With the Giro d’Italia finished for another year and another hugely anticipated Tour de France on the horizon it can sometimes feel as though there’s nothing else going on in the bike world other than road racing. But there’s plenty of off-road action taking place too with the MTB World Cup.
The nattily titled Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is the series for you if you enjoy your racing nobbly-tyred. Comprising of 10 rounds and attracting the world’s best in both downhill and cross-country racing, the MTB World Cup puts on some seriously exciting racing. Races take place across Europe and North America from late April until September.
But what’s the drill? It can be a little confusing separating your XCO from your XCC races and your full-suss rigs from your hardtail whips. So grab a coffee, put your feet up and we’ll take a look at this exciting series. If you like your racing gnarly and sprinkled with mud, sweat and gears this could be the race series for you.
What is the MTB World Cup then?
Folks have been getting together to race mountain bikes since way back in the late 80s and the UCI World Cup has been around since 1991. The current series focuses on downhill (also referred to as DHI) and cross-country (XC). Riders are awarded points at every round of the World Cup depending on their finishing position. The rider with the most points at the end of the series is the overall winner. For 2019 there are eight DHI events and seven XC events in elite and under-23 categories for the best guys and girls in the business.
DHI is a race against the clock and a test of a rider’s cojones as much as their speed and bike handling skills. Imagine downhill skiing but with all that nice soft, fluffy snow removed from the mountain and you get the picture. Downhill riders regularly hit speeds in excess of 80km/h, flying through rock gardens, slaying rooty singletrack and launching off huge jumps. Spectacular doesn’t even come close – DHI is one huge adrenaline rush for riders and spectators alike.
Riders are allowed a track walk and practice day during the week, with qualifying taking place on Saturday and the main event on Sunday. The race order is decided by the qualifying times. Slowest rider goes first, the fastest rider goes last. This makes for exciting viewing as riders edge ahead of their rivals, often by hundredths of a second. The current top three riders sit in the hot seat at the finish line hoping the faster riders don’t beat their time.
Bernard Kerr is one of the UK’s fastest downhill racers and has seen a big change in racing in the past few years. “Downhill racing has changed so much since I started, mainly because bikes have come so far with technology and the geometry. Along with bikes being so much better the tracks have also got so much faster with way bigger jumps!”
Race runs only take a handful of minutes to complete, but they’re flat-out, full gas for their entirety. Courses can have flat sections where riders have to pedal, pump and scrub jumps for speed, insanely technical and steep rock gardens that lose all traction in the wet and rooty forests with lines so tight it’s near-impossible to hold on. Expect the unexpected.
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Cross-country races are quite different and attract a more lycra-clad field. An XCO race, which means ‘Cross Country Olympic’, is held over an undulating course with challenging climbs, technical descents, rocky paths and obstacles, usually lasting around 60-90 minutes. They’re mass start events, and on narrow forest trails and tricky climbs – it goes without saying that positioning is one of the key aspects of the race. You might be the fastest rider out there, but if you’re stuck behind 100 others on a track barely a few metres wide you’re going to struggle.
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The start line for an XCO race is eight metres wide, which means eight riders per row. Your starting position can have a big impact on your chances in the race. Since 2018, at all UCI XCO events a short-track cross country race, or XCC, has been held alongside. An XCC race is a short 20-60 minute blast around a 2km-long course. It acts as a separate race contributing to overall points but also determines who occupies the front two rows of that weekend’s XCO race, a little like qualifying in Formula 1.
Put simply, XCO riders have to race XCC to have a chance at a good start spot in XCO. Positions after the top 16, the front two rows, are determined by XCO individual rankings and for the unclassified riders by drawing lots.
Clear? Well, don’t worry too much. All you really need to know is that cross-country is a smash-fest from the gun. Unlike longer road races, tactics are less important than pure power, especially in the first part of the race. The first five minutes of an XC race sees some frighteningly powerful efforts, all riders jostling to be at the front of the field.
Towards the latter stages of an XCO you’re often left with the strongest riders and that’s where you’ll see mind games and attacks happening. All condensed into an hour or so of furious racing, XC is an exciting and hugely spectator-friendly event. If you can get to a race you’ll be as up close and personal with some of the world’s finest riders as you could possibly wish to be.
OK, let’s go racing!
As we said earlier, the MTB World Cup starts in spring and lasts well into late summer and we’re exactly halfway through the 2019 series already. Beginning in Maribor in Slovenia, it has so far visited Germany, the Czech Republic, Scotland and most recently Austria with its mix of DHI and XC racing, partying and general MTB goodness. Not every venue offers both disciplines and as things stand we’re up to three rounds completed of the DHI series and two of XC racing. From now on though, through events in Andorra, France, Italy, Switzerland and until the season-ending bash in Snowshoe, USA, you’ll find both DHI and XC races. Now is a great time to get involved as the rivalries really begin to heat up.
Bernard shares his thoughts on racing for the next generation of World Cup stars: “I think you really just need to have fun, kids and all riders sometimes worry about either trying to get sponsored or certain goals. I think if you set things like that too early and you don’t achieve them it can weigh on you or even put you off.”
In DHI, experience, strength and race craft are just as important as downhill speed, and in the women’s category, we don’t have to look too far for our own favourite. The phenomenon that is Rachel Atherton of the legendary Atherton family. The British winner of the overall in every season bar one since 2012 currently sits in 2nd position behind Australian Tracey Hannah. Hannah capitalised on a crash from Atherton this weekend in Leogang and extended her lead in the overall rankings to a massive 150 points.
Do you have any advice for riders who are thinking about competing in their first race Bernard? “Get a good riding crew and just get out there and have fun!”
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French riders have dominated the men’s DHI series so far with Loic Bruni (current world champion) claiming his second win of 2019 in Austria. However, he’s currently 2nd in the overall standings behind Australia’s Mr Consistent, Troy Brosnan. Yorkshire boy Danny Hart is the best of the British, currently sitting 4th overall. Danny loves steep, wet, technical trails, so if the conditions are right, don’t be surprised to see him take a win.
Our very own sponsored rider, Bernard Kerr, is currently in 28th in the World Cup standings after dropping a few spots with a 57th place in Leogang last time out.
The men’s cross country series has been dominated by the rivalry between current World Cup golden boy, Nino Schurter, the Swiss overall winner for the past two years, and Dutch phenomenon Mathieu van der Poel. Van der Poel, recently crowned world cyclocross champion and something of an all-around cycling superhero to his fans currently sits in top spot with Schurter in 3rd place. However, the Dutchman has expressed his wish to ride the Tour of Britain in September, and if he does he’ll miss the last round in Snowshoe. Could Nino pip him at the post?
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The women’s XC series is likely to be a similarly two-way tussle between current world champion Kate Courtney of the USA and Switzerland’s Jolanda Neff. Courtney has taken top spot in both rounds so far and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest she’ll keep doing the same all season.
The next round of this exciting series will be held in Vallnord in the high mountains of Andorra in July. With both downhill and cross country races scheduled there’ll be plenty going on. If you’ve ever been tempted by a weekend away to watch world-class mountain biking this makes a great place to do it. With practice running from Wednesday 3rd and the main racing taking place over the weekend of the 6th/7th, there’s loads going on.
Once you see a World Cup downhiller fly down the mountain or and XC mass start in full flow, you’ll be hooked – there’s no better way to watch MTB.
Our Ultimate Bicycle Insurance will cover you, wherever you are in the world, for all of the above Mountain Biking disciplines.
We’ve also got a handy guide to MTB disciplines if you’re new to the sport and want to know more.