Fighting For the Soul of Mountain Biking at the GoPro Games

In the wake of a USA Cycling policy change that saw pro racers protesting en mass, team owners threatening legal action, and a national governing body furiously backpedaling, we ask: What’s the future of mountain bike racing in the U.S?

A World Cup race.

    Photo: Douglas Cook via Flickr

Forty-odd years ago, a group of free-spirited dreamers from Northern California retrofitted some old Schwinn cruisers with big balloon tires. They hauled the bikes up to the top of Mt. Tam in Marin County. Then, they raced the hell down.

In the decades that followed, the sport exploded and everything changed. Those early visionaries went on to found multi-million dollar bike businesses, like Gary Fisher and Specialized. Mountain biking gained international popularity, especially in Europe, and garnered a slot in the Olympics.

But nothing changed, too. In small mountain towns and at urban parks, buddies still gathered to see who could bomb downhill the fastest or clean a technical trail, then share a six-pack in the parking lot. Camaraderie and a couple hours spent communing with nature trumped the sport’s competitive element. Today, events that capture this essence, like the GoPro Mountain Games*, running June 6 to June 9, Whiskey Off-Road, and Iceman Cometh, reign as some of the most popular races in the U.S.

This spring, these two disparate sects of mountain biking—the competitive global vision and the grassroots spirit of the sport—came to a head. In April the national governing body, USA Cycling (USAC) stated they would start enforcing a longstanding but previously ignored rule, 1.2.019, of the international governing body, the UCI. The rule dictates that racers with international UCI licenses (about 3,000 U.S. competitors, including most pros) could incur fines and suspensions for competing in events not sanctioned by the UCI or USAC.

Months earlier, USAC had sent threatening letters and fines to a few top pros, including Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould, who’d competed in the Mountain Games, a well-paying, highly competitive race that’s fully insured but not USAC-sanctioned. Now it seemed everyone was at risk.

It was unclear why USAC suddenly started enforcing the rule, since mountain bikers had been competing in non-USAC sanctioned events for years. The national governing body claimed they were following a directive from the UCI. But in a letter, the beleaguered UCI president, Pat McQuaid, said USAC brought up the issue, first.

Either way, the cycling community saw the move as a power play by the governing body, forcing racers and promoters to fall in line with the rigid rules and structure of the UCI. They surmised USAC thought enforcement of the rule might bring major events and breakaway organizations, like the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, back under the USAC banner. And with them, thousands of dollars in insurance and licensing fees. The episode reeked of a money grab.

Mountain bikers felt betrayed and angered. They dug in.

One of the top American men, Olympian Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, wrote an op-ed saying he’d forego taking out a USAC or UCI license in 2013, and only compete in races that weren’t sanctioned by the governing bodies. The Sho-Air-Cannondale pro team, which includes Jeremiah Bishop, the current leader of USAC’s pro cross-country series, put out a press release stating their intention to show up “in force” at the Whiskey Off-Road, a non-USAC sanctioned event. If USAC dared suspend a Sho-Air rider, the team’s owner, Scott Tedro, said, “I’ll fight them legally.”

As tensions mounted, USAC and the UCI backed down. The organizations agreed to review the rule, and delay enforcement by a year. But the cease-fire did little to heal the deep wounds the standoff incurred. Mountain bikers were left wondering: What happens in 2014, and beyond?

When I called the President and CEO of USA Cycling, Steve Johnson, to ask just that question, he made the entire hubbub sound like a huge misunderstanding. USA Cycling is on the side of domestic racers, Johnson told me. “We don’t think strict enforcement of this rule makes any sense, whatsoever,” he said.

Johnson reiterated that USAC is working toward a resolution with the UCI. But what might that resolution look like, Johnson couldn’t say.

What Johnson did know, or now knows, is that the UCI’s structure for mountain biking (i.e. “what works in Europe”) is not what’s successful in the U.S. (or many other non-European countries, like South Africa, for that matter). The UCI model for mountain bike racing is designed to draw spectators, appeal to a mass audience, and accommodate television coverage.

The UCI stipulates that cross-country courses must be four to six kilometers in length (“in the form of a cloverleaf,” ideally) and run at least 75 minutes, but no longer than an hour and forty five minutes. Courses are frequently manufactured with man-made obstacles. The format is well suited to urban environments, and European fans often clamor to the top international events. Red Bull live streams the UCI’s downhill and cross-country World Cup series.

However, in the U.S., top promoters rely on enthusiast riders to turn a profit, not corporate sponsors. The Whiskey Off-Road in Prescott, Arizona is a 50-mile loop that winds through high desert mountains and along pine-shaded singletrack. It draws nearly 2,000 participants and offers a $40,000 purse.

A festival atmosphere encapsulates the event with craft beer flowing freely and a live rock concert post race. Top pros race the Whiskey Off-Road because it pays, it’s great exposure, and it’s fun. It’s doubtful that the Whiskey Off-Road could ever meet all of the stipulations that garner UCI sanctioning, nor does it need to.

In 2009, I attended the godfather of all grassroots mountain bike races, the Tour de Burg in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The fully supported six-day, seven-stage race covered roughly 250-miles of heavenly Appalachian singletrack, and cost just $175. Racers wore stopwatches and recorded their own times. They accepted Miller High Life hand-ups (and partook in occasional safety meetings) and exchanged high fives at the finish line. The racing was excruciatingly hard but the mood unrelentingly jovial. In my mind, it was the kind of racing the sport’s forefathers had intended.

U.S. mountain bikers see a place for both UCI and non-UCI sanctioned grassroots events on their race calendars. They don’t want to have to decide between the cache of international style racing, which offers a path to world championship and Olympic berths, and non-UCI or USAC sanctioned races, which can draw thousands of racers and big payouts. But, forced to choose, most racers will opt for the non-USAC sanctioned events.

Over the past five years or so, Sho-Air team owner Scott Tedro has heavily subsidized the USAC mountain bike series with tens of thousands of dollars of his own money. Primarily, he says, because of his deep love for mountain biking, which helped him quit booze and tobacco, and drop 85-pounds.

Tedro said the expense of conforming to the UCI’s event standards could cost promoters an extra $20,000, and he saw little in return from the elite level status. (He also said many UCI officials brought an air of snooty superiority to the events, which didn’t jive with domestic mountain biking’s laid-back vibe.)

There’s a place for UCI events on the USAC calendar, Tedro said, “But lets scale it down to four big races with huge payouts and promote the heck out of them.” He wants events like the Whiskey Off-Road to be part of a USAC national series, too, but not if it means the races will need to change what’s working for them.

After all, it’s the iconoclastic nature of mountain bike promoters and competitors that made the sport popular in the first place. The sport’s founders weren’t contemplating mountain biking’s mass marketing appeal when they first launched down the Marin County hills. As a kid, I idolized the American star John Tomac, the 1988 world champion. Tomac raced both downhill and cross-country, and sported drop-bars on his mountain bike. He epitomized my passion for going fast and having fun on knobby tires. The sport’s governing bodies should support that ingenuity and spirit, not hamper it.

Even those involved with USAC’s governance of mountain biking understand the dilemma. Lisa Nye is the chair of USAC’s mountain bike sport committee and a longtime advocate for off-road riding. She’s also a racer and race promoter. Every fall, Nye puts together a mountain bike festival at Camp Eagle in the Texas Hill Country, with USAC sanctioned marathon and Super D races.

This year, Nye wants to include a summer biathlon, in which mountain bikers will carry rifles and shoot at targets along the course.

But, she asks, “How do you sanction something like that?”

*Outside is a sponsor of the GoPro Mountain Games.

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