The MTB World Championships last weekend saw a massive divergence in the ages and experience of racers standing on the top steps of the podiums of both XC and DH. What does that mean for racing? And perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for mere mortal riders of all ages?
Even 21-year-old UK racer Evie Richards admitted that she probably blew her chance of a gold medal in the short track with a caricature display of her trademark youthful over-exuberance. Pushing the pace on the front for the full race saw her just edged out for the final sprint by half a wheel. And as stoked as she was by her silver medal, her post-race interviews were basically a confession that the famously giddy Brit had completely forgotten her more considered race plan as soon as the gun had gone. Lesson learned the hard way, she went into the full XCO event with a slightly more measured approach, still in the lead group but not blowing herself apart trying to keep up with an early attack by French racing legend Pauline Ferrand-Prévot that took her 30 seconds clear of Richards and the following pack at one point.
Richards gradually pulled away from the chase group, closing on Prévot and then pulling away with an incredibly powerful, but mature display of perfect pacing that saw her charge over the finish line with her face a picture of delight and disbelief over a minute clear of Anne Terpstra in second place.
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Perhaps it was the absence of the two young stars who’ve completely reset the benchmark for elite men’s XCO recently that gave 35-year-old Swiss legend Nino Schurter the chance to turn around a disappointing season into his ninth rainbow jersey. Even with Mathieu Van der Poel still recovering from his Olympics crash and Tom Pidcock racing the Vuelta a España on the road, you can’t deny Schurter’s race tactics were textbook perfect. Punching clear of the pack with Swiss teammate Mathias Flückiger, the pair rode a two-up off-road time trial to extend their lead out of range of the rest of the chasers before going ‘mano a mano’ in the last two laps. Repeated climb attacks by Flückiger couldn’t dislodge Schurter like they have in most recent races this season, but Schurter couldn’t sneak past Flückiger before the final descent either — a move which has seen him win against both Julien Absalon, Stéphane Tempier and others at Val Di Sole previously. An attempted overtake in the rock section didn’t come off either, but when Flückiger went wide into the penultimate switchback corner to carry speed, Schurter saw his chance. Out-braking his teammate on the apex to shut him out and then lighting the afterburners all the way to the line, Schurter became the oldest ever World Championship XCO winner, as well as the youngest (his first title was in 2009).
In the Junior Men’s downhill mountain biking race, both gold and silver went to riders racing their first World Championships with US ‘sensation since he was tiny’ Jackson Goldstone taking the top step, and UK rider Jordan Williams in second. The Women’s Junior Winner Izabela Yankova also won at her first attempt with the privateer rider besting the rest of the field by nearly 11 seconds. The result that triggered this whole column though, was the massively popular return to the top of the podium by 39-year-old South African GOAT Greg Minnaar. Unlike Schurter’s result, while a couple of young French racers like Aumary Pierron were still coming back from injury, the field was still stacked with top riders.
What’s most interesting is that it wasn’t really a surprise, certainly to people who’d been watching Minnaar’s pre-race week in Val Di Sole, Italy. Even before the final runs, several people had noted he seemed the most motivated rider in the morning practice and had slid him onto their shortlists as a result. The Fox suspension pit videos show him deep in discussion after that practice, asking if he could get half a click more rebound either end (because “one click is too much”) to settle his custom painted Santa Cruz on a track where dust had been damped and tamped slightly by overnight rain. Despite the smile on his face as he bantered with the Fox techs who are telling him they’ve given him 100 per cent, Minnaar’s response of “that’s the difference, that’s what the world needs to change because per cent doesn’t show effort. Your 100 per cent might not be what my 100 per cent is” shows the level of commitment and dedication that’s seen Minnaar winning World Championships since 2003.
As much as Minnaar’s meticulous approach has always been a key part of his success, probably the most interesting comments from him came up in a couple of different post-race interviews:
“I’m always going to carry on if I’m competitive. I love racing, man. We’re in such a good sport where it doesn’t matter if you go to the same tracks, how they’re marked and how the lines develop, it’s always different. It’s forever changing which is what I think has kept me enjoying what we do and also I find it really hard to get on top of. Every year you learn something new and something else changes, I still don’t think I’ve got the hang of it yet.”
The normally confidently calm Swiss medal machine Schurter was clearly emotional and euphoric after his race, admitting tearfully that prior to the race even he wasn’t sure if he could still win at the highest level anymore. But like Minnaar he listed ‘enjoying it, trying to keep it fun, and having a great team’ around him as the key to his continued success. Chatting to other long-time legends of the sport like multiple British national champion Nick Craig, who is still taking the heat to young riders at over 50 years old, it’s the constantly evolving and fundamentally fun aspects of mountain biking that help to keep him evergreen.
Watching how the best older riders craft their racing — whether that’s training and preparation of their machinery and/or themselves — dig into their experience and mental strength to raise their game exactly when it matters, as well pacing themselves so a steady start translates to a small but crucial edge at the finish line, shows just how that wisdom can be exploited in so many ways.
If you’re an older rider yourself, you’ll know how true this is, and hopefully regularly use that to your advantage when riding with mixed groups. Picking the moments when experience counts, playing the kids off against each other to burn themselves out and then gently putting the boot in to preserve your silverback status in the trail troop just a little bit longer.
But while it’s great to be in a sport where you can stay competitive and keep enjoying playing in the woods well past your sell-by date in others, the fact that MTB is still exciting and attracting young riders is absolutely crucial too. Not just to keep moving the standards on but also keep life on the trails fresh, exciting and fun and to create an impetus for driving the industry, facilities and recognition of mountain biking onwards to even better things.
So while I might not bounce back as quick from crashes, and it can feel a bit odd pushing back up a hill chatting to riders younger than my own kids or swapping work-related emails with young’uns who’ve been alive less time than I’ve been writing about bikes for a living, I’m still pushing hard to continue an upward curve with riding skills, speed and enjoyment nearly four decades after I started riding off-road. And that’s a big contrast when I look around at most of my non-MTB peers and see a definite downward curve with their personal and physical expectations as well as a pronounced outward curve in their waistlines.
So next time you get the chance, take some of the youthful joy of Richards, Goldstone and Yankova, the experience and wisdom of Schurter, Minnaar and Craig and go have the most fun possible on your bike in the woods. We guarantee it’ll make you feel on top of the world, however old you are.