Welcome to the 2023 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 as we go into 2023, all in an anonymous format. To read the introduction to the survey click here, and to see all the other currently published SOTS articles click here.
Downhill has had a strange couple of years. Whether it's the 29" wheeled bikes near dominance, smoother tracks followed by a lurch to more technically demanding courses, covid affected racing and double headers, French dominance, or moving on from Red Bull, it certainly hasn't been quiet. It feels like downhill is currently as good as, if not better, than ever.
The racing is close, the tracks arguably represent the style of riding most fans enjoy and the spectacle is hard to fault. That said, it doesn't mean everything is perfect in the world of downhill. Here's what we found out.
In our selection of responders that compete in UCI downhill World Cups, 15% are winners, and another 21% have scored podiums.
Downhill Cohort DetailsThere Are Still Plenty of Downhill Riders Who Barely Make Ends Meet
Number of Riders Choosing Downhill as their Main Discipline: 41
Number of World Cup Winners: 5
Top 5 Overall Finishers in 2022: 7
South America - 1
Oceania - 7
North America - 8
Europe - 25
Although it might be sometimes called the Formula One of mountain biking, any similarities certainly don't translate to earnings. Much like the first survey, it makes quite grim reading to learn how much your favorite downhiller may well take home.
After the initial survey and the catchment criteria we used that spanned over two seasons, we wondered whether that had skewed the results. After the covid affected 2020 season, one could argue that there were some riders with a high ranking that may have struggled to achieve the same in other years. So for this survey, with only the overall finish in 2022 considered, we hoped to have a more condensed view of what a full-time athlete with a very high world ranking could expect to be paid.
43% of downhill riders earn less than $5,000 USD per year. If we remove juniors from the equation, 25% of elite riders surveyed fell into the same bracket. Enduro is still very much the cash cow of gravity racing and sees a greater number of riders in the higher wage brackets.
Downhill Rider Pay (in USD):
0-5,000: 43% (18 )
5,000-10,000: 12% (5)
10,000-20,000: 2% (1)
20,000-30,000: 7% (3)
30,000-40,000: 5% (2)
40,000-50,000: 5% (2)
50,000-100,000: 12% (5)
100,000-250,000: 7% (3)
250,000-500,000: 2% (1)
500,000+: 2% (1)
There is a further 12% of riders making between $5,000 and $10,000. It seems that in downhill the very best are well taken care of financially, with over 10% of our riders surveyed making over $100,000.
There might yet be the hope of financial security for riders though, with around 10% of those surveyed scoring a top five in the overall of their category, and around 12% making six figures, it may well be that they're the same riders and big results equal out to a big payday.Riders Don't Want to See a Larger Field in Finals
In the 2021 survey, it transpired that irrespective of gender, riders wished to see more people make the cut into finals. In fact, in both questions, the largest share of the vote was increasing the men's field to between 60-80, and the females to 15-20 riders. However, it seems to be there is a trend moving away from this.
It should be noted that our catchment isn't so large for this survey so that may skew the data, but it's also worth noting that the fight in elite downhill field size has gone from fighting to increase it to 80 in the male category, to the very real fear it could be culled to 30. So, the conversation might have evolved on the subject since Discovery's announcement that it will be taking over the broadcast rights in 2023. It's also worth thinking about whether a top 20 rider would see any advantage to increasing the field size when the disadvantages are quite obvious. The fact that riders want to retain the status quo should be encouraging that it currently strikes a good balance between fairness, competitiveness and opportunity.
How many men should qualify for Elite World Cup finals?
20 or fewer: 0
20-40: 4 (4.8%)
40-60: 4 (4.8%)
It should stay at 60: 29 (34.9%)
60-80: 44 (53%)
80+: 2 (2.4%)
20 or fewer: 1 (2%)
20-40: 7 (14.3%)
40-60: 3 (6.1%)
It should stay at 60: 24 (49%)
60-80: 13 (26.5%)
80+: 1 (2%)
How many women should qualify for Elite World Cup finals? (all responses)
30% of Racers Would Rather Race Their National Series
10 or fewer: 2 (2.4%)
10-15: 10 (12%)
It should stay at 15: 16 (19.3%)
15-20: 37 (44.6%)
20+: 18 (21.7%)
10 or fewer: 0
10-15: 7 (14.3%)
It should stay at 15: 18 (36.7%)
15-20: 17 (34.7%)
20+: 7 (14.3%)
Part of the problem with wages in downhill can be traced back to a lack of smaller, well-established and prestigious feeder series. The problem is that for some riders hoping to turn their dream into a career, it doesn't make sense to try and score a top five in a national event when sponsors would probably be more impressed with a top 40 at a World Cup.
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, the national series is starved of talent. This can become a vicious circle and eventually make a series seem less competitive or worthwhile for elite racers. It also means that there is a huge onus on riders to self-fund an expensive 8-stop world tour. Then, when teams do offer support, they can offer low wages or even just the promise of covering expenses.
The World Cup calendar is also exhaustive, especially when budgets are constrained. It's not hard to imagine a world where a smaller World Cup field size would enhance the level of competition among national racers, and it looks like some racers could also see the benefit. Around 30% of riders say that if their national series was better funded or more prestigious they would rather attend that than a World Cup race.
Around 80% of riders say they try to race their national series when it doesn't conflict with World Cup racing
, and there are rumors of a less drawn-out calendar in coming years that will put a focus on short but intense legs of racing, rather than drip-feeding some times as little as six races over the course of nearly seven months. This could really help support grassroots racing.70% of Riders Want More Variety of Tracks
After a covid-affected 2020 season that featured doubleheaders at the same venue, and only a small variation between the 2021 and 2022 seasons in the form of an extended North American leg and a different track in Andorra, the riders seem to be crying out for some new tracks. 70% don't feel that a venue should hold a race on the same largely unchanged track for years at a time. Sometimes, the most substantial variation is which track is the anointed World Championships venue.
A venue shouldn’t hold a race on the same, largely unchanged track, year after year
Strongly Agree: 17 (34.7%)
Agree: 17 (34.7%)
Neutral: 11 (22.4%)
Disagree: 3 (6.1%)
Strongly Disagree: 1 (2%)
The way venues for World Cup races are chosen is obviously more than just choosing a good track, it's also based on who wants to bid to host the race, but I think there is a genuine desire amongst riders to see more input from in regards to what they race on. In a multiple choice question, 55% said a significant hope they held with Discovery was that they would have more of a voice at races to have their input heard
. That same thought was something that was clearly driving the downhill riders to unionize
, and many were vocal about what they thought was inappropriate or dangerous track layouts over the course of the year, most notably in Andorra.The Racing is Considered Fair and Honest
There is some positive news to come out of the survey. Only 2% of racers think that racing isn't fair and honest.
That's compared to around 15% in enduro and over 20% in slopestyle and freeride events. The fact that these riders feel their sporting competition has a lot of integrity is no small thing because that's not something every sport has - be it in cycling or beyond.