In the past six years, the UCI downhill mountain bike series has built to something close to its mid-90s peak. Six years after Red Bull took over the broadcasting rights, the live views have increased sixfold, including a rise of 50% in the last season alone. A big, headline sponsor is on board, top racers are able to negotiate six-figure salaries and, with the advent of social media, the sport now reaches more people than ever before.
Downhill is also starting to push its boundaries again. While last year’s push by Red Bull to create a more TV-ready package by fiddling with the start order left commenters foaming, the introduction of a new round and fresh tracks for next year was met with round all-round praise.
There are three men who take the lead on the future of downhill, Simon Burney, the UCI mountain bike co-ordinator, Christoph Tritscher from Red Bull Media House and Martin Whitely who acts as the team representative. We asked them for their thoughts on the big talking points of the 2018 season and where they see mountain biking heading in the future.
Start order shufflesThe most controversial change from the 2018 season was the introduction of a new race order format. From round one in Losinj it started to unravel as Brook MacDonald became the first unprotected rider since Mick Hannah in 2011 to qualify fastest but ended up starting mid-pack. With the rule scrapped for next year, we wanted to know if there was any chance of it returning. Simon Burney, UCI
"Yeah, we got that wrong. Television really wanted to go with the World Cup leader always being the last rider down. They felt that other sports did it and it worked for those sports so we changed the regulation and then we did Losinj quali. The issues with the start list for the finals got such a heavy reaction: “this is crap, this isn't going to work, blah, blah, blah”. We literally had an emergency meeting with television that evening, and changed it to what we eventually did for the whole season.
"We had a situation where we could tweak the meaning of a reg but we can't change the way it's written during a season because of the process we have to go through. So we went through the season but I think everyone agreed that it wasn't right and for next year we're back to the protected riders and the fastest qualifiers in reverse quali order. The fastest qualifier will always be the last rider down.
"I think television just thought that the sport wasn't willing to make big changes, that we were kind of a little bit stuck in traditional ways and I think they quite liked the idea of making some big changes but I don't really think with the reaction we got that the sport was ready for it." Christoph Tritscher, Red Bull Media House
"So the whole start order thing this year, especially in Losinj, ended for me personally a little bit too early because the discussion started after qualifying so we never saw a race in this format.
"I still think it would have been great to test it with the World Cup leader starting last to see how it develops, I think there could have been a lot of interesting stories happening during a race with lead changes and everything like that. Of course, we also need to think how the protected riders are integrated, that's one major topic that is key for the sport in general.
"One fact is sure, we always try to give input to the UCI from a media perspective, what would make sense to help the product, in this case downhill mountain biking. But of course, the decision needs to be taken by the UCI.
"The whole discussion in Losinj was big, I love discussions but the decision was not made by us. Our idea was the World Cup's leader starting last but suddenly it was not Aaron Gwin starting last, it was Dean Lucas starting last. It was completely mixed up of the idea that was there two years ago but this was not ideal I would say. Now the UCI has a rule put in place that suits everyone and I look forward to see it morphing this year, or next year.
"Sometimes you need to risk like Formula One risked it in the past with the points for example. Risk needs to be involved to develop the sport further and see if we are on a good way or see if anything needs to be changed." Martin Whiteley, Teams Rep
"I think Simon's right to say it’s best to put it behind us. I was a bit disappointed to see mid-season we couldn't change it more but we at least changed it in Croatia to have the fastest of the protected riders to go last.
"From a team point of view, and from my point of view having been in the sport from the beginning, there is something about earning the right to be the last man down the hill. Fastest on Saturday, last down on Sunday is something that we've had in our sport for a very, very long time. It's a tradition and it's very hard for someone who's coming in new, comparatively, and with a TV product they're trying to produce to understand there is a fan base and a tradition within our sport that has to be respected. More so, I'm one of the biggest fighters for five rider podiums, which is something Red Bull wanted to stop when they came in. It makes sense for us and that's who you're here to film.
