August's rainbow festival of racing in Scotland brought more cycling fans under one flag than ever before. But what worked and what didn't. Guy Kesteven opines from the comfort of his armchair.
UK riders put in fantastic performance to come away with Gold and Bronze medals in the DH and XC events at the MTB World Championships in Scotland this summer. Guy Kesteven has been thinking about which discipline ‘won’ in terms of how they looked on the day and what are the potential impacts of that going forward?
With Charlie Hatton taking gold, Laurie Greenland taking bronze, and Louise Ferguson and Phoebe Gale in 4th and 5th, UK riders had a storming set of results in the Elite DH in Fort William. Aimi Kenyon bagged a 4th in the Junior women’s event too. A few days later, Tom Pidcock and Evie Richards took bronze in the frantic XCC short track races in Glentress. Tom followed up with a dominant win in the full XCO race which mirrored the field-crushing charge of Charlie Aldridge in the U23 XCO race. So, in terms of finishing positions, the DH crew definitely had the best result in Scotland.
You’d think it would be a foregone conclusion that the legendary Fort Bill DH course would run away with the ‘win’ in terms of spectacle too. Heading down from the brutal rocks and boardwalk of Aonach Mor, into the steep and technical wood section – made even more treacherous with increasingly wet conditions – and finishing with the send-fest of ‘The Motorway’, it’s clearly a super challenging track, even if you’ve never watched mountain biking before.
However, I’ve never seen an XC track look gnarlier than Glentress did for the World Champs. Understandably the camera coverage honed in on the near vertical boulders of the ‘Salmon Ladder’ and the intimidating block-rock-built gap jump. There were lots of log hops, bermed flow trails and taxing rooty sections to also create excitement, although ironically it was a flat gravel corner near the finish that was pivotal to both races. In the men’s Elite XCC when Pidcock carved Luca Schwarzbaeur’s front wheel out from under him in the last lap, and then in the Elite XCO when gold medal favourite Mathieu van der Poel washed out on the first lap.
When it comes to commentary I don’t really know what to say that hasn’t already been said online, apart from the fact that trying to appeal to both fanatical fans and first time watchers is a really hard gig to balance. The Eurosport/Discovery team definitely took the win in both DH and XC broadcasts compared to the BBC crew, so I guess it’s a score draw for the different disciplines there.
What I would say is that in terms of constant coverage, the UK XC riders definitely got way more consistent air time because they were in the mix throughout, not just sitting on the hot seat in the final stages. Patriotic viewers would no doubt have been frothing watching Charlie and Tom pull away to dominant wins with equally dominant coverage, and extra bonus comedy points when Pidcock accidentally wrapped a Yorkshire flag around his face just before the finish line.
When it came to the finish line celebrations though, Charlie definitely smashed it with his joy and disbelief believing being shared with Atherton team mate and silver medal winner Andreas Kolb. A big contrast to a visibly relieved Tom Pidcock bitching about loose gears haunting him through the last laps.
From a thrill seekers point of view, downhill looks a lot more fun too. You get a lift to the top of the hill and then mostly freewheel down to the finish doing skids and jumps like a kid. You get to wear a full-face helmet and cool MX style gear too. That’s a big contrast with the clearly type two fun of XC, where you’re predominantly watching people crawling, gurning and suffering slowly uphill wearing awkwardly tight Lycra and a roadie lids.
“The UK XC riders definitely got way more consistent air time because they were in the mix throughout”
Pull back to the bigger picture though, and DH looks like a totally different, alien and often terrifying world. People might watch it for the crashes, carnage and adrenaline overload, but they have no intention of having a go themselves, or taking their family for a try out. Even if they did, you need to have a full-face helmet to ride Fort Bill, and a DH bike is definitely a good idea too. Neither of which you can hire at Fort William like you can at some DH venues.
Compare that to XC where the kit they’re wearing and the bikes they’re riding look close enough to ‘normal cycling’ to not frighten novices. If you rock up at Glentress you can give the actual course a go without any minimum equipment requirements too.
While obvious effort might put some people off watching and participating, loads of people watch athletics or marathon running as a spectacle and end up downloading a ‘couch to 5k’ app and getting stuck in themselves. This broader appeal is backed up by the fact that far more people watch XC compared to DH globally too, and it’s the same with bike sales.
The fact XC is looking more and more fun with each event, while DH looks increasingly intimidating, is surely a big factor going forward too. I think that takes the score so far to two all plus a score draw, but at the risk of being as cheesy, one thing is definitely clear: more mountain biking coverage of any sort, with UK riders collecting a bunch of medals in the process, is definitely a win for our sport overall.