Words: Matt Wragg
Illustrations: Taj Mihelich
Racing runs on money. Sure, many racers would still race even if there wasn’t a cent in it, but sooner rather than later things around them would crash and burn. Sometimes I get the feeling that people forget this, that they see racing as some higher, purer thing and lose the connection to the bottom line. I remember a friend telling me that towards the end of his racing career Nico Vouilloz couldn’t find a bike sponsor. The problem was that he had already won everything there was to win and had little interest in the marketing side of the sport, his incredible focus was trained solely on winning. As my friend put it to me, there was no upside for the bike manufacturers. If Nico won, well that was expected, and if he didn’t win then your bike must be a turd.
I don’t know how true this story is but the truth isn’t the point here. The story perfectly illustrates a dynamic that does ring true - that if you’re not selling bikes, even the greatest downhill racer the sport has ever seen could find themselves in a tight spot.Participation vs Spectator Sports
We need to get to grips with the difference between a participation sport and a spectacle sport. Motorbikes offer the best example as Supercross is one of the best spectacle sports anywhere in the world. They found a way to package a sport that usually needs copious space and terrain into an arena. It was ten years ago that I went to see it live in Seattle and the thing that still stands out is that I could walk from the centre of the city to the arena to watch it. The other advantage is that the infrastructure to offer total coverage of the racing is as simple as it could possibly be - in that contained environment they can use a few static camera positions and the riders are never out of sight or signal.
Of course, as a rider, just being able to ride a supercross track is no small feat. What most people are more likely to do is ride enduro, where they can head out their door into the hills and forests. And when they come to race they are likely to compete in that discipline too, but as with MTB enduro, the media coverage of those races is limited because of the logistical problems of getting cameras all over the countryside.
The result of this split is that supercross is an effective tool for promoting the brand as a whole, bringing motorcycle racing to casual fans who like the racing but will never care enough to trek cross-country to stand in a muddy field and will not tolerate gaps in the action because the camera crew couldn’t get there in time. Enduro is more direct, primarily talking to people who ride and race enduro, and the impact across the brand as a whole is far smaller. To seek refuge in another easy motorsport parallel, Lewis Hamilton lifts Mercedes as a whole, while Colin McRae only really helped Subaru shift those blue and gold Imprezas.
To cut the cheap analogies and get into the dirty business of mountain bike racing, specifically the gravity disciplines, downhill is our spectacle and enduro the participation discipline (there is an good argument that you see a similar dynamic in cross-country with XCO vs marathon). While many of us may bemoan the camera placement at World Cup downhill, these days they do a pretty good job of covering most of the course with the resources available - a top 20 rider on the live feed should get a decent minute or two of screen time in front of an ever-growing audience. At an EWS, even the race winner is unlikely to get more than a handful of clips on the event recap video.
Maybe the simplest way to think of this is to imagine showing the racing to a friend who has little interest in the sport. Show them the DH live feed and it is clear what is going on, while despite a heroic effort on the part of the EWS team, that is not possible in enduro, and likely never will be. If you can accept that the spectacle sport helps the whole brand, while the participation discipline is much more closely tied to the people who ride and race the discipline, then the question follows: what happens to the participation racing when what a bike company is selling changes?
Enter the eMTB. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you cannot deny that they are wildly outselling regular bikes in Europe, especially in the mid-travel bracket (ie. enduro). Sure, North America is still arguing with itself about whether they are good fun or here to destroy everything we hold sacred and turn us all into puny, chicken-legged weaklings, but even there they are beginning to emerge as a force in the marketplace. I remember a very senior salesman from one of Europe’s largest bike brands telling me a couple of years ago that many of their consumers were going into the bike shop intending to buy a mid-travel mountain bike and walking out with an eMTB. Here in the South of France it is even more dramatic and the percentage of riders on regular bikes is ever-diminishing.
At the same time, racing for eMTBs currently ranges from “so embarrassing someone should have their thumbs lopped off
” to “a good idea that needs a little more polishing”. The attention and resources are going to regular racing, while sales are starting to lean strongly towards e-bikes and that is beginning to create a disconnect between enduro racing and the money needed to keep it going on its current scale. Why it matters who is buying eMTBs
Then there is a question of market, too. EMTBs are opening up the sport to new people, people who just want to ride a bike rather than become committed mountain bikers (hint: if you’re reading a several-thousand word screed on the economics of racing then you’re in the hardcore few percent). They won’t care about your moral stance on assisted vs. unassisted riding, will never worry about what pedals Sam Hill runs and think your chest-beating about “type 2 fun” sounds thoroughly f*cking miserable. As a very experienced sports marketing specialist put it to me, “maybe it’s a middle-aged guy who just wants his kids to think he’s cool because he’s riding the same brand bike they saw on TV.” These are the people the industry is courting, people who will walk into a dealership and leave with whatever happens to be in stock. At full retail price. And that ‘seen on TV’ thing is a huge deal for this demographic - they are a prime audience for the spectacle sport. Even if ebike racing gets its shit together this year, is it the right way to try and sell bikes to these people? It could well be that the biggest boost to downhill is ebikes as brands refocus to try and reach this market.Has Cube pulled a masterstroke?
The tension point probably won’t be in 2021, if for no more pressing reason than the industry is so occupied with trying to get bikes to market that they don’t need to worry about selling more of them for the time being. Cube may well be the canary in the coalmine for things to come. Yes, they have a reputation as this geeky German brand, but they were fielding a factory-supported enduro team way before the bigger players on the global scene and spend a lot of their energy trying to reach outside the core mountain bike market.
For next year they have invested heavily in their DH team, with Danny Hart hopefully offering them visibility and credibility at the sharp end of racing, while at the same time they are pulling out from the full EWS calendar in favour of more consumer-focused events and select races, primarily in Europe. Gusti Wildhaber is still on the Action Team programme as he is practically part of the family there and happy to turn his hand to whatever they want. Zakarias Johansen and Sofia Wiedenroth were let go to chase their racing ambitions. Cube then offered public applications to the revamped programme to bring in more ambassador-like riders. The new team will rarely, if ever, travel outside Europe, which is far more feasible in our pandemic-stricken world, cutting expensive international travel for a brand who have most of their sales here in Europe, getting rid of the staff and logistic overheads that come with a professional race team and allowing them to focus on events where Cube know they can talk directly to their customers. They will still race in some events, which will include enduro and ebike racing, but with a much more limited focus.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge emotional attachment to enduro racing and this isn't an article about what should
happen so much as what is likely
to happen. I followed the enduro race circuit because I think it is the most fun form of mountain bike racing and I'm not suggesting that it will go away. I believe that for as long as mountain bikes exist people will continue to ride and race enduro, but I wonder if in a few years we will look back on today in much the same way we think of the Grundig days of downhill. In that time money flowed into the sport and many look back on those times a some sort of heyday, but the truth is that it was a bubble and when it popped it set the sport of downhill back by at least a decade. The brands that had poured money in realised they weren't getting value and we still don't see names like Diesel and Volvo on the title sponsors list, but at least today the growth has been steady and real, and the value created by the racing is solid.
Maybe this comparison is not fair to the people who run enduro races or invested in the discipline, its growth was not irrational in the same way, and the bubble is one that the market created later. But, the sales of ebikes are creating a bubble and that is unsustainable. In my time on the enduro circuit I got to know a lot of the riders, staff and organisers, even call a few friends, and I want to see them do well. But… If I put myself in the shoes of a sports marketing manager trying to get best value for money in a market that is marginalising the commercial importance of the enduro bike, I’m not sure I could bet against the Cube strategy. Would you?