t agree with the manmade stuff, but it’s a part of our modern racing and it has to appeal to a TV audience,” he said regarding some of the jumps and manmade technical sections on today’s courses. “Sometimes there’s courses that are more fun for the riders, but don’t look great on TV.”
World Cup XC racing will continue to evolve. If mountain bikes are eggs and the courses are chickens, it doesn’t matter which came first, because each will continue to catch up to the other. It’s up to the athletes to show the public how fast it can happen.