Our Racing Rumors series is usually about who's going to what team or a soon-to-be-released bike, but there are (and already have been) some big changes afoot behind the scenes. Last year saw Discovery Inc, now Warner Bros. Discovery, invest in the Enduro World Series. And this June we learned that they, through the newly formed Enduro Sports Organization, will provide the organization, media, production, broadcast, and promotion of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup from 2023 to 2030.
With so many high-level changes, many of us are wondering how the series will look next year and beyond, especially the World Cup teams and racers themselves who have concerns about the calendar, size of the field, and team entry fees. That seems to have spurred racers towards forming a union, with meetings in both Lenzerheide and Vallnord already taking place. If you haven't seen it yet, check out Henry's video interview with Loic Bruni, Vali Holl, Greg Minnaar, and others where they explain their motivation for the union.
We've reached out to all of the acronyms - UCI, ESO, ETC - for comment and while we haven't gotten any additional information so far, we will update this article as the picture becomes clearer. But for now, let's go over some of the rumours floating around.
Men's Field Cut to the Top 30 Racers Status: Unconfirmed, appears likely
The rumour greeted with the most disdain in the comment section is that the men's final might include only the thirty quickest qualifiers, which is fewer than half of what currently get through to the main event on Sunday. A smaller field will see qualifying count for more than ever, of course, but it could also mean that we'll see fewer young guns, privateers, and non-factory racers spending their own time and money following the circuit. So, what could be the motivation behind allowing only thirty qualifiers?
Now that Warner Bros. Discovery and ESO are looking after the broadcasting and production of the series, they might want to streamline things for exactly those two points. A shorter, more exciting finals might also be easier to broadcast live, and ditching more than half the field would also underline how elite the best in the world really are. As some commenters brought up, many other top-tier sports have far fewer athletes in the main event, which makes getting there even more of an achievement.
It's worth pointing out that we ran a poll
recently about racing coverage, and about 90% of respondents said they'd "prefer to see the faster riders perform on long segments of the race track"
rather than "watch a the entire qualifying groups with less coverage per run".
The poll wasn't directly addressing this rumour (the community overwhelmingly opposes a smaller number of qualifiers), but it speaks to the desire for more coverage of the fastest riders.
But there are downsides to a thirty-rider finals. Other commenters raised concerns over a smaller field hindering up-and-coming racers while pointing out that one of the best aspects of the World Cup is "how top privateers can compete with the world's elite." And we'd have to agree. What about timed training, the women's field, and the juniors? Does a halved men's field accompany a doubled women's field to achieve gender parity in qualifying and finals coverage? No idea, but we've reached out to the ESO for comment and can't stress enough that this is still an unconfirmed rumour.
Pay-Per-View on Discovery+ Only Status: Unlikely (for now)
More mixed news, if true, is that World Cup races will be broadcast exclusively on Discovery+, an on-demand streaming service that requires a paid subscription. While this seems unlikely given the small viewing numbers our sport attracts (relatively speaking for a company like Warner Bros. Discovery), it's a model that many other sports have taken to over the previous few years.
Upsides? We should all cross our fingers for far more on-course cameras and improved coverage, of course, but it would also be interesting to see some infographics on-screen during the race. Imagine if we could watch overlays of a racer's heart rate, wattage, or even a live on-board stream from Amaury Pierron's helmet in Fort William? All of that is already implemented in other action sports, so it's not too far-fetched. I might be alone on this, but I'd absolutely pay for the kind of access that I get to Formula 1 racing from its paid F1 TV service.
Of course, paid access to WC racing would severely limit the audience, and we've heard that at least one large bike brand would seriously reconsider the scale of their participation if that happened. And what would all this do to the agreements the UCI wants with mainstream brands like Mercedes? The understandably vague answers we've seen from ESO point to broadcast rights being a moving target and potentially not decided yet. If we were going to speculate, and you know I will, it'd be that there will continue to be a free to watch offering, similar to what Red Bull had in the past, while they tool up a premium tier.
No Rob Warner & Remote Commentary Status: Confirmed & unconfirmed, respectively“How can Danny Hart sit down with balls that big!?”
will forever go down as one of the best sports commentaries of all time, a quote from the voice of mountain bike racing: Rob Warner. A former World Cup racer himself, Warner has been calling the action how only he can since forever and it'd be hard to listen to anyone else... But that's exactly what's going to happen at the first race next year. Why? Warner reportedly inked a new deal with Red Bull this spring who, if you skipped everything above this, are no longer broadcasting our sport. By the power of deduction, that tells us that we won't have Rob's English excitement again as we did on that day in Champery back in 2011 and so many times since.
We reached out to Warner who confirmed the rumour: "No, that’s true. I won’t be working with the UCI for the foreseeable future, I’ll be working for Red Bull."
So, who will be screaming at us about the size of riders' metaphorical appendages? We don't know yet, but rumour has it that the commentators will be off-site, likely covering the action remotely from another country. While that might sound strange, it's actually how many sports do it, often without anyone being the wiser.
Team Registration Increases to $20,000 Status: Unconfirmed, but plausible
Currently, teams need to pay a $3,000 registration fee in order to take part in the World Cup series, but there is talk of that being increased nearly seven-fold to $20,000 per team. That's a big increase, but why? We're still waiting to hear back from the ESO on this one, but fewer racers (remember, only the top thirty might qualify) likely leading to fewer teams could be a factor. And especially if Warner Bros. Discovery and the ESO are looking to improve the sport's coverage while simultaneously having a smaller field.
There's a big 'but' to point out as well: we don't yet know if any fee increases would only apply to the elite teams, or if smaller outfits and privateers would be impacted too.
A World Cup DH Racers Union Status: Confirmed
If you've seen the video, you already know that this one quickly went from being a rumour to being confirmed. Spearheaded by Loic Bruni, the goal is to give racers more of a voice in the sport they compete in, especially when it comes to track and safety concerns.
Finn Iles, who describes the effort as more of an association than a union, has worked closely with Bruni to lead the charge and echoed what others said about needing representation: "Right now we have absolutely no say in anything. We have no say for track, we have no say for prize money, we have no say for safety, no say for anything. And we're the ones that are the product."
Two racer meetings have taken place, one in Lenzerheide and the other in Vallnord, but details are expectedly scarce.
It's worth noting that several of the most vocal riders promoting a racers' union are sponsored by Red Bull, who lost out on the world cup broadcast rights for 2023. I'm not suggesting that Red Bull is fomenting the union, but that there's much less of a conflict for their riders now that Red Bull won't be the broadcast partner.
It's clear that there will be some changes to World Cup downhill racing for 2023 and beyond, but exactly how significant those changes will remain to be seen. What's your take: would you pay for a streaming service if it was vastly improved? The downsides to a smaller field are obvious, but could there be some pluses? What would you change about the calendar or race format?