Some time last year, Subaru-Trek rider Heather Irmiger Tweeted a link to an article in which she appraised the differences between World Cup races and the domestic US scene (ie NORBAs). I caustically Tweeted back that the main difference was that an American rider had a chance of winning a domestic race. I was, of course, being tongue-in-cheek but at the same time wasn’t far off the mark….
Born out of the counterculture of the late 60s West Coast and with figureheads like Gary Fisher
, Joe Breeze
and Charlie Kelly
, mountain biking has always had that “out there” attraction. It’s a sport that has always been marketed as being “rad”, and its language has even made it across the Pond. Who’d have thought that a plumber from Sheffield would be “stoked” to win World Cup races?
Mountain bike racing was invented by the Americans and its riders were the pioneers, taking it to a global audience. Ned Overend
, John Tomac
, Juli Furtado
. They rode all the disciplines, XC, DH, Dual/Slalom (remember that?) and they were bloody good at it too. It was fitting that the first official World Championships were held at Durango, Ca
in 1990 and the host nation reigned supreme. Deadly Ned, Johnny T and Queen Juliana now reside in mountain bike folklore. By the end of the decade, however, the US XC star was very much on the wane in XC terms. The writing was very much on the wall in the 2000 World Championships held in Sierra Nevada, Spain. While Alison Dunlap finished 6th in the women’s race, Greg Randolph (remember him? No?) was the only US male in the top 20 which, with the exception of Canada’s Roland Green, was otherwise the domain of the European riders. That writing was also on the ceiling and the floor.
The Sound of Silence
Many from road backgrounds, the Euros were filling the top slots on the results sheets with metronomic regularity and, like England being beaten at rugby or Canada being outgunned in ice hockey, it rankled with the forefathers. Zapata Episinova wrote glowingly in Mountain Bike magazine’s account of the 2001 Napa World Cup of how the event was supported by the community with kids’ races and the likes. But he also had a snipe at the European riders who “just didn’t get it”. But the Euros got it alright – just where it really mattered: on the course. While California’s mountain bike scene celebrated the World Cup with typically laid-back and friendly dudeness, the sport itself had actually grown up.
But it hasn’t been all bad. US riders have consistently been at the forefront of the gravity disciplines, make no mistake. It’s perhaps fitting that the Home of the Brave has multiple World and World Cup DH and Dual/4X Champions in the shape of Eric Carter, Leigh Donovan, Brian Lopes, Missy Giove and Jill Kintner but it’s been fairly bleak for the lycra boys and girls since Alison Dunlap took the XC rainbow jersey at Vail in 2001. It’s also a telling statistic that no American XC rider has won a World Cup race since Dunlap at Vail in 1999.
French cycling fans are want to ask their last home-grown Tour de France winner, Bernard Hainault, “quand, Bernard?” – when will a Frenchman once again triumph in cycling’s greatest prize? Mountain bike racing was in its infancy when Le Blaireau donned the maillot jaune for a fifth and final time on the Champs Elysees in 1985, but American XC fans must surely be asking similar questions of their last great champions.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
All, however, is not lost and there is now clearly hope. We have recently seen the emergence of Subaru-Trek’s Willow Koerber
as a genuine contender for World Cup glory. Finishing 3rd in the 2009 World Championships in Melbourne, Koerber regularly troubled the podium during 2010, leading the series briefly before finishing second overall to Canadian Catherine Prendel. Georgia Gould
also hit the podium during the season with a 2nd and a 3rd place, finishing 4th overall in the series. Koerber then repeated her 2009 Worlds success with a bronze at Mont St Anne with compatriot Heather Irmiger
6th. Throw cyclocross champion Katie Compton
– who has cited XC glory at next year’s London Olympics as a goal – into the mix and things are looking bright for the US women’s XC scene.
Perhaps it’s time that the forefathers (and mothers!) returned to reclaim their sport. Perhaps 2011 will finally see an American rider stand on the top step of a XC World Cup podium for the first time in 12 years. Todd Wells, Jeremy Horgan-Kobleski (can you remind us why Heather didn’t take your name?), Adam Craig: are you paying attention?