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Commentary: Professional mountain biking made equality the benchmark – road cycling could learn a lot

Guest columnist Matilda Price says that UCI World Cup mountain biking is a model that the road world should aspire to.

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As a long-term road cycling fan, getting into mountain biking has opened my eyes to how much better things can be when it comes to equality in cycling.

In some sports, in-competition equality is hardly even a conversation these days. From athletics and swimming to almost every winter sport — it’s not that inequality is completely eradicated in these sports, but the bare minimum of competing on the same course, for the same prize, with the same coverage is a basic expectation in 2022, not something that’s still being fought for.

Cycling is generally not one of these sports. Yet mountain biking, road racing’s distant cousin, is currently showing us that maybe it can be.

For the uninitiated, here’s how the gender categories compare in UCI Mountain Bike World Cups: the men’s and women’s events are raced on the same course, for the same amount of
time, with the same amount of prize money, every time.

That’s it. It really is that simple. This stipulation seems so obviously right that it should be pointless to even mention, but any road cycling fan knows this is far from the norm on the road — in fact, it’s extremely rare.

RedBull TV has made viewing the women’s UCI Mountain Bike World Cup races exactly as easy as watching the men’s. (Photo: (Photo by Svoboda Jaroslav/BSR Agency/Getty Image))

Watching mountain biking, you can sometimes forget that any other approach is even an option. Of course, there should be equal coverage, junior or under-23 races at every round, and equal payouts. And it’s not a difficulty for race organizers, it’s something that makes racing better, for both athletes and fans.

When you’re not always mildly angry about inequality, it’s amazing how much more enjoyable a sport can be. You can focus on a double installment of exciting racing, on athleticism, on celebrating impressive performances — which is what sport should be about.

Other than competition set-up, one way we can start to gauge a gender-balanced sport is by looking at who becomes a star. Ask an average cycling fan to name some mountain bikers and they’ll probably say Tom Pidcock, Mathieu van der Poel or Nino Schurter, but it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Jolanda Neff, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, or Evie Richards mentioned, too. These women are stars of the sport just as much as their male counterparts.

Some of these riders are more recognizable because they cross over to road racing, yes, but even just within mountain biking, there’s little sense that men are any more revered than women. Mixed teams, like Trek Factory Racing (who have been champions of equality on the road, too) just underline this idea: on the mountain, men and women are on equal footing, separated only by race category.

In many respects, downhill racing is where the commitment to equality becomes really clear. Downhill mountain biking is an event that’s dominated by men, not by a factor of an extra 10-20 riders, but rather the men’s start list is regularly at least four or five times longer than the women’s.

The women’s sport is small (growing, but undeniably still small), but apart from participation rates, the differences are not sizeable.

Downhill is a discipline that’s all about technique and skill, something its female competitors certainly aren’t lacking. The time differences between the best men and the best women are small at around 30 seconds on a typical WC course, and much of this comes from the inevitable fact of weight, gravity, and physics.

Just like in cross-country, there’s no ‘easier’ course for the women, no expectation that races should be shorter or slower. Downhill rewards being bold, and women are given every chance to show they’re just as fearless as the men.

What struck me during one of the first World Cups I followed was the junior women’s downhill races. There were 13 riders in the seeding run, compared to 62 junior men, and 152 elite men in their respective qualification runs.

It wasn’t shown live — neither junior events are currently — and the category has only been included in World Cups since 2017, but the fact it was happening at all felt significant. Women are still having to ask for U23 and junior races at the biggest events on the road and in cyclocross, with organizers blaming low participation or tight schedules as a limiting factor.

So, to see those thirteen 17 and 18-year-old women racing on the biggest stage, on exactly the same course as the elite men, felt like the kind of equality we should be striving for in sport.

Rachel Atherton, Tahnee Seagrave, and Tracey Hannah have paved the way in women’s downhill. (Photo: (Photo by Milos Vujinovic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images))

As a fan watching from home, the way the sport is covered is also a key factor in how equal or unequal it seems. All finals are shown in full (because it would be crazy to show significantly less of the women’s race, right?), there’s almost always a female commentator on women’s races, and RedBull’s presenter Lauren Smith reports from the ground. These things may feel small, but they add up to create an event where it feels like women are important, where they belong.

And the approach works: viewing figures of the women’s races reportedly doubled from 2017 to 2018 to be practically equal with the men’s races, and overall numbers have been increasing year on year. So much so that from 2023 broadcasting giants Discovery will take over the rights from RedBull TV, clearly seeing the potential in mountain biking.

We just have to hope they maintain the same commitment to equal coverage that RedBull TV does.

Of course, the fact of above doesn’t deny the existence of sexism and discrimination in mountain biking and the wider industry. Kate Courtney has spoken out about the objectification she has faced as a young racer, though she says things are getting better, and wage disparities are still an issue.

What’s more, this is just the very top level of elite mountain biking we’re talking about. In other competitions outside the World Cups and all the way down to grassroots level, women are not guaranteed the same privileges that professionals are.

If anything, this makes it even more clear why the elite-level sport must lead by example.

There are reasons why mountain biking can be more balanced than road cycling. In endurance situations like road races, the physiological differences between men and women can be more pronounced (though studies have suggested the gap narrows again when you enter ultra-endurance territory), plus the UCI’s ownership of the World Cup series gives them a level of intervention that can’t be easily replicated in road cycling’s outsourced calendar.

Mountain biking’s characteristics aren’t directly transferable to road racing – having an identical calendar for men and women, for example, isn’t necessarily a priority for the peloton — but the approach can be universal.

What mountain biking is doing is proving that equal treatment can and should be the default. Women aren’t asked to justify their worth or right to be there by filling a start list as long as the men’s, they aren’t expected to race on an easier or shorter course because of their gender, they aren’t deemed to deserve less prize money.

Things that seem a far-off dream in road cycling are the default in mountain biking. In road cycling, the approach sometimes seems to be scaling down the racing to meet the perceived level of the peloton. In mountain biking, the women’s sport is given the freedom and space to grow – equality is a starting point, not a privilege that needs to be earned.

Like wider society, mountain biking is not perfect in its treatment of women, and there are always improvements to be made. But if you’re ever feeling disheartened about how much progress still needs to be made in women’s road cycling, tune into a World Cup to see Izabela Yankova ripping it down a tough course right before Thibaut Daprela, or watch Haley Batten prove why the new female riders are the most exciting part of cross-country right now.

It won’t solve everything, but it will remind you what’s possible, and how much more enjoyable that can be.