Seeking The Limelight

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Curtis Keene
Curtis Keene at EWS RD2 Barriloche, Argentina – Matt Wragg

With the big events behind us and the dust starting to settle on the 2016 season, cycling’s moments in the limelight have passed for another year. As it does every four years, it shone a little brighter in 2016 due to the Olympics, but mountain biking still resides firmly in the shadows, even at the Olympics the added attention was due to Peter Sagan!

The media and the general public flock towards the Lycra clad road warriors more than any other aspect the sport has to offer. The Tour de France, is arguably the biggest race in cycling, as an event it gets more bums on saddles than any other, integrates with the mainstream media and gets viewers from all walks of life, both with and without bikes, tuning in to watch the fight for yellow.

As mountain bikers we have flirted with mainstream attention back in the 90’s, but in general, those of us playing around in the dirt don’t attract the media and mass public following as our skinny wheeled compatriots. So how do we gain the attention and have our own equivalent to the Tour de France? A multi stage race with global mass appeal is the answer for road cycling, what is the answer for us, and will it allow us to stay true to our roots?

The beauty of road racing is that anybody with two wheels can emulate what the professionals are doing, all be it a little slower and flatter. That is something lacking from our big spectacles from Red Bull such as Rampage and Hardline. Sure it reaches a wider audience, but the majority of that is for the sheer shock and awe factor, it may grow awareness, but as far as producing new mountain bikers, its impact is limiting.

Rebecca Rusch - Action
Rebecca Rusch rides the trails in Sun Valley – Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool

The closest thing we have to the Tour in terms of putting the mind and body to the test over prolonged periods of times within a multi stage format, is perhaps the Cape Epic and with its recent acquisition by Ironman and the talk of an international series, it will be interesting to see how much it grows. Are epic adventure races our answer, combining scenery, immense physical exertion and changing conditions and for the public interpretation, nostalgic hints towards bike packing adventures, I’m not so sure, for me, there’s one answer…

Enduro, the least televised aspect of our discipline, while still in its relative infancy, it has the potential to be our grand tour. Multiple stages, varying and stunning scenery, the potential for upsets and different stage winners, all culminating in an overall winner. It’s also possible to emulate, granted a new rider will not hit the speeds and be as graceful through the trees as Richie Rude, or Jared Graves, but they aren’t exactly traversing a climb like Chris Froome either.

Mick Hannah
Mick Hannah Red Bull; Hardline 2016 – Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool

TV and the ability to capture striking footage from between the trees used to be our achilles hill, and has often led to sanitized open courses with easier camera access, but with drones, zip lines and onboard cameras, we have the capabilities to compete, without the worry of being taken down by an over enthusiastic motorbike cameraman!

I had high hopes for the 2016 Olympic mountain bike race, with all of the advancements in camera technology and the growing talent pool of videographers, would we get to show our sport off on the big stage … no! The course, although challenging (mainly due to the damp conditions), was not in my opinion a showcase of what the very best in the world could achieve on dirt. If we are to succeed, these sanitized made for TV tracks need to stop.

The public need to feel like they are threading the eye of the needle as a rider negotiates tight singletrack and they need to have a reference for speed. Yes they need to be able to emulate what they see, but they also need to be inspired to do so.

Rachel Atherton, Fort William 2016 – Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

I really feel that enduro has the potential to create a mainstream movement if we are given access to the camera gear, but unless there are riders both sides of the camera, we won’t have our own movement akin to road cycling’s MAMIL’s.

What isn’t the route to mainstream success however is the raft of short sighted and down right elitist rules being introduced for the 2017 Downhill World Cup series. I get that a World Cup should be the best of the best, but this shouldn’t be at the detriment to emerging riders and those without a penis.

To improve track conditions and increase the spectacle, which from the UCI’s perspective only appears when the top tier elite men take to the course, rider numbers will be decreased. This will be through an increase in points needed to race, reducing the number of juniors and women being allowed to compete and pushing the junior women out and forcing them to have their own event.

This is an extremely short sighted attempt to improve the sport, it will stunt the growth of emerging talent and do very little to the already under represented and disparaged female rider base.

