Looking back through the long lens of racing history, the crossover between the different discplines certainly isn’t anything new. Cross racing has always been the winter warmer for Low Countries pro roadies who’d rather plough through polder than emigrate to Palma so it's no surprise there’s always been cross over there. John Tomac famously used drop bars on this MTB for a while as his coach was preparing him for road racing. Cadel Evans went on to have a hugely successful road career after dominating the XC circuit for Cannondale. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot proved herself the ultimate crossover racer in 2015 when she became World Champion in road, MTB and CX aged just 23.
With riders such as Tom Pidcock, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel winning on dirt, soggy sand and tarmac there seems to be way more fluidity in the RCXMTB community now than ever before though. Is that a reflection of a younger racing population not hung up on respect, a more open-minded-rather-traditional racing community, scientific-based talent-spotting or a mix of those factors and a whole lot more? And is it good for the sport?
Okay, let’s get the last question out of the way first. Is it good for the sport? Are you kidding me? Okay - so I may be a little bit biased but regardless of results the performance and entertainment progression being injected into road racing by riders with an MTB background.
When Team Sky was doing their inhuman centipede act up every Alp, 2008 Junior MTB World Champion Peter Sagan blowing up sprints or pulling random wheelies was almost the only thing worth watching for years. And talking of wheelies, I hope the most recent roadie signing, Victor Koretzky, still keeps the steeze to wheelie flat out until the B&B Hotels p/b KTM team car can repair his front puncture in the same way he styled to the pits at the Snowshoe XCO World Cup. Then again, seeing as he announced the potential move to the French Continental team without getting the go-ahead from the KMC-Orbea team, for who he’s currently leading the MTB XCO rankings for maybe, maybe Victor’s next signing will actually be for Deliveroo.
Anyway back to the point - fleetingly - surely knowing that Tom Pidcock can sandwich dirt jump sessions at Adel Woods in Leeds between winning the Tokyo Olympic Games MTB gold and being rightly disappointed to only get 6th at the World Road Championships is more of a turn-on for young riders than the thought of endless club runs with old codgers like me or even worse, restricted gear time trialling. That’s like wondering why there’s no next Lewis Hamilton because you’ve stopped kids racing go-karts and made them do completive lawn mowing instead.
Talking to Tom Barras (Tom Pidcock’s coach prior to his Ineos signing) developing those skills and keeping that mindset is crucial to keep a rider sharp, too. “Some coaches and teams would forbid a rider from doing that because of the worry about injury but the minute you take that confidence and attitude away, he’s no longer the same rider and he can’t win those types of races where risk is a big element anymore. In fact, he’s more likely to get injured because he’s lost the skills and that attitude. That variation is a massive part of why he still enjoys riding so much and that versatility is mega and it’s just part of what makes the current generation of riders so exciting.”
Pidcock’s arch-rival on the bike, and online gaming pal off the bike, Mathieu van der Poel is another great example of huge success right across mixed-format racing. Unfortunately, his crash at the Olympics made gauging whether racing into the yellow jersey at the Tour De France for several days was good prep for the biggest MTB race of the last five years. He was clearly in good shape going into the race though and so far all the worries about burnout and fade from his relentless multi-discipline racing schedule seem unfounded. Two other standout explosively combative riders from the current peloton - Belgian powerhouse Wout van Aert and back to back World Champion Julian Alaphilipe - come from a podium rich cyclocross background, too. It’s the powerful, interval-after-interval-honed physiological base that MTB creates that’s been a big part of Team Jumbo-Visma signing top ten Dutch MTB racer Milan Vader onto a mixed road and off-road contract for next year, too, citing his suitability for “powerful attacks in terrain up to medium mountains’.
It’s not just the engines that plugging through mud and sand create that’s catching the attention of big road teams either. Team Lotto-Jumbo Visma has already praised Vader for his positive team attitude (unfortunately fellow Dutchman and Olympic MTB teammate van der Poel didn’t listen to his advice on ramp removal from the Japanese course). According to Barras, his background in MTB and cross racing means Tom Pidcock “makes excellent racing decisions when he’s totally in the red, too, so he’s still functioning well, mentally, at the highest output. His ability to think clearly at the highest exertion and technical skill level means he’s not phased by anyone, or any situation.” Riders like Olympic MTB silver medallist Sina Frei and Ondrej Cink were mixing it up right to the end of their respective World Championship road races last weekend, too.
That’s not to say that coming up through MTB - even to the highest level - is a guarantee of success on the road. The legendary Nino Schurter raced for Orica-GreenEDGE in 2014 without significant wins and that was the only year between 2012 and 2019 he wasn’t XCO World Champion (he was second).
Like pretty much every feature right now, we need to also consider the growth of gravel racing and how, in yet another ‘early MTB’ parallel, that’s proving a very happy hunting ground for elite racers from other sides of cycling. That includes pro road riders - or at least team time trial-style tactics - starting to dominate in the US and double Olympic gold medal-winning triathlete Alistair Brownlee recently becoming the first UK gravel champ with a blistering 35km/h average around the 70km Thetford Forest course.
And no doubt the news of a triathlete ripping through their cycling safe space has seen a few hipsters crying into their tin mugs. There are definitely some hardcore roadies horrified about these disrespectful dirt monkeys tearing up the training rules too. But it’s very hard to deny that diversity and enriching the gene pool of any sport (not in an illegal blood transfusion/human hormone sort of way) is nearly always a very positive thing in terms of both performance and entertainment.
And if Tom Pidcock comes good on his promise to try racing a World Cup Downhill or even Red Bull Rampage then things are really going to get interesting!