One of the factors that will always prevent mountain biking from being a truly universal sport is getting fans to the track to watch the action. Our sport by very definition takes us out away from the world. This is great for us as riders, but not so good for people that want to come and watch the racing. If you want to watch a mountain bike race you have to really want to go and do it. You need to travel to the venue, hike out to the best spot to watch the riders, then usually wait for several hours for the riders to come past you. For Serious Sports Fans, that's not a problem, ask the people who camp on the peaks of the great climbs of the Tour de France weeks in advance of the race, just to have the perfect spot for that one moment. But any mass market is made up of people who don't care so much, people who would like to fit a couple of hours of race spectating into a weekend filled with necessities, like childcare, DIY and grocery shopping. People who maybe don't know so much about the sport, but would be excited to see it, if it was there for them.
It's no accident that the most-attended variant of motocross is Supercross. The success of the format lies in its accessibility. It is there in the city centres. You don't have to get cold, wet or muddy to watch it, you are never more than 100 metres from a cold beer and those god-awful garlic fries, and, maybe most-importantly of all, they put on a show. Even though the racing is barely half of your time in the arena, you aren't left waiting for something to happen, with the fireworks, entertainment and Kevin Windham sending insane transfer lines it's a complete show. Supercross takes motocross and packages it up for the masses.
XC Eliminator tried to adapt mountain biking for that same kind of audience. Its roots are in Italy, in the small, Tuscan town of Massa Marittima. As part of the Sram XX Cup they organised a side race through the town. The idea was simple, they taped out a shorter course right through the heart of the town and the riders went off in fours, head-to-head. By all accounts it was a great race, exciting, dramatic and right there for the residents of the town to see. But when it was brought through to World Cup racing something was lost in translation, the spark died.
The problems seem to be many-fold. Some of the courses we have seen were nothing less than embarrassing. Asphalt courses through towns have nothing to do with mountain biking and simply should never have been included. Even when the courses were better, like with Hafjell last year, it still looked dull on the broadcast. Making mountain biking look dramatic for a television audience is something DH is still trying to get right, so it should come as no surprise that technical XC racing looks less than exciting.
Then there are the riders and the status of the sport. Talk to someone like Marco Fontana
and he will explain to you that over a race weekend he has to control virtually every calorie he burns, everything goes towards the one race, the big show: the Olympic XC. Everything else is preparation for that. So asking him to burn however many hundreds or thousands of calories sprinting around a short course is a big deal, potentially compromising the race that really matters, is just never going to work. For the stars like him to commit to Eliminator, it would have to become the main show, and is this what we want to show to the world to represent mountain biking? A sport that bears virtually no resemblance to what any of us do out there on the trail.
In gravity racing, none of us should be surprised by this, anybody who remembers the early days of dual and 4X racing will know exactly where he is coming from. In the late 90s when gated racing emerged, virtually everybody took part and it wasn't uncommon to see riders like Peat, Palmer and Gracia winning those races. In fact Gee Atherton's second-ever World Cup win was at 4X, not DH and this was as recent as 2007. As downhill began to grow up and move away from the party image and towards the serious, total commitment sport we have today, more and more riders opted to skip the gated races, marking the beginning of the end for the discipline. It wasn't the nail in the coffin, by any means, but losing those stars from the racing was a huge blow from which it never recovered. To go back to Supercross, the fans want to see Villopoto, Stewart, Reed and the other superstars racing, all sports need icons for the fans to cheer on, and if the best riders aren't there giving it everything, it fails as a sport for the fans.
Surely the best thing for mountain biking is to quietly sweep XC Eliminator under the carpet. There is still a fundamental problem of access for the fans that we need to address, but this wasn't the solution. For the sake of everybody involved, let's admit that it was a nice idea that didn't work and look for a better answer...