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JB's Go Big or Go Bigger: Where will mountain bike racing go from here?

Mountain bike racing goes through trends and phases, so what will be the next big thing?

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It’s been an awesome season and I had a moment to reflect after just clinching the National Ultra Endurance 100 series for Cannondale Factory Racing last week!

The finals win at Fools Gold 100 in Georgia was a fierce battle. It was an awesome course and a nail biter right to the finish — a memorable campaign of pain.

The NUE 100 is not new any more but the buzz is not wearing off. Indications seem to be that the ultra mountain bike scene is here for the long haul. I had this discussion with some friends and promoters about where the direction of mountain bike racing is going. We were wondering what it will be like in 10 or 20 years from now?

Guess when the ingredients are there they are just there. The NUE series has great courses, big adventure and lots of fun and camaraderie. Much of this is the essence of normal recreational mountain biking that dudes and lady dudes (as my son Conrad says) have been doing and will do for ages. Saddling up for some over-the-top, big time exploration rides and getting lost as hell and coming back in the dark, glad to see beer and Band Aids.

I remember clearly hearing in the mid 90’s “road racing is dead.” I didn’t know what to think of that as a late teen, but clearly at the time XC mountain biking was a growing extreme sport with big money out of industry sponsors like Cadillac, Chevy, Sunn, T-Mobile, Mountain Dew and Volvo, all of whom sponsored big-budget programs. NBC Sports TV coverage made it seem unstoppable, but of course now we know that road has thrived for the last 10 years and become a major professional sport on par with hockey or tennis, while short-course XC mountain biking contracted at least here in the States. The World Cup is back in full force and now has amazing live coverage but seems to capture primarily the attention of the Euro fan base.

If you look around, off-road racing is alive — and in fact growing fast.

The rapid evolution of formats and distance is fascinating. There seem to be fits and starts of vogue: XC racing is steady. Cyclocross is going strong. Dual eliminator has displaced short track for now. Enduro is firing up and I even enjoyed racing one in Chile last fall!

If the long history of bicycle racing is any indication, 24-hour racing, shorter lap cross-country and perhaps some of the other less popular formats may come back, but it sure seems like the hot time for long-format mountain bike races and stage racing is now.

How big will big go? Hard to say. We could see events like the Birkebeinerrittet in Norway that attracts 15,000 riders!

For sure the Birke has lore and legend behind it. The ride and ski race are in honor of the rescue of the infant heir to the thrown of Norway, Haakon Haakonsson, who was being hunted by the opposing party, makes this more than any mountain bike race I guess.

But we do have Iceman Cometh, with 5000 plus racers and growing. Held the first Saturday in November in Michigan, it’s an annual race with nature (the North Wind has no opponent — who can beat it) so you may as well get your ass out one more time for the challenge.

But what format will take hold next?

 

Stage races like next week’s Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage race offer less insane suffering each day and a chance to take in a different challenge each day but sometimes getting off work all week can be tough for the masses so they seem to have some ceiling to the participant base.

Perhaps they’ll become more like professional events on the road. The 100 milers are ridiculously hard, but they are so fun and only take a long day to do. I have gotten accustomed to the length after doing six in the last three months. Perhaps the sweet spot is around 100k + (60-80 miles in ‘Merican.).

They allow for some explosive racing with less filler (aka flat roads) and they don’t beat the daylights out of the weekend warrior. It’s often painful to watch riders arrive at 10 pm by headlight at the Shenandoah 100. Props, no doubt, but how often do you want to do that? Couple times a year for me.

Ultracross is a cool idea but just seems fringe at the moment, with most money press and pomp at the UCI contests. However this could blow up like Leadville has if it were presented correctly. And as my buddy Ryan Trebon would say, “never mind.” He would also just say “that’s stupid” — probably because he cracks like an egg at the 4 hr mark.

Whereas Tim Johnson thinks they are pretty cool. I guess I’ll just have to go check out the queen of ultracross, the 3 Peaks in Great Britain and decide. If you want to check out the best ultracross race in the U.S. go to Iron Cross. It’s pretty rad, besides if you like a 20-second run-up, you’ll love running up a 35% mountain slope!

Personally my favorite has to be stage racing. Why? Well, you just can’t beat the excitement. Each day you’re holding on to every second and you don’t know how important they will each be in the end. Its nervous suspense. With different styles and lengths of stages the short track guy can win the prologue, the 100-miler dude can thrive on the queen stage and the technical rider can crush it on the rocky singletrack 2-hour stage.

And you get to change bikes for every stage if you want. Just ask Adam Craig! He and my gravity teammate Jerome Clemetz are prepping now for a Downhill/Enduro stage race called the Mavic Trans Provence

Anyway you cut it, the evolution is happening fast. More races are getting more people out there on bikes, pushing innovation in the industry and even converting some jaded road racer friends of mine who are tired of the same old same old who are now taking a liking to going big (or skinny on a ‘cross bike).

For me, now it’s time to get back to prep work, choosing how much New Belgium Beer and waffles it will take to revive everyone after an epic day on the dirt. I’m stoked to mix it up again with our charity dirt/pavement/road adventure challenge race/ride party!

For sure fall is upon us here in Virginia and change is in the air, and so is the cool crisp riding weather.

Enjoy the ride!

— JB
Cannondale Factory Racing

Read also:

JB’s Go Big or Go Bigger: How does an XC racer get ready to go 100 miles, big? >>

 

JB’s Go Big or Go Bigger: The mountain biker teaching Joe Dombrowski all he knows >>


Jeremiah Bishop’s occupation has always been Adventurer/Explorer, which led him to his career as a pro mountain biker. He races full-time for Cannondale Factory Racing, has over 100 race wins, including eighth place at worlds, and is a two-time U.S. national champion in short track and marathon. Jeremiah is an ace stage racer and a star of the ultra endurance race scene. He is also a cycling coach (on pavement as well as dirt) and stays true to his adventurer roots by fishing, hosting the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo charity event and getting in extra time outdoors with his family. Check out Jeremiah’s regular Singletrack.com column with pro tips about racing, training and life, Go Big or Go Bigger