Sunday, July 10, 2016

Riding Rings Around Us

In Wisconsin we still think of mountain bike racing almost exclusively as a meandering ride through deep woods on singletrack. As it is practiced internationally, mountain biking is quite different. Olympic and UCI World Cup races feature multiple laps on short courses that are fast and open. Most technical sections are man-made, the extra-wide trails allow for passing almost anywhere, and from almost any location a spectator can watch the entire race. As you should expect at that level, some of the technical sections are very technical indeed. But the races are more about fitness than finesse.

The “short track” event at the Midwest MTB Championships in Portage is the closest thing Wisconsin has to the racing style the UCI describes as “cross-country Olympic.” The other WORS and WEMS races are closer in spirit to what the UCI calls “cross-country marathon.” There’s also “point-to-point,” “cross-country eliminator” (short track racing in multiple heats, eventually producing a champion from a tournament bracket), “time trial,” “team relay” and “stage race,” but these UCI designations are unknown in Wisconsin and very rare in the rest of the United States. Each has its cool features, its star riders and its fans, but cross-country Olympic is the (pardon the pun) gold standard.

Mountain biking joined the schedule of summer events at the 1996 Olympics. Next month in Rio de Janeiro, the United States will be represented by Lea Davison, Chloe Woodruff and Howard Grotts. Why only 3 athletes from the heavily-populated country where mountain biking began? Frankly, we’re just not very good at it anymore.

Americans swept the first world championships. Ned Overend and Juli Furtado won in 1990, followed by John Tomac and Ruthie Matthes in 1991. Alison Dunlap gave the US its most recent world championship in 2001. The last American man to stand on the podium at the world championships was Tinker Juarez, who took 2nd place way back in 1994. Recent years have been dominated by the French and the Swiss on the men’s side and by the Canadians and a potpourri of Europeans on the women’s side. At the Olympics, American women have won 2 bronze medals: Susan DeMattei in 1996 and Georgia Gould in 2012. No American man has ever reached the Olympic podium.

Davison placed 2nd behind Denmark’s Annika Langvad at the 2016 UCI World Championships on July 2, but her silver medal was something of a fluke. Davison was running in 4th when both Sabine Spitz (Germany) and Maja Wloszczowska (Poland) suffered flat tires in the final lap. Woodruff took 14th place, more than 6 minutes behind the winner. Grotts placed 21st in the men’s race, 5:30 behind winner Nino Schurter of Switzerland. Davison was 7th, Woodruff 19th and Grotts 17th at a test event on the Rio course last October. Our chances for an Olympic medal in 2016 aren’t great.

And maybe you don’t care, but USA Cycling should. Preparing our best cyclists for international competition is its main reason for being. USA Cycling has been very quiet about mountain bike course design. All over America, mountain bikers are racing on trails that were meant for riding. Now, I understand that Olympic and World Cup courses are purpose-built, expensive facilities that few volunteer trail groups could hope to replicate, but we are going to continue to fail if we don’t start racing like the Europeans.

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