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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
Following the World Cup at Mont-Ste-Anne, VeloNews decided to take a look at the current trend in downhill-course design. The track in Québec was far shorter than in years past and had a massive jump near the finish line, which is where John Waddell and Fabien Barel, among others, suffered grisly crashes (Waddell is still in the hospital).
After conducting an informal survey of past and present riders, and some team representatives, it seems that the general consensus is that shorter courses are okay, but only in small doses. As for big jumps, they’re part of the game – just make sure they’re built right.
Look for a detailed analysis on the trend towards shorter courses in the next issue of VeloNews. Meanwhile, here are some of the best excerpts from the survey.
Steve Peat, 2002 World Cup champion
“If we had jumps like [the Mont-Ste-Anne jump] every week, then it would be normal and people wouldn’t get hurt because they would know how to jump them. It’s a shame Johnny, Fabien and the others crashed, but at the same time we are progressing every week we ride, and I think jumps like that need to be added. “As for the shorter course, Mont-Ste-Anne has a wicked long course, so why not use it? Grouse Mountain has a short course, so we have to use a short one there. It is the World Cup series, so we should mix it up more and have a different style each week. [Short courses do] make it easier for the not-so-fit guys and the guys that just pin it, but at the same time us guys that do the winning will still be up there.”
John Tomac, mountain-bike-racing legend
“Not being at Mont-Ste-Anne, I will speak only in more general terms. I believe that mountain cross has big air and the sub-2-minute runs covered quite well. Going to this format in downhill would be redundant. Downhill should stay true to its roots (literally and figuratively) or it will lose more competitors than it will gain. Not everyone can jump 40-foot gaps, nor do they want to.
“Most riders, however, including veterans and beginners, can ride down fairly technical downhill trails at their own pace. The Big Bear downhill was a classic example of too many man-made jumps that did nothing for the race except put riders in the ambulance. The jumps were small, but built incorrectly and so we had an endo convention at Snow Summit. Keep the downhill racing in the turns, the rock gardens and the roots where it belongs. Save the man-made obstacles for mountain cross.”
Mick Hannah, Haro-Lee Dungarees pro
“I think it’s good to have [big jumps] in the [downhill] courses. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a jump built that suits the speed we’re hitting them at. I think there just needs to be a bit more research and care put into the design and building of the jumps. In Mont-Ste-Anne the jump was big, but with the speed you could get coming off a relatively straight run up it was too small. I chickened out and hit the brakes in my final run.
“In regard to the short courses, I think it’s good to have them shorter. It definitely makes for a more exciting, TV-friendly race. I think fitness is just as important whatever the length. If it’s anywhere around two minutes it’s an all-out sprint from start to finish. It just comes down to raw speed, I think, in a shorter course, and if you make a mistake, you lose. I like it like that.”
Martin Whiteley, Global Racing team director
“I believe the jump at Mont-Ste-Anne was not the best for the speed and position on the course. Riders were arriving with too much speed, and instead of pedaling up to it (where they have a much better chance of judging their speed), they were brake-checking on approach and not always judging their speed accurately.
“Most top 20 riders race hard in the qualifying race in order to get valuable points, yet in that event, there was only one or two crashes, so why so many in the final? Lack of judgment in a final desperate dash to the line? Hard to say without interviewing all the riders that came undone. All but two walked away or eventually crossed the line, and I know of only one broken collarbone, but of course John Waddell’s crash and resulting injury is very disturbing. But I have seen these jumps before in Vail 1999, Maribor 2001, Arai 2001, and even Mont-Ste-Anne, I think, in 1999 or 2000.
“In the case of the latter, at the time I was the responsible [UCI] technical delegate, and I placed a chicane on the approach, and this slowed the run in. But more importantly, it meant riders had to pedal up to the jump on approach. The crashes we saw on this jump in training disappeared on race day.
“I have personally been against big jumps, even well-built ones, on the finish-line approach. The mental state a rider is in when approaching the line, often fatigued, hearing the crowd, perhaps even seeing the clock, makes it hard for reason to override blind determination.
“Those large jumps and obstacles are cool for the hardcore fan, but both the hardcore fan and the TV camera can view these further up the course, away from the family groups, influential sponsors and the other less-initiated fans who tend to stick near the finish bowl in the stands and VIP tents, watching the scoreboard clock and hot seat.
“The screams heard last week from the bleachers made me think I was at a horror film, and I hate to think what memories the kids with families were taking home with them. I’m not saying that we need to bland-out the final 300 meters of courses, but as this is a time-trial event pushing riders to high speed, perhaps greater focus on narrow margins and some lesser jumps, berms, etc., in the final 300 meters is better than using four-cross jumps built for different speeds and bike types.”
Mike King, Haro-Lee Dungarees team manager
“I think big jumps, either man made or natural, need to be in the sport for the enjoyment of the fans, event sponsors and more importantly, Madison Avenue. Let’s face it, the sport of downhilling can be just as boring as cross country when it comes to television. When riders have the bike-handling ability to make an event more exciting for people outside the industry, then this will eventually make the whole sport of mountain biking grow.
“I hate to see injuries caused by big jumps, but unfortunately crashes and injuries are part of our sport, just like any other “extreme” discipline. I’d like to see a variety of downhill courses that are long, short and technical to reveal an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Each event should be unique in this way. But to appeal to a mainstream audience, there needs to be hair-raising jumps that catch the viewer’s attention.”