"Sometimes there's a trade off when you bring in TV production. They're trying to heighten the product that they think will appeal to a wider audience so they come up with these ideas. We should never stop them from doing that because one day they'll think of something we've never thought of that actually makes great sense. In this case I think all the teams were on board with saying, whoever is fastest on Saturday goes down last on Sunday, so that's our position." Track selectionTracks are always a contentious issue in World Cup racing and, with an extra round and three new venues over the next two years, the future looks bright going forwards. We wanted to know if this was something we could expect more of in future. Simon Burney, UCI
"Honestly it always depends on who bids for World Cups. We want to create the classics but I still think you need to give other races an opportunity to become a World Cup. Even if we go the same places year after year, like Mont Sainte Anne for example, we still try to encourage the organisers to throw new sections in that keep it interesting.
"I think we had 26 or 28 organisations this year that were interested in a World Cup and I think we ended up with 15 or 16 actual bids for 10 events. There are always new ones but there a lot of people who say I really want to do a World Cup but then they see what's involved and they maybe they don't have enough money or enough people or they don't have the infrastructure or something.
"Where we are now, we're totally limited by television budget. I think from a UCI point of view we could go one or two more but Red Bull have a budget they have to stick to and right now their budget allows us to do 10 events. And quite rightly, they've got production standards that they have to adhere to so they won't reduce costs to add more races. They want to make sure they've got a few good ones rather than a lot with not as many cameras or people or not as good a job." Christoph Tritscher, Red Bull Media House
"It's something that is budget related in the end because you can't go everywhere you would like to go. What is important for us is the mix of courses. I think especially this year and in '19 we will see a really good mix of courses. We will see natural courses, we will see steep courses.
"What we would like to see are courses like Losinj and La Bresse from a length perspective. Losinj for me was the perfect example because it was the first time in mountain bike downhill history where you can see a race from start to finish with the right start interval. Lourdes is also an example of a race length wise, which is great for us, you only have 20-30 seconds that you miss.
"It will never be possible to cover Fort William from start to bottom. Technically it will be a huge investment first of all but secondly, and everyone forgets this, it's the start interval. The maximum start interval is 3:30 and Fort William is more than four minutes so it is not possible to do it within the time frame we have now.
"I am looking forward to 2019 to see how everything works there with the different kind of courses we have. Of course, for me personally, I would love to see one short course where we could do start to finish again but this was one of the things. Losinj for me was awesome, I liked the atmosphere there, I liked the course. I think it's good to have a mix of courses and everyone loved it." Martin Whiteley, Teams Rep
"When it comes to a World Cup, my only criteria is that the tracks aren't all similar. To be a great World Cup champion, you have to be great on every course. As Aaron Gwin has often been quoted, he can never understand why there are some riders that can be amazing and win on one track one week and then you go to another track and they'll be 13th or 18th. He said if you're going to be a World Cup Champion you've got to be great on any track.
"Everyone was slamming Losinj before we went there but it turned out to create great racing but it's completely different to Mont Sainte Anne and it has to be like that. I would hate to see seven generic, homogenous tracks that have all fallen to criticism of the UCI, riders, teams saying hey you need to do this, that or whatever.
"I think there is a real benefit in having some classics but you do have to mix it up. When we went to Croatia, some went there for testing, some went there with a little headscratching but it's part of making our sport exciting.
"What everyone has to bear in mind is that unless someone is putting their hands up to run these things, we're not going to go anywhere. I get really tired of answering: "why don't we go to Schladming?" because no f**** person is holding their hand up to hold it there. You want to do it, you go and do it but if you're not prepared to take the financial risk, and it can be a big one, then stop complaining.
"One thing I'm a bit critical with, and I'm not going to be popular with this, is Fort William. When it's windy on a sunny day, we can't get to the top and you can't explain that to a television audience that doesn't see rain and mud. A couple of years ago we were talking about people pushing their bikes up to the gate or somewhere and to try and race from there. That to me is a big issue. It's a venue that has been there a long time but one day we're going to be hit with problem. There's no way I think that the teams would allow one round of the World Cup to be decided like that. We'd probably ask, like they did in MotoGP this year, that the round is cancelled but we shouldn't be in that position, and as much as the Fort William crowd is the best crowd, I'm nervous about a day where it's a beautiful sunny day but because there's wind, we're not having a race, that doesn't translate on the computer screen to people.
