Words by George Scott
Cast your mind back to 2010 and Vancouver, Canada – ski cross and snowboard cross appeared on the Winter Olympic programme for the first time and took the Games by storm. Can the cross-country eliminator, which follows a similar format, breathe new life into mountain bike racing?
The eliminator made its World Cup debut in Houffalize, Belgium, at the weekend and a rainbow jersey will be up for grabs when the event is included as part of the World Championships for the first time in Saalfelden, Austria, in September – and the UCI hope to add the event to the Olympic schedule in the future.
The eliminator follows a similar format to ski/snowboard cross. Riders qualify in a time trial before racing through four-rider heats, with the fastest two progressing, eventually reaching the final, going shoulder-to-shoulder for the top spot on the podium.
Ski/snowboard cross proved a huge hit with crowds in Canada and the eliminator has all the ingredients to emulate that success – hell-for-leather racing over a short, compact course, with the event decided over just a few hours and a gold medallist at the end . All that, and its easy-to-understand format, makes it ready-made for television, an area where mountain biking has traditionally fallen short.
Great Britain’s Annie Last won the inaugural women’s World Cup event, while Brian Lopes took the men’s title. With the racing taking place less than 48 hours before the elite cross-country events, many riders were unwilling to sacrifice their race legs but a reverse in the race schedule will solve that problem, according to Simon Burney, former Great Britain team manager and now a UCI official.
“We want to try and make the eliminator after the cross-country World Cup where we can,” Burney told Shimano Race TV (watch the video below). “When we do that we should see more support from the big guys. We’ve got the World Championships for the first time this year in Saalfelden, Austria, so when there’s a World Championship jersey at stake then the team’s will be more excited about having those guys compete.
“And at the World Championships the eliminator will be after the cross-country – the cross-country will be on the Saturday and the eliminator on the Sunday – so I think there we’ll see a lot more of the big names competing.
“And the dream? The vision for the future, because we’ve always got to try and keep progressing, is to have the eliminator as an extra Olympic medal event in the future. That’s what we’re driving towards. Whether it happens or not we need to see, but we need to have that ambition and that focus.”
Mountain biking’s Olympic future has previously been cast into doubt, with the sport required to improve spectator numbers and television viewing figures at London 2012, after which its performance will be evaluated by the UCI and International Olympic Committee.
This translates to a London 2012 course which has been designed on an open hillside, allowing spectators to view multiple sections of the race from one vantage points, while the track has been updated following last year’s test event to allow for more overtaking.
And while cross-country may remain the holy grail for riders, the eliminator offers a ready-made race format to lead the sport in the 21st Century.