Why are World Cup downhill riders forming a union and what does this mean for the sport?

Finn Iles in his race run at Vallnord
(Image credit: RedBull)

Every World Cup weekend, there's nothing more fun than tuning into RedBull TV and watching the best of downhill mountain biking with athletes risking it all and pushing their bikes and bodies to the limits, whilst listening to commentary by Rob Warner, Claudio Caluori, Elliott Jackson and Tracey Hannah. But from 2023 onward, DH and XC World Cup coverage will no longer be on the free-to-air channel. A new deal sees the broadcast rights being given to the Discovery channel next year and, depending, where you live, this is likely to mean having to pay an fee to be able to watch the World Cup live.

This switch in broadcaster could also mean changes in organization, so the number of people qualifying and racing in the finals might differ. While this might mean we get to see more coverage including juniors and all of the elites (instead of only the top 30 in men's and top 10 in women's), there's also a chance the riders may have to pay a higher fee to participate. In the live coverage of Vallnord DH finals this year, Caluori mentioned how anybody with a downhill bike and enough UCI points to enter can race a World Cup and how the incoming changes might make this impossible.

What's entertainment for us is a job for the World Cup racers. And of course, there's no-one better than the racers themselves who'd know how to tackle this situation. The riders are forming an association, selecting representatives to communicate between the relevant authorities who are responsible for deciding the fate of their careers.

Here's what the athletes have in mind..

According to Finn Iles, as interviewed by Henry Quinney for Pink Bike, "Right now we have absolutely no say in anything. We have no say for track, we have no say for prize money, we have no say for safety, no say for anything. And we're the ones that are the product."

The riders are considering electing a representative that'll liaise with ESO (the organization that runs the EWS) , Discovery and UCI to address any concerns in terms of the welfare and race logistics. As of now, we don't know why the reins are being passed on to ESO over another organisation, but hopefully we'll know more soon. From the sound of it, they're ready to do whatever it takes to be heard in their sport, even if it meant going on strike.  

Vali Höll's race run at Vallnord

(Image credit: Redbull)

In Bernard Kerr's track-walk video from 13th of July, 2022, in Vallnord, you can see the reactions to the team finding the wooden ramp at the finish area that they regarded as needlessly dangerous. Something like this wouldn't be a part of the World Cup track if riders' input was better considered.

Currently, the riders' representatives for DH mountain biking at UCI Athletes' Commission are Myriam Nicole and Greg Minnaar. According to 2021 Downhill World Champion Greg Minnaar in conversation with Pink Bike, "From a few meetings that I've had with ESO and UCI's riders' commission, it doesn't seem like there's a massive change and this isn't Chris Ball's [CEO of ESO] first rodeo, he's in charge and has got a great team around him so I've got no doubt it's gonna be good." 

It was actually Bruni and Finn Iles who led the charge on these issues, with the conversation on this having already started as early as 2020. The riders thought that UCI and Red Bull were dealing with the pandemic poorly and had given them no say in the situation. The first proper meeting of the union happened at Lenzerheide this year and the next one happened at Vallnord, after the track walk. 

The primary cause of worry for the World Cup racers is that they still haven't heard any details about the race format, dates or any changes that are happening next year. Largely, though, the whole point of this discussion is riders having enough say in how the sport that they're passionate about and gives them their livelihoods is run. 

We're hunting for more details on this situation and we will post an update once we know more.

Freelance writer

Vedangi Kulkarni is an adventure traveller, endurance athlete, public speaker, writer, expedition manager and a business owner. In 2018, she rode 29,000km around the world in 160 days, mostly solo and unsupported, at the age of 19/20, becoming the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe by bike. She’s always keen for an adventure, be it cold water swimming, long distance hiking or cycling, climbing, mountain biking or travelling through  remote places. Her happy place is anywhere outside, in the wild, and on the move. She loves to write about bikepacking, mountain biking and just about anything adventurous and has penned articles for Singletrack World and Nat Geo Traveller UK as well as Bike Perfect.