In some major sports such as soccer, Formula One or even road cycling, athletes' salaries are common knowledge and published annually. In mountain biking, this definitely isn't the case. How much a rider gets paid in downhill, enduro, slopestyle or xc is often a closely guarded secret that gets even more obscured as earnings are mixed in with bonuses, prize money and sponsorship fees. It's often not as simple as saying rider x will earn y dollars in a given year as their pay is often heavily tied to their performance.
To try and get a better picture of how much riders are earning, we included remuneration as a section of our State of the Sport survey.
One thing to note is that rider pay does not equal the total money a brand has spent on that rider. Regardless of the rider's remuneration, the total investment from a brand to go racing with them on an international stage is significant; it's easy to spend $50K+ per rider on travel, accommodation, food, fees, mechanical support, etc. for a season. Especially with EWS where the travel is extensive. There are instances where racers take a lower dollar figure to get on a factory team versus a higher wage and managing all their own independent deals (and sleeping in vans).
The most interesting results from the remuneration section of the survey are below. We offered any rider that had finished in the top 40 of their discipline in the past two seasons the opportunity to take part in the survey, for more information on the riders surveyed, click here. Note, junior riders have been removed from all the below calculations and some riders declined to answer this section.
Additional reporting: Henry QuinneyThe Big Picture
The largest cohort of riders (27.3%) surveyed earns between 0-5,000 USD from mountain biking and we also know from a separate question on the survey that around 21% of riders don't get paid at all. Bear in mind we have removed juniors from this part of the survey and we also only surveyed the top 40 ranked riders from the past two years in each discipline. This means that it's almost guaranteed that some of the riders you see on a broadcast of an event aren't earning a penny for being there. If we switch from the mode to the median, the average is marginally higher with the average rider getting paid $10,000-20,000 USD per year.
One other conclusion we can draw from this data is that riders either get paid relatively well or not that well at all. So, while 51.65% of riders earn less than $20,000 USD, nearly a third of pro riders get paid more than $40,000 USD per year and nearly a quarter earn more than $50,000 USD.
Some riders are able to transcend the sport of mountain biking and their relative celebrity means they can begin to earn a significant wage through non-endemic sponsorships. We know that a handful of the biggest riders in the sport are pulling in more than $500,000 USD but as several riders declined to answer this question, only one person confirmed making more than that amount. For the sake of anonymity, we have removed that person from the remaining graphs (although we have included them in the calculated averages) and won't be disclosing any more details about them.
Of all the riders surveyed, just under half (49%) were able to earn their full living from mountain biking without having to supplement it with another income source, while 21% told us they earn no money from the sport at all. As for the remaining riders, 16.2% said it was more than half of their total income while 13.6% said it was less than half. This means in total, 51% of riders have to have a second income stream.
Pay By Discipline
So what happens when we break down the numbers by discipline? Well, a number of things stick out, firstly, it seems that the patterns of pay are pretty consistent between disciplines. We can see that the majority of riders earn either very little or quite a lot with a dip between the two in the middle. The two disciplines that don't follow this pattern are slopestyle and cross country, where it seems like there's a fairly consistent pay scale across the sport.
Based off the numbers it appears that slopestyle riders get compensated the best, but it's worth noting that this comes from a very small sample size of only 18 riders.
Cross Country: 30,000-40,000 USD
Downhill: 5,000-10,000 USD
Enduro: 10,000 - 20,000 USD
Slopestyle and freeride: 40,000 - 50,000 USD
Cross Country: 50,000 - 100,000 USD
Downhill: 0-5,000 USD
Enduro: 0-5,000 USD
Slopestyle and freeride: 100,000 - 250,000 USD
The other striking fact is how many professional top-40 enduro and downhill racers are paid less than $5,000 per year
. For the enduro riders, it's almost a quarter and for downhill, it's nearly half. We have another article coming that will explore exactly why downhill riders seem to be paid less than other disciplines despite being an incredibly popular form of racing among fans, and a clear proving ground for the sport's halo products.
The discipline with the fewest riders not being paid is cross country. While mountain biking doesn't have the same minimum wage requirements of road cycling, it does appear that the culture of riders being paid for their racing has carried over to XC. Whether it's due to being an olympic sport, its competition with road cycling for top athletes, or something else isn't clear.
