The off-season is a great time to review rider performances, speculate on team changes, drool over the latest dream bikes being released, and take stock of everything that happened over the previous months. It’s also a time for the UCI to discuss how to make the premier series of mountain bike racing even better.

They also brought back XC Eliminator. In the city. Because they couldn’t polish a turd but they could turn it into yet another form of road racing. I’m sure it will be great…

Anyway, here is what the UCI have done to DH for 2017:

In order to better protect the integrity of the course and therefore improve the quality of competition, the UCI Management Committee agreed the following changes for the Downhill events of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup presented by Shimano:

• To reduce the number of riders by increasing the number of points required to participate (from 30 to 40 points);

• To reduce the number of riders participating in the final (15 Women Elite and 20 Juniors);

• To have a separate DHI Women Junior event.

Now, I’d like to discuss each point in turn as I believe there to be merit to each of the changes, but first pay attention to their reasoning:

In order to better protect the integrity of the course and therefore improve the quality of competition…”

We all know that DH courses deteriorate at a much faster rate when they’re being raced on, just by virtue of the number of riders hitting the course over such a short period of time. Throw adverse weather into the mix, and obviously the integrity of the course is going to be affected.

I don’t believe that any of these changes are sufficient to make a noticeable change to the track’s integrity across a weekend, and it certainly won’t affect the quality of competition when everyone has to race in the same conditions. Never mind that it is an Elite mountain bike race, where a few lumps and bumps are expected; if we wanted to see racing on smooth unchanging surfaces, we’d be watching road racing! So come on UCI, make changes if you must, but don’t give us some bullshit reasoning!

On to the rule changes then:

1) Increasing the number of UCI points required to enter World Cups.

Logically, making the entry requirements higher to enter the races would reduce the number of riders able to race. In practice however this is highly unlikely to have the desired effect. Every rider at the pointy end of the field, bar those who missed significant portions of the previous season due to injury, will have enough points to race. As James Smurthwaite of Dirt noted“there are still 389 men and 185 women eligible for World Cups”.
Coupled with the fact that each national federation has the ability to award entry 3 riders who otherwise would not be eligible, the change in points criteria is unlikely to have significant effect. Similar effects were discussed last time there was a change to the points required in 2015.

2) To have a separate DHI Women Junior event.

At present there are between 3-7 junior female riders at each World Cup, so creating a separate event for them may seem in vain. However, in light of supporting equality in mountain biking it would only be fair, mirroring the introduction of the Junior Men class in 2010. With luck, the effects of the Junior Women class will mirror those of the men’s class too, boosting entries and encouraging the next generation of young riders. An added bonus is that with each junior rider automatically qualifying for Finals, there is incentive for the larger teams to support junior riders due to the extra opportunity for coverage for sponsors. On the flip side, more junior entries doesn’t really support the UCI’s argument for reducing the total number of riders on the course…

3) To reduce the number of riders participating in the final (15 Women Elite and 20 Junior)

Undoubtedly the most contentious issue raised with these changes, Pinkbike conducted interviews with some major players on World Cup scene, from organisers and press to the riders themselves, to get their thoughts. Most of those interviewed agreed with the rule based on fact and expert opinion, although there was an argument raised for it being a sexist rule.

The salient point is this: the disparity in times between the top 10 Elite women and the rest of the field is too large to be ignored. For example at Leogang 2016 (chosen as it is a comparatively less physical and technical track), the time difference between the 1st and 20th place finisher was over 1 minute. By comparison, that time difference in the men’s race between the same positions was 14 seconds. A minute long gap would have placed a rider in 82nd position.

It could be argued that reducing the number of women who qualify for Finals will have a detrimental effect on women’s racing as a whole, however I think it will have the opposite effect. With fewer places available, the developing riders will be pushing harder to qualify. Of course, accidents and mechanicals happen in qualifying runs, and if you are not protected you will not qualify. That is racing!

A reduction in the number of qualifying riders will cease rewarding riders who may have scored enough points to enter the race, but do not have the necessary skills to compete at World Cup level. It would be far more beneficial to those riders to race in other series, such as the IXS Cup, which offer competitive racing on World Cup standard tracks, but a more open field. Once they have refined their race craft and regularly achieve top results at that level, they will be more prepared to race at World Cups and challenge the current top performers. This will make the racing more exciting to watch, which in turn will raise the profile of women’s downhill as a whole.

Conclusion

The changes for the 2017 season are likely to reduce the number of riders at each round, although perhaps not by as many as was originally intended. Despite some dubious reasoning from the UCI, I think the changes are likely to bring in some improvements to the general standard of racing, and definite support for the next generation of female riders.

If the deterioration or tracks is truly an issue, perhaps they could look at reinstating the already brutal courses? Riders seem to prefer them, fans like to watch the racing on them, and track integrity would surely be less of an issue. We won’t see this next year as the calendar has already been released, but it may be something to consider in future.

Cover Photo: Factory Jackson

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