Welcome to the 2021 Pinkbike State of the Sport Survey. This anonymous survey is designed to help shed light on key issues affecting the professional field and elite competition. We surveyed the best riders in the world to hear their thoughts, ideas, concerns, and criticisms on mountain biking in 2021. We invited any rider who had finished in the Top 40 overall of their chosen discipline in either of the previous two seasons in either XC, enduro, downhill, or slopestyle & freeride, as well as notable non-competition riders and highly ranked juniors. We then published them in full and publicly. To read the introduction to the survey click here, and to see all the other currently published SOTS articles click here.
We’ve decided to look at the data and take out a few key stats of each discipline. First up - downhill.
Downhill is often cited as the “the Formula One of mountain biking” and, in some ways, it is. The line preparation is meticulous, the tracks are well known and it follows a very structured weekend format. There are of course some major differences, firstly, there is largely no formula for bike design. The field is also far larger and just qualifying can be a battle in itself and, much to the consternation of those involved.
On the other hand, it is similar in that the pressure on riders' shoulders is huge, the entertainment engrossing, and the consequences incredibly high.
Downhill Cohort Details
Number of Riders: 82
EWS Riders Who Race Downhill: 13
Elite Race Winners: 6
Elite Podium Finishers: 19
Africa - 0
Asia - 0
Europe - 53
North America - 16
Oceania - 13
South America - 0
Median Wage: 5,000-10,000 USD
Included in our data are the answers of 82 downhill riders. Please note, however, that not all of these nominated downhill as their primary discipline. In fact, 15 of them, whilst being highly ranked in the UCI downhill series, actually nominated enduro as their discipline. Of the elite riders surveyed, every single one was from either Europe, North America, or Oceania. 35% of riders who nominated downhill as their primary discipline are female.
The information in our survey is coming from exceptionally talented and dedicated elite athletes. Of the riders who compete in Elite downhill included in this survey, nearly 9% have won a World Cup, another 27% have podiumed, and an additional 43% have achieved a top 20.
I think we should preface all of this data by acknowledging a blind spot in the way that we collected the data - we wanted to hear back from the very best of the elite. These riders will often have the most experience and have risen through the ranks to the very top. Now, this is exactly what we want in almost every regard, however, the one place it could be argued it might not deliver parity is when challenging the status quo in terms of the protected rider system and practice schedules.
This is an interesting point. These riders have earned their place at the top by coming through the current system, often struggling for coverage, early starts in B practice on a fast-changing track, and non-protected status. Now that they have proved themselves to be worthy of their benefits, should they be expected to challenge those structures and rulings? I would imagine that if we had asked the riders ranked 50-100 in the world we could see different outcomes in these areas. That being said, fans want the best downhill riders to stay in downhill and, as notable examples have shown, not become disillusioned and go into different disciplines.
Downhill may well be the Pinnacle of Mountain Biking Talent, but Riders' Incomes Don’t Reflect That
The breakdown of how all the riders surveyed are paid is available to read in full here
. In today’s survey snapshot, we’re talking solely about World Cup downhill, but in order not to threaten any riders' anonymity we’re not publishing a full breakdown of in discipline earnings. That said, we can pull out these statistics - of the riders surveyed who nominated downhill as their primary discipline, so excluding those that are enduro riders first and downhill second, 49% earned a total of between 0-5,000 USD per annum. If we exclude juniors, that falls to 43% of riders are earning less than 5,000 USD.
Again, excluding juniors, 11% earn 5,000-10,000 USD and 13% between 10,000-20,000 USD.
The wages of professional riders is a nuanced and multifaceted issue. Today we're mainly presenting the data from the riders, but we will be bringing further articles regarding the the results of this survey in due course.