The Gender Pay Gap
There does appear to be a significant gender pay gap in mountain biking. For a start, a lot more top 40 women are earning less than $5,000 USD for their riding - 32.4% for women vs 23.4% for men.
There also seems to be a very clear ceiling for women's pay that's lower than the men's. For the most part, female pro mountain bikers' pay tops out at about $50,000 - $100,000 while some of the top paid men are paid significantly more than that.
Men: 20,000 - 30,000 USD
Women: 10,000 - 20,000 USD
Men: 0-5,000 USD
Women: 0-5,000 USD
The reasons why women haven't been able to break into the higher brackets of pay with as much regularity as men are varied and complex, but issues surrounding media coverage, exposure, purchase influence, and prevailing attitudes within the sport all play a part. We'll be exploring this further in other articles and tracking it throughout the years as the survey continues as an annual event.
What makes up a pro mountain biker's pay packet?
Mountain bikers' contracts generally don't just include one round figure that they cash in at the bank every month. Most pro riders will have some sort of base wage but they are incentivized to increase their pay through bonuses that may include anything from results to social media posts to magazine front covers.
In fact, of the nearly 200 riders we surveyed, only 21.9% of them earned all their money through a wage alone. The largest group of riders (33.3%) earned 60-80% of their money through a wage but this was followed by 28.6% of riders who don't earn any money through a wage. This could put riders in a truly precarious position if an injury (or global pandemic) means they are unable to complete any of their bonuses.
What do sponsors value?
We asked riders what their sponsors value the most in an athlete and the majority of riders (50.5%) said that it was consistent results in their chosen discipline. A further 13% of riders said it was strong one-off results. If you ever wonder why athletes get so nervous at each event, this is a good illustration of why - nearly two-thirds of them will be trying to justify their wage over the next few minutes or hours and they generally get less than 10 chances a year to do so.
Other high-scoring qualities for riders include an active social media presence (23.2%), face-to-face interaction with the public (6.1%) and media coverage from events (3.5%).
Again please note, this is what riders believe their sponsors value. It may not reflect what their sponsors actually
value. Anecdotally, we hear that very few sports marketing people are willing to spend much on top 40 athletes if they don’t bring something else to the table—strong social media presence, sick style for the catalogue shoot, a good relationship with a distributor in a key market, etc. Maybe we'll have to do an anonymous sport marketing managers' survey as well next year.
Do pro mountain bikers think they are paid fairly?
So, we've established that the majority of mountain bikers aren't making a fortune, but do they think their pay is fair despite this? After all, for most of these riders, being paid to ride your bike is a dream job, and they may be willing to give up the higher salary a 9-to-5 grind might bring in exchange for the lifestyle of a pro rider. For a lot of riders, there's more to their profession than simply earning a pay packet. The thrill of competition, the ability to ride their bikes full time, the equipment, and the travel that come along with it all factors into their career choices. Mountain bikers are also aware they aren't packing out stadiums, but equally their job carries a huge amount of physical risk and sacrifice.
We asked riders to respond to the statement, "I am paid fairly for what I do" and the responses are a mixed bag. 29.1% of riders agree to some extent, 43.4% disagree to some extent and the remaining 27.6% of riders answered the question neutrally.
When we break this down further, it won't surprise anyone to learn that the responses seem to track riders' wages. The largest amount of disagreement came from riders who earned 5,000-10,000 USD, where 89.48% of riders didn't think they were being paid fairly.
The results on this topic are interesting, and it's a subject worth digging deeper on. How much brands should be paying athletes that may or may not be influencing purchase decisions will be a major discussion point, but the big takeaway for us is that racing remains incredibly privileged. Even when they “make it” on the World Cup stage, many of these racers are depending on family support to pay for their racing. Stay tuned for further thoughts on athlete pay in the near future.
What do you think? Are pro riders paid fairly? Do you really buy products because of a rider placing top 40? Is the sport losing out on talent because of its lack of opportunities?
Editor's Note We rely on athletes' trust to carry out this survey, any attempts to identify riders will be deleted from the comment section