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The surprising influence Olympics had on mountain bike racing

This weekend’s Rio mountain bike races will look quite different from the epic loops, long climbs, and natural singletrack many racers know and love. Elite cross-country racing is not what it used to be, and some pin the blame on the Olympics for giving road racing’s dirtbag brother a tight-cropped haircut, forcing it into a format that’s shorter and less organic.

Has any Olympic sport evolved as much as mountain biking in the last 20 years? It seems unlikely. Tinker still has his dreads, but the Olympic-format XC race courses are now blazing-fast 6km laps (Atlanta was 10.6km), which are much more spectator-friendly. But the change has led to a bit of an existential crisis for some riders and fans.

“Now it’s kind of a long BMX race. Just explosive with a lot of technical stuff,” says Tinker Juarez, who raced in the Atlanta Games. “It’s good or bad. Maybe good for the spectators; it’s a harder chance for riders that have true power and everything to not show their real abilities.”

The shorter format is the World Cup standard as well, and according to Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, 2004 Olympian, that’s a good thing. “World Cup cross-country racing is experiencing a lot of success. They’ve honed in on something that’s a good strategy. It’s fun to watch.” But does a spectator-friendly course lead to a better experience for the average rider? Based on the dwindling MTB participation numbers in traditional XC and a comparison between the NORBA NCS of yesteryear and today’s ProXCT, probably not.

“I think traditional cross-country has really been suffering in the last few years in the U.S. but there’s definitely some events that have managed to have great participation,” says Georgia Gould, bronze medalist in 2012, referring to participant-centric but less spectator-friendly races, like Whiskey 50.

She does add that the tight format is important for mountain biking’s once-every-four-years chance to draw a broader audience. “The Olympics is the one event that we have in our niche sport where we can showcase ourselves to the world,” she says. “It’s important that the race looks cool and exciting.”

The good news is that, by standardizing a format for top-level XC, competitive mountain biking may have actually been given a better chance to blossom.

Even as recently as the 2004 Games, mountain biking looked more, well, mountain bike-y. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Even as recently as the 2004 Games, mountain biking looked more, well, mountain bike-y. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

But mountain bike racing’s new success won’t resemble the bacchanalia of six-figure sponsorships, media interest, and exponential growth of the 1990s. To go from the inaugural UCI worlds in Durango, Colorado to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in just six years was euphoric but also fleeting. ESPN and ESPN2 would regularly air major races, sometimes in primetime; the tear-out baseball cards in Sports Illustrated for Kids often included mountain bike stars of the era.

We can’t go back to that time, but we don’t need to. (And anyway, I don’t want to subject myself to grunge music once more.)

If XC’s modern permutation, a 90-minute dash around a glorified cyclocross course, is too quick for your tastes, you have options. The National Ultra Endurance series boasts 14 events this season, featuring some of the top 100-milers around the country, like the Shenandoah 100 in Virginia. Similarly, Epic Rides put up a massive $100,000 prize purse this year for its three-race series of middle-distance events, featuring the Whiskey 50 in Prescott, Arizona. Or for those who like it less “pedally,” there is the Big Mountain Enduro series, with six events across the Mountain West.

But don’t put that hardtail on eBay just yet. If USA Cycling’s eight-event Pro XCT (half of which are in California) won’t work for you, there are a number of cross-country hotbeds, even 20 years after Atlanta. The Wisconsin Off-Road Series (WORS), started in 1992 (take that, Olympics!), has 10 events that draw hundreds of riders each weekend throughout the summer.

Would we have such a dizzying array of enduros, stage races, or 100-milers to choose from if it wasn’t for the 1996 Games? It’s easy to imagine why riders and race organizers would seek out ways to branch out. Fortunately, the question, although inscrutable, is now moot. This off-road variety means we can watch exciting pro races and still have a great time when we tie on a number. Plus, we no longer have to ride 26″ wheels, rim brakes, 580mm-wide bars, or neon spandex (well, not usually).

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