Riders Believe Field Sizes Should Grow
This is a contentious issue since the rule change in 2017 when the number of riders who could qualify on Saturday to Sunday’s men’s race was reduced from 80 to 60. On one hand, 60 riders in a race field isn’t small compared to other sports, but if you consider how close racing has become, and how mechanicals and ‘bad luck’ aren’t uncommon, it can mean that what is already an unpredictable and cruel sport can become even more so. By our data, 53% of riders surveyed think that the field should be over 60
. Considering that a lot of these riders probably benefit from protected status, that’s actually very interesting.
Riders back having a female elite field larger than 15, over 65% in fact. Every single woman downhill rider that we surveyed wanted an increase in the size of the Elite women's field. Of the women surveyed, around 55% wanted a field size of 15-20 riders, whereas the rest wanted at least 20 riders.
How many men should qualify for Elite World Cup finals?
20 or fewer: 0
20-40: 4 (4.8%)
20-60: 4 (4.8%)
It should stay at 60: 29 (34.9%)
60-80: 44 (53%)
80+: 2 (2.4%)
Riders want stronger National series
Mountain biking occupies something of a strange place in sports. While many other sports have thriving domestic calendars mixed with occasional events on the continental or world stage, inclusion in which is either done by way of qualification or by showcasing exceptional performances.
If my national series was more prestigious or better funded, I would rather attend that
Strongly Agree: 19 (22.9%)
Agree: 14 (16.9%)
Neutral: 23 (27.7%)
Disagree: 21 (25.3%)
Strongly Disagree: 6 (7.2%)
Mountain biking, for whatever reason does the inverse of this. It wasn’t always this way, of course, but today it's largely world-cup-or-bust for many athletes; there are few thriving national series to serve as a talent pool and ease the transition to international competition. The World Cups are exhausting to attend, both logistically and financially, but could compliment a domestic race season well. A surprising 23% of riders surveyed strongly feel they would rather race a better funded and more prestigious national series than a World Cup.
Riders are Generally Okay with the Protected Rider System
41% of riders agree with the current protected rider system, with an additional 5% in strong agreement. Another 24% are neutral to it. This might be surprising to some, given the hard time and downright confusion it is greeted with from viewers. The protected rider system not only ensures closer competition in terms of the overall but also adds commercial value to larger teams and riders alike, as they can subsequently near-guarantee live coverage.
The current protected rider system ensures fairer racing
Strongly Agree: 4 (4.8%)
Agree: 34 (41%)
Neutral: 20 (24.1%)
Disagree: 16 (19.3%)
Strongly Disagree: 9 (10.8%)
However, these survey results could be affected by selection bias—the status quo benefits many of the riders we surveyed. It’s worth noting that more people feel strongly against it as they do strongly for. Also consider that if a rider often falls outside the benefits of the protected system they are likely to consider the system more, whilst if they are a rider that consistently benefits, they may not have to confront or acknowledge their feelings towards the current system in the same manner.
Over Half of Female DH Racers are Unhappy With the Practice Schedule
The dissatisfaction with the practice weekend practice schedule is something we hear a lot about, not least at the events themselves. Our results would seem to suggest that the disgruntlement isn’t as prevalent as you might think though. 52% of riders agree with it, with a further 5% strongly agreeing. However, if we look solely at the women's field, we can see that over 50% of female riders either disprove or strongly disapprove of the current schedule.
I like the current weekend practice schedule (men & women)
Strongly Agree: 4 (4.9%)
Agree: 43 (52.4%)
Neutral: 13 (15.9%)
Disagree: 14 (17.1%)
Strongly Disagree: 8 (9.8%)
Currently, the women definitely get the short straw in terms of practice. Not only is it early in the morning, which can often lead to complications regarding the weather, but it also means that their time isn’t used so efficiently over the course of the weekend with more waiting around in the pits. At an elite level when rest is important, this is surely a disadvantage to achieving your optimal condition. Not only do you have to warm up twice during the course of a day but there are also bigger gaps between riding the track as it develops, and not all of them get timed practice. These problems are compounded by the women's field being split between Practice A and B.
A Selection of Comments from the Riders