King of the Hill
Downhill racing is still the king of mountain bike competition. Ahead of the new season Tim Wild explains why it sits head-and-shoulders above its fat-tyred brethren.
As I write this the first round of the Downhill World Cup is just two weeks away. It is fair to say that I’m quite excited as I wait for Rob Warner to kick things off.
No other form of mountain bike competition would have me this excited two weeks before the event starts. I have given everything else a fair chance to make it to the list of sporting events I must watch live. Yes, I’ve even sat through a couple of Cross Country Eliminator races.
I know I’m not alone in my love of downhill racing; downhill has a broad appeal that other mountain bike events don’t. It has long been popular amongst action sports fans and it is currently knocking on the door of the mainstream.
Why is downhill king?
Well, the simplistic nature of getting down the hill as quickly as you can with one run is something everyone can relate to. Individual time trials are pretty common in sports, so any sports fan can sit down and ‘get’ the concept of a downhill race. No rules or explanations are needed.
It’s pretty pure and stripped back too. Unlike many sports there are few tactics or strategies for the viewer to understand and contextualize. While strategy and tactics are pretty much essential for long-form sports, in the short and explosive all-or-nothing time trial format the viewer isn’t distracted about tactical decisions or judges.
It’s just so simple for the viewer to understand, the best sports are.
Enduro, while simple in nature, is a sport for participating in rather than a sport for watching.
Even if there was a way of covering all the stages with cameras I still don’t see it being something that is easy for a viewer to watch live. What happens when racers are transitioning between stages? What happens when the winner is clear (barring disaster) long before the final stage starts? Where are the tactics that a long-form sport needs?
I follow EWS loosely, and I appreciate the coverage after the event but we have to be able to acknowledge it doesn’t work ‘live’ and it’ll struggle to make it to mainstream audiences. (Name a mainstream sport that doesn’t work live).
Freestyle competitions simply piss me off when I try to watch them live. Weather, unpolished production, course delays and judging all gently rub away at the excitement of seeing the best freestyle riders throw down.
Rampage is probably the closest thing to a mainstream freestyle competition but it is also the cycling equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest. It takes forever to sit through, the judging is questionable but you watch it because something mad could happen at any moment.
The trouble is, insane action or not, I don’t know anyone that thinks Rampage works as a live event. Props to all riders, what you do is nuts, but it says a lot about a competition when the results are largely disputed and that the photographs that appear in the days after the event are always more interesting than the event itself.
4x is the best of the rest when it comes to viewing pleasure. While it has bursts of brilliance, there is a lot of (in)action for the casual viewer to sit through before the final. In its current format (that includes broadcasting) I don’t see it breaking through to action sport audiences in the same way downhill has.
I’ve used the work ‘live’ a lot here… but live action is crucial to the success of sport with the public. I get far less enjoyment from watching any sports event highlights or ‘as live’ replays.
Why? Community. That sense of belonging and in-it-togetherness makes sport great, whether you are one of 60,000 people in a stadium or alone on a sofa. I know that when something unexpected happens I’m one of hundreds of thousands of people sitting with my mouth open or laughing in disbelief, sharing a moment.
During the event I can get on Twitter and get the gossip from journos and photogs who are there. I can get online after the race and discuss it. That just doesn’t happen when an event isn’t live or can’t sustain levels of excitement throughout.
Downhill is so pure and simple that you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy it. One rider has one run to get down the hill as quickly as possible. Anything can happen and looking at the Redbull viewing figures year-on-year word is clearly spreading.
Success breeds success, so along with that timeless format it is the ever-growing community that really makes downhill the king of mountain bike competition.