The misconception was fair enough: with the 200-mile Unbound Gravel stealing the spotlight and the naysayers scoffing at the non-technical nature of the mountain bike races, it was easy to assume that the gravelistas would have their day and dominate the series.
But guess what? The mountain bikers are winning.
With ‘don’t call them a power couple’ power couple Keegan Swenson and Sofia Gomez Villafañe at the top of the standings and two mountain bike races on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t have a background racing on singletrack winning the overall title.
Three races into the series, mountain bikers have been on the podium at every race.
At Sea Otter, the late Moriah Wilson won ahead of Gomez Villafañe and US marathon champ Alexis Skarda. Swenson, Russell Finsterwald, and Alex Wild made up the men’s top three.
Then, Gomez Villafañe went on to win Unbound Gravel, and Canadian XC pro Haley Smith crushed the Crusher in the Tushar.
Swenson, despite a brief hiccup in which he finished Unbound second, has nearly swept the men’s races. Finsterwald is next in the series standings, and a handful of MTB’ers — and current and former pro roadies who seem to be trending toward the off-road — aren’t trailing far behind.
So why are mountain bikers doing so well in the series, including on the gravel?
They’re well-rounded riders
“I think mountain bikers seem to be excelling in the Grand Prix so far because the diverse courses and varied style of events require well-rounded riders,” Payson McElveen told VeloNews. “To me, being a successful mountain biker necessitates learning how to do well on all kinds of courses, while on the road side the tradition is kind of that you specialize in a certain style of course. You have your climbers, your rouleurs, your TT specialists, sprinters, etc.
“In mountain biking, no one really cares if you’re more suited to one style or another … you just need to get good at everything.”
McElveen’s Durango neighbor and recent XCO to endurance refugee Cole Paton agrees.
“There’s no hiding in a mountain bike race, you have to be able to handle your bike, read the race, and have an incredible level of fitness, and I think that’s showing as the Grand Prix unfolds,” he said.
Paton is one of a handful of former and current World Cup XCO racers in the series, and none of them are surprised at how well they’ve taken to gravel and the longer distances.
While the training and race efforts are much longer — “at times the training can feel like a chore,” Paton said — mountain bikers are accustomed to a variety of efforts on a variety of surfaces.
And that comfort level on the dirt has far-reaching implications.
“I think we are all just as strong as the gravel and/or road racers but we are more comfortable off-road, even if it’s on drop bars,” Swenson said. “The skills from mountain bike racing translate pretty well to gravel. It’s just a matter of learning some tactics.”
They’ve already been racing at an elite level
Although the WorldTour-turned-gravel set may get more attention for their past bike racing discipline, riders who’ve come from the World Cup circuit are a similarly elite group.
It’s just that a lack of earth-shattering results hasn’t gotten them the same attention, says Russell Finsterwald. The talent is another thing.
“It just comes down to the fact that the level of talent in both the men and women’s MTB field is much higher than we get credit for,” he said.
“A top 30 or 40 in a European World Cup is much harder to achieve than most people realize. Look at Keegan, he is pretty much dominating the North American scene and his best World Cups are around 20th place. It doesn’t sound like much to write home about, but that is a pretty respectable result that isn’t going to draw any media attention.”
Hannah Otto, who is currently balancing a World Cup schedule in addition to the Grand Prix, also knows firsthand how deep the field of American mountain bikers is.
“I think that the USA has incredibly talented mountain bikers right now and no matter who we race against, in any dirt-oriented discipline, that strength will show in one way or another,” she said. “I also think that all off-road events have certain elements that can be tricky to pick up on if you are not accustomed to those types of tactics.”
Another helpful tool that Otto — and Gomez Villafañe, Swenson, Finsterwald, et al — has in her toolbox is the experience of stage racing. Mountain bike stage races are relentless affairs that place a heavy load on riders. They also require impeccable attention to equipment and recovery.
Perparing for a stage race, says Canadian mountain biker Andrew L’Esperance (fourth in the Grand Prix), isn’t that dissimilar to training for a long MTB or gravel race.
“We have the training capacity to handle the long events and those subtle skills honed on the MTB definitely come into play in the gravel races,” he said. “A lot of the MTBers in this series have experience in MTB stage races, and those are not too far off from gravel racing in terms of terrain and load.
“I think MTBers bring a level of understanding and care towards equipment that gives us an advantage; making equipment choices, riding smoothly to take care of it along the way and experience fixing issues that arise out on the race course.”
With the Leadville 100 up next in the series, followed by Chequamegon in September, the mountain bikers of the Grand Prix are poised to creep further ahead in the standings. Nevertheless, they have steep competition in their road and gravel compatriots, and no race has a guaranteed victor.
“I feel like the series is just getting started,” Otto said. “I think that the close points system makes the series very exciting to follow and very motivating as well. Anything can change at the drop of a hat.”