As Red Bull Hardline adds a second race in Tasmania, we ponder if we could be on track for a full blown Super League-style race series
First we lamented Red Bull’s loss of the rights to broadcast the UCI World Cup Mountain Bike Series to the might of Discovery/Eurosport/GCN. Then we cried ‘what, no more Rob Warner?’
As the new season started, so the complaints started coming in about the new broadcaster’s choice of commentators, camera angles, and subscription business model. But, as the season progressed, and Discovery Sports evolved the product and took on new pundits, we, started to come around to the new way of watching racing. It’s our view that the final races were slick productions, with insightful commentary, excellent camera angles and extensive coverage of the top riders. But that doesn’t mean racing, and specifically downhill racing, can’t be improved. At the start of the year we wondered whether Red Bull would look to expand its Hardline race into a rival series. Well, guess what… Yep, there will be double the Hardline races next year, with one in Wales and one in Tasmania. So, what if Red Bull expanded this out into a series of three, four, or even five races? We reckon it could be brilliant for us as spectators, and the sport as a whole, for these reasons:
1. The tracks would be gnarlier
World Cup tracks have taken a whole load of criticism over the past five years for becoming faster and less technical. And while that’s hard to judge objectively, subjectively it feels like the tracks are more about outright speed than a mix of terrain and features.
We’re not alone, plenty of racers say it too. Phil Atwill famously complained he could ride a hardtail down the Leogang course back in 2017, while Steve Peat told GMBN in 2018 that the tracks are easier to ride, which makes the races faster and tighter. And Tahnee Seagrave pointed out that the tracks are more bike park orientated than ever, with less of a natural feel.
Meanwhile Red Bull Hardline is moving in the other direction, with bigger and more impressive features year on year. For 2022 we saw a massive on-off that required the perfect judgement of speed, and a monster 91ft gap followed it (later reduced to 85ft) to really test the skill and sheer nerve of riders. Add that to the litany of super-technical and steep sections and the spectacle is amazing. Hardline is easily harder than the hardest World Cup track – Mont Sainte Anne notwithstanding – even though we’d never dare ride either of them!
There’s nothing wrong with speed from a spectator’s perspective of course, it’s really exciting, especially if you’re watching as a non-mountain biker and can’t appreciate the difficulty of a truly janky track like Val di Sole. It also leads to some very tight races, where a single second can be the difference between first and tenth place, as it was at Leogang this year. But as diehard mountain bike aficionados we’d probably all agree it’s the best riders in the world tackling near-impossible terrain that we want to see. If we’re all looking at an elite level downhill track thinking it looks doable, it’s too easy.
2. We’d get Rob Warner back
Ric McLaughlin and Cedric Gracia led out the World Cup commentary last season, and they were doing a pretty good job by the end providing some entertaining commentary. Adding Aaron Gwin to the mix for two rounds was a great success too, his knowledge was expansive and he offered some real insight to the racing.
None of them are Rob Warner though. His excitement is just so infectious and his one liners are the best. He’s a smart guy too, there was insight and intelligence there too, and Rob’s commentary from Crankworx Whistler and Hardline at Dyfi prove he’s still got it.
3. The racing itself would be fantastic (probably)
Red Bull knows how to put on a race. It has a decade of experience at the World Cups, and the energy drink company already runs an event series in the shape of Crankworx, with rounds in 2023 in Rotorua, Innsbruck, Cairns and Whistler. There’s also the bonkers Red Bull Valparaíso Cerro Abajo urban downhill race, not to mention the most famous event of all, Rampage. Besides, Red Bull already organises two Hardline races… why not a couple more?
Red Bull has more money than the UCI too. A lot more. It seems to like spending it on extreme events too, and while money in sport isn’t always a good thing it would probably lead to: Better coverage, more cameras, increase teams’ funding, feed more money to riders, help mountain bike development, and give a boost to the race venues which themselves might be different to the usual World Cup tour destinations.
Bernard Kerr: “I’m honestly so stoked, it’s probably my favourite race of the year so having two of them is rad!”
4. The riders want it
OK we can’t claim to have spoken to all of them, but those we did seemed pretty hot on the idea. “I’m honestly so stoked, it’s probably my favourite race of the year so having two of them is rad,” Bernard Kerr told us.
He’s already signed up to guinea pig the new track for Hardline Tasmania, and as an outspoken critic of the current World Cup series you’d expect him to be onboard.
“Hardline has the potential to bring downhill to the masses,” Adam Brayton said, adding that he reckons the race series is the “future of downhill”. It’s certainly his kind of riding, downhill speed, tech, and bigger jumps than you’d ever see at a conventional downhill race.
Josh Lowe: “I’m a massive fan of Hardline, it’s a new genre of event that combines big features from freeride with racing. It’s what I love to do and the fact that there is a series is super exciting.”
There’s no reason both can’t exist simultaneously though, according to both Adam Brayton and YT rider Josh Lowe.
“I don’t think it necessarily has to be a competitor to World Cup racing,” Josh told mbr. “To me it’s different and it’s own type of discipline that bridges the gap between freeride and racing. I think we should celebrate that the sport has more to offer.”
They could well have a point, which is…
5. Competition is a good thing
Not just between athletes, that’s a given. We’re talking about competition on a much broader level, it would force race organisers and venues to become better in order to attract the audience. If motocross can squeeze in five different race series, there’s definitely space in downhill mountain biking.
In fact, mountain biking is ideally set up for another race series, because Hardline by its very nature is different to the World Cups. While there’s cross-over, they could each attract a slightly different rider and fan, especially with the growing popularity of freeride. Look at riders like Kaos Seagrave and Kade Edwards; who wouldn’t tune in to watch them race on a course bristling with big booters?
“World Cup tracks are still gnarly, technical and fast but they are never going to be able to include the jumps that you see in something like Hardline,” Josh said. “For that, you will potentially have different types of riders who want to compete.”
6. The fans want it too
Who doesn’t want more racing to watch? If you’re already a fan then the lure of more of it all must surely be there, especially when we’re actually getting less downhill racing in 2024 – the World Cup takes place over six weekends and venues, one less than in 2023. New fans are more likely to stumble across the sport too if there’s an uptick in racing too, potentially leading to more people on bikes.
Bernard Kerr told us the appetite from fans is there for a full on Hardline race season. Which leaves logistics as the main stumbling block. “Our main thing would be needing enough great venues to get a full eight rounds or so,” he said. “But if it can happen I will be there.”
And the one reason why we think it won’t be a good thing?
Too much risk for organisers
One of the main stumbling blocks we can see is that, as the jumps get bigger, so the need for perfect conditions gets more important. Something that can never be guaranteed when you’re in hills and mountains. This year the Hardline was cancelled due to wind. Even the World Cup DH was hit by extreme weather this year in Andorra and Loudenvielle that caused parts of the course to be changed and some racing cancelled. Scale up those jumps and conditions need to be perfect – well, calm at least – to run an event, and considering how expensive these events are to put on, will Red Bull be willing to take the risk of cancellation at short notice? Will there be a pressure on riders (even if not overt) to race when the danger of crashing due to unpredictable weather is too high? It’s certainly a concern.