Words by Rachel Fenton
When I first took up mountain biking sometime in the noughties it was impossible to imagine that you would be able to sit down at a computer and watch the XC racing live streamed on the internet. I remember watching the Athens (Olympics) race in a B&B and thinking how awesome it was to be able to actually see how good the people at the top of the sport were. Compared to the student and Gorrick races I had been to it seemed like a different world. Roll on nine years and we think nothing of the fact that every single round of the Eliminator, XC and DH World Cups are available for everyone in the world to watch live and for free, and similarly that other smaller events increasingly have live timing and high quality event videos. If you want to find out about an event, you can almost certainly find a video of it online.
For the teams and riders at the top of the sport this has gone some way to increasing their profile. The marketing potential of their bikes and bodies is big and the number of riders sporting advertising panels on their helmets is a good demonstration of this. But there are very few riders in the UK who are lucky enough and appear on screen enough to be able to make the most of this lucrative channel. Top domestic riders – even those putting themselves out there on the World Cup scene – still often struggle to get the support they need and the chance that they might appear on screen for a couple of seconds at the most in an internet streamed race is unlikely to provide them with much of an opportunity.
While our sport is clearly growing in stature and appeal and the internet has made it accessible to anyone who wants to search it out, they still have to do just that – search it out. Very few people who don’t ride a MTB at the weekend will happen to glance upon the RedBull live website and think “Oooh I wonder what this mountain biking thing is about” (although that’s not to say this doesn’t happen). I would be very interested to find out the number of people in the UK who tuned in to the Olympic XC race on the BBC because I suspect that the numbers might be on a par with the worldwide viewing figures for the RedBull coverage of the UCI World Cups.
The viewing figures for RedBull are impressive however – a total of 1.93 million worldwide for the whole series in 2013 and the most popular DH and XC events of Fort William and Albstadt gained 235,357 views and 144,927 views respectively. The year-on-year increases are also promising – DH viewing up 22.9% and XC up 41.7% on 2012. But in my experience this has not yet transferred into the increased support required to make it truly professional, particularly in the UK. Support for sport as a whole dropped off after the London Olympics and even with the Commonwealth Games around the corner support for elite XC racers outside of the GB programmes is still primarily the provision of a bike, some energy food and a bit of kit. Those who race the World Cups mostly fund their own transport, accommodation and race entries and when they do try to get specific financial support they struggle. (At this point I should say that my experience is principally from a cross country point of view – downhill racers have to some extent always had to go and make their own luck and by-and-large have been pretty successful, but I can imagine that domestic level racing and early career World Cup racing is still a pretty hard sell to a sponsor.)
Industry sponsors are only prepared to do so much of the financial backing, for all that bike sales have outstripped car sales this year no more money has found its way into support for the sport – we need outside interest and financial backing. I struggle off the top of my head to think of a company that is supporting a mountain bike team that is not from the bike or energy drink industry and the fact that our sport is only available on the internet will only go so far to helping this. If you think of road racing for instance: you can watch it on both Eurosport and ITV4 regularly through the season and off the back of which the sport has been able to generate a lot more in terms of external sponsorship.
But its not all doom and gloom, the bigger that cycling as a whole becomes in this country the more mainstream coverage mountain biking should get as a part of that. This has already started to happen. The ITV4 Cycleshow has had a number of mountain bike segments and the outlook is even more positive with the new SweetSpot organised mountain bike stage race, Xcalibre, which is going to be shown on ITV4 as well. This is incredibly exciting for the discipline and I hope that we can all get behind these events and programmes because fundamentally it is the only way that there is going to be more support for racers in the sport.
So what I am trying to say is – it’s absolutely amazing that we can all watch World Cups on the internet, but we shouldn’t settle for that. Why not see if we can get the BBC to show more mountain bike racing (not just on Countryfile!)? Let’s give road racing a run for its money. I think mountain biking is much more exciting than some of the transition stages of the Tour de France. Then off the back of that coverage let’s hope that the kids who see Rachel Atherton racing, or Annie Last at the Olympics are able to try mountain biking and whether or not their parents can to pay for them to travel the length and breadth of the country to race won’t matter because there will be well supported, future focused teams to pick them up and show them the ropes. British Cycling has helped to provide the racing, now we need to do more to provide the racers!