Where will young emerging riders with international ambitions go now and could this be the beginning of the end of female downhill on the big stage?

So there’s the potential (although maybe not if you are a female downhiller), but perhaps the bigger question is, do we really want it? Yes we all want more people riding mountain bikes, but does mainstream attention live up to hype and what about the side effects?

With exposure, bigger sponsors and more money, comes more temptations, more risks and more bending of the rules. I’m by no way claiming that the moment tyres hit dirt, that everyone is clean (yes I see the irony in that phrase), but the extent of corruption, financially, institutionally and biologically, appears a lot less than it is for our tarmac obsessed brethren.

Take the recent TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) incident, it has been covered in quite some depth, so I won’t delve too deeply into it, but whether manipulated or not, it has cast bad light onto the sport of road cycling. For cycling it is very much a case of guilty until proven innocent, where as for other sports, maybe the TUE scandal would have been more accepted. Look at Formula 1 for example, it may be aerodynamics rather than drugs, but almost every year someone finds a gray area, or a loophole to manipulate and they gain a performance advantage. That advantage soon gets copied by the other teams, or the loophole gets closed. I’m in no way saying that a loophole has been taken advantage of in road cycling, but if it has, shouldn’t it be viewed as such, frowned upon but legal and in need of addressing or open acceptance?

Perhaps we already have the answer, and are just ahead of the curve. As the viewing habits of the public evolve, could mountain biking be ready and waiting for them? Traditional TV viewing figures are declining, as are licenses and cable subscriptions, with the growing trend of cable cutting and the growth of social and digital content, perhaps a heavy push and investment in the mainstream media as risky as putting all of your money in 26in wheels?

What are your thoughts? Should we push for the mainstream, or are we ahead of the curve as viewers push away from traditional media? Which discipline could achieve our mass appeal, or are we better off living at the edge of the shadows, getting momentary glimpses of the light, but staying pure to who we are?

Comments (3)

    “The Tour de France, is arguably the biggest race in cycling,”

    Not sure there’s much of an argument, its the largest annual sporting event in the world.
    I think one of the issues is the govenring body really has no clue about mountain biking
    4X worked really well as spectator sport – the format was really simple and the racing was tight and spectacular. So guess what the UCI killed it!

    I don’t think MTBing in general would benefit from a sudden injection of “mainstream media” attention, or the money that comes with it.

    Over the years various niches and versions of MTBing have come and gone and the “fads” that appealed to some don’t work for others, it’s too broad a church for the masses to quite get their heads around all of it…

    Of course a big part of any sports appeal is accessibility, football only really needs a ball, some open space and a few jumpers, the basic skills (running and kicking a ball) are simple enough to pick up hence most of us played it as kids…
    Many other popular sports have a similarly low price tag to just try them out… Road cycling manages to catch some popular interest now because with a £300 bike, a helmet and you’re set to try it out, that’s about the upper limit for many looking to sample a sporting activity…

    Where widely televised Enduro would probably fall down is that I doubt it would make offroad cycling seem particularly accessible, riders clad in several hundred quids worth of branded clothing and accessories, clattering £3k+ boutique carbon bikes over different stages (and probably incurring a few hundred quid worth of damage now and then) isn’t going to appeal to austerity struck viewers, even if they are able to follow the format, it looks expensive… Because it basically is.

    XC sort of works because it is understandable for the uninitiated, everyone rides round a looped course for a few laps, first over the line wins, 4x had similar appeal, the racing format is simple, perfect for telly and importantly both disciplines can be done on a normal looking HT like the average person ends up buying from Halfords…

    But overall I don’t think mainstream acceptance would be that good for MTBing, it’s an odd little corner of cycling, people come to mountain bikes because they want to do something a little outside the ordinary, part of it’s appeal is actually it’s lack of appeal to ‘normal’ people…

    What do we want to do, raise the profile of mountain biking or increase participation? There’s very little evidence that having high profile sporting events makes people actually want to do sport. There’s no “Olympic effect” on physical activity. France might have Le Tour, but their overall levels of cycling are pitiful compared to Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands. It’s something to think about.

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