So, what has the Olympics got to do with real world riding?
[keep reading to the bottom. There’s something in it for you]
This is Nino Schurter
Nino is from Switzerland.
Nino likes to ride his bike.
Nino is incredibly fit.
Nino is a staggeringly capable bike handler.
Nino is Olympic champion.
I’d like to be like Nino, but the sad truth is that I am, at best a pale imitation. I’m relatively fit, I’m reasonably capable at handling my bike and I’m definitely not from Switzerland.
This is Jenny Rissveds
Jenny is from Sweden.
Jenny likes to ride her bike.
Jenny is supremely fit.
Jenny is an insanely gifted technical rider.
Jenny is also Olympic Champion.
I’d like to be like Jenny, but I know she is far faster, fitter and stronger than I’ll ever be. Nor am I Swedish.
Where I am like both Nino and Jenny is that I really enjoy riding my bike.
So, the Olympics then.
For years I’ve had a thing about “cross-country racing.” It somehow never really lit my fire. It seemed to combine all the least interesting bits of road cycling (weight obsession, ludicrously high fitness level, lack of technical interest) with the worst bits of mountain biking (The best bits of singletrack are no use for races because you can’t overtake and there’s no way of designing a long course that doesn’t have boring bits on it, the best bits of a ride are often the social ones). I’d kind of written it off as flat-barred cyclocross.
To sum it up I heard (second hand) someone say of XC racing: “Don’t go looking for the pain. It’ll find you soon enough.” Does that sound like any fun at all?
I heard someone say that mountain biking has more in common with surfing than road cycling. There’s some truth in this. That majority of people who ride mountain bikes have little to no interest in racing in the sense of donning lycra and standing on a start line. There’s far less of a club culture with informal groupings of riders being the norm. There’s also far more of an emphasis on exploration and enjoying the kinaesthetic experience rather than going as fast as possible towards a finish line. There’s a reason that XC racing is not a big deal in Britain.
Having said that, quote someone else: “No general rule is universally applicable.”
So I sat down and watched the Olympic mountain biking more out of a sense of obligation than anticipation. I was expecting flat-backed, lycra clad almost roadies awkwardly doing battle with a farmer’s field that had a few rocks strategically placed in it.
Peter Sagan, Tour de France stage winner and current road World Champion had decided to ride the mountain bike instead of the road race because he thought the course suited him better. Doesn’t that say a lot?
How wrong can you be?
Very, it turns out.
Something has happened since the last time I watched a cross country race. Something very good.
Riders have become more capable. Far more capable. They are no longer stiff-backed road cyclists on the wrong bike. Now they are real, genuine mountain bikers who revel in technical, demanding trails. They’re happy with their bikes in the air, they’re happy with drop-offs, they’re happy with steep rock gardens. They’re riding full-suspension bikes because they’re more capable.
This means that the course designers have had to up the level of technical difficulty to engage these riders. When I say “upped” there were several bits of the course where I thought “I’d quite like to take a look at that before ploughing into it”. I certainly would be wary of facing them when I was knackered. The course looked like a red trail centre. For the first time in years I even thought: “I’d like to have a go on that”.
In short, it’s turned into something that was recognisable “mountain biking”. These races managed to combine some of the best bits of road riding (the supreme physical effort, the gladiatorial combat at the sharp end) with the best bits of mountain biking (rewarding skill, significant technicality & speed, risk and commitment when taking on features).
It was great. I was hooked for the whole race.
To answer my original question: it’s got far more to do with real riding than I expected.
For the dedicated, here’s the entire men’s race:
And here’s as much of the women’s race as I can find:
But it’s not the be all and end all
Having said all that, you’re not going to see me grace the start line of an XC race any time soon. It did, however, inspire me to get out and ride.
If it’s inspired you, and you’ve got this far I want you to get out and ride your bike too. So here’s a little something to help you:
Here’s a 10% discount code for you. Simply enter “fiverings” on any ride for the rest of the year and you’ll get a discount. You can use it as many times as you want, on as many rides as you want.
I look forward to seeing you.