Riding mountain bikes is pretty fun, learning the skills and techniques required to master obstacles and seeing progress as you clean sections you had to walk last month is awesome. For many people, mountain biking is more about personal achievement than competition and, while most roadies will pin on a number and compete, most mountain bikers are content to pit themselves against trails, not other racers.
Racing has been a pretty small part of mountain bike riding and an even smaller part of cycling spectatorship. A road race lends itself to watching, it comes to where people are and is easy to follow on TV. The peloton is easy to identify and helicopters, motorcycles, and fixed cameras can broadcast great footage from road races on the other side of the earth to your living room. Mountain biking happens in the woods, where helicopters don’t work and motorcycles can’t go. Riders in off-road races tend to be more spread out, and hiking into the woods for an hour to watch a few brightly clad bike racers hurtle past on a rock garden isn’t as appealing as picnicking by the side of the road in France in July.
But, things have changed. MTB races are seeing huge surges in viewership (a 50% increase was reported in 2018) and that viewership is becoming more interested in cross-country, which for the first time ever surpassed downhill in terms of viewers last year.
So what’s changed to make mountain biking a spectator sport? Firstly, Red Bull has stepped in to provide the logistics, technology, and funding required to show races for free on their online platform. Where once you could watch a stream of the finish line, regardless of where the race was, Red Bull now sends 16-18 cameras to every World Cup event. Every year since 2013 Red Bull has provided free streams of World Cup races and every year more and more people have watched. Increased viewership has meant that sponsors and venues are stepping up, putting on their best show for a growing global audience.
It’s not just the tech though, Red Bull Media has become the seal of approval for any non-traditional sport. A decade ago, how many of us had ever watched cliff diving or even knew that airplane racing existed? Red Bull took a soft drink company and made it the official beverage of adrenaline sports. Just log onto Red Bull Tv and you can see anything from free diving to skydiving. Red Bull not only sponsors events, it makes them possible. Without the huge budget that the drinks company brings, there would be no way to fun events like the Red Bull Rampage, which has changed the scale of freeride mountain biking forever. That kind of investment hasn’t gone unrewarded, at the time of writing their video of Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic freefall has nearly 45 million views (LINK https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=FHtvDA0W34I). By taking a relatively nerdy endurance sport, and packaging it with kite surfing and BASE jumping, Red Bull gave a whole new audience to two wheeled competition and made cross-country cool.
With more viewers, race formats have changed. Cross-country races have gotten shorter, more competitive, and more technical, while XCO (Cross-country Olympic) races pack more thrilling moments into an easily digestible 90 minute package. The UCI also added XCC ( Cross-country short track) which lasts only 20 minutes in most cases and is raced on a 2km course. The names are no coincidence, the Olympic games have further increased viewing, with the London 2012 Olympics being so well televised across the globe, people in non-traditional MTB markets got the bug and were able to tune in online for free the very next year when Red Bull arrived.
Bikes have changed as well. Where once cross-country racers rode 80mm forks and narrow tires on hardtails, today most of the field will ride 100mm full suspension bikes, many will use dropper posts, and tires that would have been reserved for downhillers twenty years ago win World Cup cross country races today. These changes in tech, as well as increased funding and thousands of viewers wanting to see high stakes technical terrain have changed courses. 90s XCO courses were little more than dirt roads between tapes, now courses feature rock gardens and drop offs that are nearly always man made to better facilitate TV and live viewing.
If you tune into the World Cup racing this year, you’re not only watching mountain biking with more people in more places than ever before, you’re also helping to make it better for people to watch!