With racer registration numbers struggling, and races seemingly dropping off the ABA XC MTB calander, are we seeing the slow death of the traditional 90 min XC MTB race here in Alberta?

When I first started racing, there was only one kind I wanted to do – cross country mountain bike. The problem was, I wasn’t really in good enough shape to do it. I was your typical ‘weekend warrior’, spending a couple hours per week bombing around on the single-track trails with my pals. After a while, we got bold and signed up for a few bike shop-led group rides. In that context I thought I was pretty good, and with some encouragement decided to go out for an actual race, only to have my ego shattered! The 90 mins of max effort riding required in a typical ABA MTB XC race was so far beyond me, I was shocked. I finished the race, but it damn near killed me. Afterwards, I thought long and hard about if I wanted to do another one…

Of course, I did end up doing another, and another, and another… And with time, I managed to get both technically good enough and fit enough to actually feel like I belonged in those races. It helped a lot that at the time, the XC scene was booming here in Alberta. I also had several friends getting into it at the same time, and there were lots of races on the calendar, thanks to the local joint efforts of both the ABA and Alberta MTB Racing. I enjoyed two really solid seasons of XC racing and even tossed my hat into the enduro ring, racing the Bow 80, the full-pull TransRockies and the TR3. Interestingly though, right about the time XC racing started to lose its luster for me, the sport started to show signs it too was getting bored with itself as well.

The number of racers started to drop off, and then events started to drop off the calendar entirely. When Alberta MTB Racing shut down, with it, went 4 races from our Alberta race calendar, including the Kokanee Edmonton Canada Cup. To me, things were seemingly falling apart overnight  – and I didn’t really know why… That was until I started racing Cyclocross. Short 40 min – 1 hour races, many of them held right here in town in local parks, with low entry fees, and a fun casual atmosphere all added up to cyclocross becoming by far, my favourite form of racing. In some cases, I could actually leave home, race, and then be back home in under 3 hours – and still have energy to mow the lawn, clean the house, play with the kids, go to the grocery store and make lunch. Try doing any of that after full distance XC MTB race, never mind in as much time… And it was this realization, that ‘time’ was the key factor for me, when I also realized why XC MTB racing might be dying off – maybe it takes up too much time, for most people.

ABA XC MTB Calander Comparison:

  • 2009: 16 races
  • 2010: 14 races
  • 2011: 18 races (The Peak)
  • 2012: 11 races
  • 2013: 11 races (currenlty, as of March 5, 2013)

Death of MTB 2

Think about the amount of time on the bike you need to put in, to be in good enough shape to actually race a full 90 mins, not to mention to keep the rust off your technical bike handling skills so you’re not bobbing around like an idiot on the constant verge of crashing. Add that onto the time it takes to actually do the race itself, wait around for results, and maybe watch the next race – you have to admit, XC MTB racing is a major, major time commitment! Compare that to cyclocross, or to what I’ve heard called ‘short-track’ MTB racing, where the races run for around 30-45 mins and there is no question which one is going to see more likely participation from someone like me. And I don’t think I’m the only one. This is why we’re still seeing healthy numbers at ‘short-track’ MTB races like Fat Tire Tuesdays, and such a massive swell of racers into cyclocross. People still want to race, but most of us just want to do it in smaller bite-sized chunks.

I’ll concede that Enduro MTB is still going strong with the Transrockies offerings and the BC Bike Race series as both good examples. We also shouldn’t forget the single-day enduro races like, 24 Hours, the Giver 8’er, Organ Grinder, Nimby Fifty, and the Bow 80, not to mention the recent and prolific rise of the GranFondos. But, that doesn’t change the fact that, the typical 90 min XC MTB race now finds itself in kind of a no man’s land – not long enough, and not short enough to draw the racer numbers it used to.

When I look back, I miss the old XC MTB scene.  I hope that this year, I’ll be able to get out to some of the key remaining MTB races, but based on the schedule, it looks like there is sincere travel involved for anyone in Edmonton who wants to make a full season of it… And that has to be worrisome, because forcing racers to travel more won’t help the registration numbers. Has XC MTB hit the bottom – are we seeing the last gasps? Does it need to change and shift to a short-track format to survive? Or, is there a movement afoot, that’s going to help XC MTB make a comeback here in 2013?