The Changing Face of XC

Riding the Southern XC at Wasing Park earlier this year and discovering that one of the A-lines included a gap jump got me thinking about the way that XC racing has evolved. Of course I know that courses have been getting more technical and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a gap jump in a National course but at Regional level? It was a bit of a surprise and definitely made me concentrate as you can see from this photo! (Well done to the organisers for putting it in by the way)

The gap wasn't that big but still demanded concentration, especially in the middle of a race!

The gap wasn’t that big but still demanded concentration, especially in the middle of a race!

More recently, watching the Cairns World Cup gave me a nudge to get on with writing this. The racing was great on a very technical course and with the commentators talking about the only other time that Cairns hosted a World Cup being 20years ago it made sense to do a bit of a comparison so here goes.

The Course

The course at Cairns this year was one of the most technically demanding XC courses so far with the two steep rocky sections Croc Slide and Jacob’s Ladder seemingly universally accepted as the most scary sections. What was interesting for me was that experienced racers like Sabine Spitz were amongst those taking the b-line options (despite her running in 3rd place for much of the women’s race and finishing in 4th). Marathon racer Imogen Smith watched the race and estimated that around 50% of women and 30% of men opted for the b-lines! (To read her full article click here).

In 1996 Jacob's Ladder was a switchback descent (left). In 2014 there was a very steep A-line added! (Right)

In 1996 Jacob’s Ladder was a switchback descent (left). In 2014 there was a very steep A-line added! (Right)

Not to be outdone by Wasing Park the course designers also put in a gap jump 😉 Rodeo Drop was a similar feature to the aforementioned gap jump-although about twice the size.

Rode drop. Some riders chose to roll down the side but many took the direct option over the drop.

Rode drop. Some riders chose to roll down the side but many took the direct option over the drop.

For those riders who didn’t enjoy the technical nature of the course this year there is bad news. Course designer Glen Jacobs had this to say in a recent interview with BikeRadar :

The route is the same, but the whole trail is basically brand new. About 90 per cent of the track has been upgraded and then there is 30 per cent that is brand new.

In this track there are about five sections that won’t get used. The ‘A’ lines won’t be used because they are too extreme, but when the World Championships return in 2017, the bikes will be different and the riders will be better. We are designing something that will be cutting-edge and challenging two years from now.

To read the full interview click here

The other striking change in 20 years was the length of the race and lap. In 1994, the Cairns course was nearly 10km long. 2 years later when the World’s visited the same course riders completed 6 laps with winner Thomas Frischknecht completing the 58km in 2hrs 39mins and 33secs (as an aside amazingly the top three riders were still only separated by only 32secs). For the World Cup in 2014 the race was again 6 laps but this time the total distance including a start loop was only 31km with Julien Absalon winning the race in 1hr 38mins 22secs. You can also see on the two course maps that this year’s course climbed about half as high up the hill as the course from the 1996 World’s course.

1996 World's course and profile (left) and 2014 World Cup (right)

1996 World’s course and profile (left) and 2014 World Cup (right)

Equipment

When you look at the bikes from each era it’s not hard to see why course designers are now able to push the limits so much more but how are bikes going to develop in the next 2 or 3 years to allow the inclusion of the A-lines that Jacobs mentions? Lighter full-sus designs? Dropper posts? More efficient, more powerful brakes? I’m not sure but it’s going to be interesting to see how many more extreme sections can be used. Will there be a limit where the courses get too difficult to ride in the middle of an increasingly more intense XC race?

Thomas Frischknecht circa 1996 and Julien Absalon 2014. Even in these pictures you can see the difference in bikes.

Thomas Frischknecht circa 1996 and Julien Absalon 2014. Even in these pictures you can see the difference in bikes.

Change for the better?

The controversial question is whether the changes are better for the sport or whether they have taken something away from XC as a discipline? That’s always going to be a good discussion point and I can only give my opinion. I like the fact that technically able riders are now rewarded more and more; I like the fact that there is now more differentiation between Cyclo-Cross courses and XC; I like that spectators can now see more of the race than ever before and don’t need to hike 30mins into the middle of nowhere to see a technical section; most importantly I like the fact that the sport is now easier to cover effectively for TV so that services like freecaster and RedBull TV can show more of our fantastic sport. Overall, I think that the sport had to evolve in order to survive and flourish again and I think that it is going in the right direction to do that-I’m fascinated to see where it goes over the next 20 years!