Brian Lopes is all smiles about XCE, but he's winning its races.
Turn out for a cross-country mountain bike race these days and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll get depressed. Compared to its glory days, XC is about as tired as an old nag. Junior fields might have a few kids in them, but they’ll tell you they’re just keeping their legs fresh for cyclocross season. It’s nothing like it was.
Cyclocross, on the other hand, continues to grow because manufacturers see their sponsorship dollars go further there. Groms and their parents can race on the same day, stand around and cheer each other on on the same race course, and then stay and watch the pros battle. Can you imagine getting to ski a world cup downhill slope the morning before the pros bomb it? Or have a softball game on Wrigley Field a few hours before a millionaire takes the mound? That’s just part of the unique attraction of cross.
Meanwhile XC keeps using the same basic model it has for decades, somehow expecting growth. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
It’s true that there’s nothing more pure than racing on singletrack in the woods, but in great contrast to cyclocross, XC courses are unfriendly to spectating, the learning curve is spectacularly hard, and the fun-to-pain factor is so heavily loaded to the latter that it’s no wonder that the world governing body of cycling, the UCI, finally launched a new racing format this year, the Cross Country Eliminator, or XCE, to try to push cross-country, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
So far, the best thing that can be said is…yawn.
XCE has a gated start like four-cross or BMX, but otherwise is more about fast starts and sustainable power over the course of about four to five minutes of racing on a tiny, one-kilometer track. It resembles what you know as cross-country mountain biking in only the vaguest way.
Brian Lopes, at the ripe old age of 40, won the opening round last month in Houffalize, Belgium, but he also told Bike Magazine recently that the courses aren’t nearly technical enough. XCE resembles nothing like what you might face as a typical mountain biker in any genre, from freeride to cross-country. Weak sauce.
And while Lopes says four cross died for legitimate reasons — courses were incredibly expensive to build and their huge berms, jumps, and walled sections could be rough on the ski-slope environment — XCE isn’t nearly as interesting to watch. Does a racing format matter if nobody wants to watch it?
Meanwhile, all of this is happening in the context of ever-more-popular DH, which is growing globally as terrain parks proliferate (especially in Europe, but also in Colorado and on other ski hills in North America).
So why isn’t more energy being poured into DH? Answer: The Olympics. USA Cycling is funded to get Americans onto Olympic podiums, period. And there’s no DH in the Olympics.
The UCI isn’t as singularly focused, but it walks in close step with the same national governing bodies that are hot for nothing but Olympic glory. So the UCI largely ignores the growth of DH and other gravity events even as the next generation of racers finds them a welcome alternative to the Lycra worn by Mom and Dad.
But perhaps the stodgy old UCI is wising up ahead of USA Cycling, because there’s, yes, another format coming to racing. 2012 will see a non-points (i.e., test run) circuit of Gravity Endurance racing, which combines the ruggedness of downhill with the V02 max required of cross-country. GE may gain official World Cup status as early as next season. What is it? Bombing top-to-bottom on Whistler, but with flat sections that require lots of pedaling. Ditto, a 20- to 40-minute run down the Alps or the Dolomites. All of which bodes well, since these are events that dovetail perfectly with where the sport is going, so fans can readily identify. Rather than say, cross country, which is where it’s been.