I believe that mountain biking would be a better place if we had a second chance to see the riders in action at a DH World Cup weekend. It took a while with several false starts, but these days the short track is considered a huge boost to an XCO race weekend, so why couldn’t downhill have something similar?
After thinking it through, I think dual slalom is what a DH World Cup weekend is missing.
What are our criteria? Firstly it needs to be a gravity discipline (I know, duh), it needs to be TV and fan-friendly and it needs to have a (relatively) low level of risk. Dual ticks all those boxes.
If we try to apply the XC short track formula to DH it doesn’t work. You can’t make a DH race shorter and more intense. Putting riders head-to-head in a contact discipline is another non-starter here as the chance of injury is far higher and we need to keep in mind that the whole point of the event is to support the DH, not compete with it or ruin riders before they reach the start hut. Ok, you could try a Crankworx-style Air DH, but then you're back off up the mountain away from the fans and TV cameras.
Dual slalom is fun, it's fairly low risk, you only need a small slope to run it, so you can hold it down where all the fans are, and it is low cost for event organisers. While Red Bull may demand more for the live feed, I for one would be entirely happy to watch the world's best downhillers duke it out through a series of cones in a muddy field. I just want to watch what happens when it rains and half the field slide out on the flat, grass turns. 4X Is Not the Answer
"But what about 4X?" I hear you say. The saying goes that those who do not learn from history are cursed to repeat their mistakes, so we need to conduct a brief autopsy of 4X to appreciate where it went wrong. And yes, I know suggesting that 4X is dead will lead to angry letters from Chris Roberts and the three other people who still care about 4X, but sometimes you have to take a hit for the greater good.
To understand where 4X failed we need to look at its roots. Back in the 90s someone realised that seeing our favourite racers twice in a weekend is better than seeing them just once. They added a dual slalom race to the World Cup weekend and it was great for a while. Soon after, some bright spark decided that dual slalom would be even more exciting if the riders competed on the same course, in a full contact race, which became duel. Of course, what is more exciting that two riders duking it out? Four of them! And so was born 4X.
The fundamental problem is that it was a separate race. While it was fun to see the best downhillers battle it out in dual slalom, pretty soon they began to realise that the effort and risk of 4X racing was detracting from their ability to perform in the big show, the DH. Former BMXers started showing up, taking the discipline seriously and introducing a whole new physicality, which sounded the death knell for 4X as part of the World Cup weekend. I have met Michal Prokop and can confirm that I would not fancy lining up in the gate next to him.
As a discipline in its own right 4X was stillborn from the outset. At the world-level the tracks cost up to a quarter of a million dollars to create and most are bulldozed at the end of the weekend, which is way too high a cost for an emerging discipline to bear. Worse than that is the fact that at the grassroots level it just did not work.
More than a decade ago now my mates were pretty regular at Chicksands and we would even race from time to time
. Those races would have full start lists if they stayed in the South, but once the series headed outside the Home Counties the rider numbers fell off a cliff. I remember racing a grey, rainy weekend at Hamsterley in maybe 2007, some seven hours’ drive north of London. There were less than half the riders who had been at Chicksands a few weeks before. For whatever reason, riders were not happy to travel to race.
I think a dual slalom qualification race as part of the DH World Cup weekend would avoid these pitfalls. For a starter, if it is part of the DH programme, you don't need the grassroots in the same way. You just need to convince downhillers to buy a cheap hardtail and some flags. That could also maybe help create a way into the sport for new riders. Because we're going to need places for riders to train, so riders new to the sport could start riding dual - a fun discipline that requires a simple and relatively cheap mountain bike.
Picture this: As the season grinds down to the wire Loris Vergier and Loic Bruni are neck and neck for the title with 50 points on the line for Friday evening's dual race. It's raining, they're on silly, little bikes and fighting for every ounce of grip on the off-camber turns. Does that not sound like something you'd watch?
Maybe you'd get privateers getting really good on the little bike over the winter as racing the dual can net them enough points to pre-qualify for the next season of World Cups. Hopefully it would give them a rare bonus chance to get on the live feed.
Then I have two words for you: Kade Edwards. What could someone like him do with a format like this? I bet Sik Mik would be kicking himself at retiring too soon as I have no doubt he would have bruised the egos of more than a few up-and-coming youngsters.
I don't know how it would all work in practice, having never raced a World Cup DH, there are people way more qualified than me to work out the nuts and bolts, but I can tell you that just writing about this has me giddy with excitement at the prospect. Surely I'm not alone here?
Pinkbike editor Mike Kazimer doesn't agree that dual slalom needs to return - you can read his counterpoint here.