When did XC racing get so gnarly?
This year, a flood of new cross-country bikes have hit the market. As you’d expect, the marketing materials have been dripping with superlatives regarding weight, stiffness, and pedaling efficiency.
But there’s another trend. In between the glamorous photographs of Lycra clad warriors, manufacturers have also been hyping the trail capabilities of their new bikes. A trail capable XC race bike? That doesn’t seem to jive with the idea many of us have of XC, but it’s true. These short travel thoroughbreds are getting longer, slacker, and dare we say more fun.
So why the shift? To find out, Mtbr reached out to two of America’s fastest pros, Lea Davison and Howie Grotts. Davison has won multiple national championship titles and recently rode to an impressive 7th place finish in a stacked field at the Rio Olympics. Grotts is also an accomplished World Cup racer, who has won back-to-back U.S. national XC titles.
Mtbr: This year, XC race bikes have been given slacker headtube angles and more travel. Manufacturers claim that this new school geometry is the direct result of race tracks becoming more difficult. Is this just marketing or are the courses getting more technical?
Lea Davison: The World Cup cross-country courses are undoubtedly getting more technical. There’s often a jump or drop at least once or twice in every course. About four years ago is really when the evolution started, and I needed to learn how to jump my XC bike and learn how to maneuver off of drops. This was essential to successful racing on the World Cup circuit because, if I wanted to win, the B lines were not an option. They often added 5-10 seconds per lap which adds up over five to six laps and makes a big impact.
Howie Grotts: XC courses are definitely becoming more technical. I think the evolution of trails and bike technology goes hand in hand. It could be that more advanced bikes influence harder trails and vice versa.
Mtbr: Can you describe some of the ways World Cup tracks have evolved since you started racing?
LD: The World Cup races used to be two hours long on a bigger loop. Now, the loops are smaller and consistently 5-6 km. The tracks used to be more natural features. Now the builders truck in tons of rocks and boulders to make manmade rock gardens and build features. Jumps and drops are often built. This gives the courses a different flow and requires a different set of skills than was previously required. It really requires the riders to be comfortable in the air.
HG: I started racing World Cups in 2011, right around when they began to be shorter, punchier, and more technical. There are still a couple courses with a more “old-school” feel like Windham and La Bresse. But even those are dramatically different than say the 1990 World Championship course in Durango, which is a 30-minute loop with nothing very technical. But the bikes were quite a bit different back then.
Mtbr: Where do you think this change in track style originated from?
LD: I believe it started with the World Cup in South Africa. That was one of the first times these man made features were added to the courses. It created some excitement. Then other race organizers wanted to create difficult and exciting courses. Also, now that we don’t ride as big of laps, maybe the builders are afforded more real estate to include natural features. So, building features in the course and packing them into a 5km course was the solution to that.
HG: Shorter tracks, around 15 minutes in length, with technical features are a lot more spectator and TV friendly. Instead of doing 2 to 3 laps, we race 7 or 8 with plenty of places where the trail doubles back on itself for better viewing. Anything that encourages more spectators and TV viewing is good for the sport.
Mtbr: What are some of the more difficult features you’ve faced this season?
LD: Ironically, one of the most difficult features was an entirely natural course in La Bresse. The builders just ran us straight down this steep hillside, and it was very muddy and slippery. It seemed like this race and conditions caused the most crashes from our field this season. I walked away with six stitches in my elbow.
HG: Lots of venues are incorporating rock gardens into their track. They’re an exciting place to watch riders choose various lines and definitely increase the chance that someone could make a mistake and crash, which is exciting for everyone but the rider. It’s also a good place to showcase the benefits of full suspension bikes over hardtails.