"The other thing on that is the bike park thing. We have to remember that bike parks keep the industry running, they help keep fans on bikes. We need more races and bike parks are a way in which you can hold races at a local level and if you're not holding races you can at least ride your bike. So we go visit those venues, we modify the track, we don't just run the single bike park track, we've got separate sections that are built for the race but some of the best races, as far as how close they are and how entertaining they are, are on those tracks. Leogang delivers year in year out with drama and high quality racing so I don't really follow that line of thinking. I think as long as it's one course in a seven course menu it's not a big deal. If they were all the same, then yes, I'd definitely have a problem." Field sizeWith both men and women's fields on race day being cut by 25%, we wanted to know if this was where it was going to stay or we could expect, like some conspirators suspect, a gradual decline in numbers until we have a field size closer to Formula One. Simon Burney, UCI
"I think it will stay as is now for a bit, it did what we needed it to. We were finishing the race earlier and I think two or three times for sure if we'd had last year's schedule we would have got caught out by the weather again.
"We were trying to finish as early as we could and by tweaking a few little things we were finishing exactly an hour earlier than we were before. Mountain weather comes in late afternoon in a lot of places and it worked really well.
"We still wanted to reduce the overall field size a bit so pressures on the course and training times were reduced. It might come across as a bit elitist but the World Cup is the top competition and we wanted to make sure the best people were in there. It's not like sport for all, you can't just show up to a World Cup. You have to get out there and prove yourself before you can enter.
"You've still got to give people an opportunity but I think right now the balance is good. I can't see any reason to go less than 60. I'm sure people were grumbling on websites but to me, to my face, it was all good." Christoph Tritscher, Red Bull Media House
"We are on quite a good level now with the 60s. This is my personal opinion right now, but I think 80 was too many people because it is a World Cup and not like an IXS Cup. In skiing, you need to be good in the European Cup to get in the World Cup and I think a similar situation would be good in downhill racing as well. If you have continental championships and then you get to the state where you can race in the elites, the best people should race in the World Cup.
"I think right now the TV product we have with 25 riders live, I think this works really well. Improvements should always happen and we are in constant exchange with UCI teams to talk about what's possible. I think especially in downhill there could be more possibilities I think." Martin Whiteley, Teams Rep
"The teams were quite behind the idea to do 60 and that's not because we just worry about our top riders and don’t worry about independents or anyone else, many of us have riders that don't pass top 60 or even top 80, especially our development riders. All we're doing is reducing the number of riders on Sunday that are on track, and pre-course training on the morning, from 80 to 60, as we've done with the women the year before.
"You're not reducing the number seen on TV and you're not reducing the number that can enter a World Cup event, all you're doing is saying that 20 less will pass through on Sunday. Sorry for that but that increases the level because people have to work a lot harder to get into that final. I think it brought about a better final day because we now have four finals - junior men and women and elite men and women, we bring that to the fans, and we have to do it in a concise way so it won't be getting dark in South Africa or, as we've shown many times, we get Alpine summer thunderstorms rolling in at 4:30 and they tend to really disrupt the racing.
"Now we're finishing at 4 or just before 4 and that has another couple of benefits, that allows pack up, because it takes a lot to pack up our pit area and pull all that apart and it also allows the fans to get on the road and get home because many of them have the multi-hour drive home, so there's a benefit to getting the race done before 4 as they do in cross country and the easiest and most logical way to do this was to look at field size and start times.
"I think to go down from 60 to 40, there might be some teams out there that think that's a great idea but I still think while you've got 45 teams with riders engaged and investments being made, 60 is a pretty good number to ensure that everyone gets a shot at the final. It's always looked at and there's nothing to say you get a couple of years at 60 and then the majority of the voices go back to 80, who knows but it's always reviewed but for now it felt pretty good."
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