Incoming roadie talk, but trust me it will all make sense in a moment.
In recent years, road teams such as Mathieu van der Poel’s Alpecin Fenix and Tom Pidcock’s Ineos Grenadiers
began to dip their toes into cross-country mountain biking. This off season however, the floodgates seem to have opened and now both Jumbo Visma and B&B Hotels p/b KTM have joined the circuit through Milan Vader
and Victor Koretzky
Why is this? Well, a new breed of racers is emerging at the top of road cycling. Rather than staring at their stems and tempo-ing to power as part of a train of riders, they’re powerful, explosive, unpredictable, and recover quickly to disrupt the rhythm of their rivals. Riders like Alaphilippe, Van Aert, Stybar, and Van Der Poel all got their start in cyclocross and are now dominating the road racing circuit. None of these riders are yet seriously challenging for the most prestigious Grand Tour races
, where lightweight climbers and time triallists are still kings, but in the Classics, Monuments and shorter Stage Races, these riders are reigning supreme.
Cyclocross’s sustained, hour-long efforts on sharp muddy climbs earned these riders their strong legs, while maneuvering skinny tyres through slimy mud granted them superior bike handling skills to their more robotic rivals. If that skillset sounds familiar, it’s probably because cross-country mountain biking isn’t too far removed from the winter sport from Northern Europe. If you take cyclocross but make the courses techier, the climbs longer and the bikes a bit more suited to the terrain, then you basically have cross-country mountain biking. Even with the more technical courses we’re seeing in cross-country these days, XC racing isn’t a huge leap from cyclocross, which is why it has started to attract the attention of road cycling teams.
So, what’s the plan here? Is cross-country just going to become a feeder series for road racing and all of its best talents will be frittered away to grind themselves up alpine passes for a living?
Well, hopefully not. Van Der Poel and Van Aert still race cyclocross races because they value it as an important part of their race calendar and it keeps those skills sharp through the winter. Similarly, Pidcock was able to twist the arm of Ineos into starting a mountain bike program so he could target the Olympics and both Vader and Koretzky have said they will race on dirt alongside the road next year, albeit with a reduced calendar focussing on the biggest races.
Victor Koretzky won two World Cups in 2021, but will be racing fewer World Cups with his new team in 2022
XCO racing itself is also growing in viewership and prestige. Red Bull is never too open with its viewing figures but we know its streams passed 1 million views in 2015 and that it grew by 50% in 2018 alone. Add on top of this the drama and excitement of the Olympic Games and it’s clear mountain biking is a sport on the rise that team sponsors will want high-profile riders to be involved in. In fact, the inclusion of road teams is likely to be an even bigger boost for the discipline. Jumbo Visma has an annual team budget of €20 million, which we imagine is bigger than the rest of the XCO World Cup teams put together. Add to that the reported €50 million budget of Ineos Grenadiers, and you can start to imagine a significant financial boost for the sport of XC. The sport should also benefit from an influx of curious new fans that have come from the world of road cycling, who will further bolster its growing fanbase.
It’s going to be a very exciting few years in cross-country racing.