Why we love XCO Racing

If you own a mountain bike, there are various different types of events you could enter. Cross Country racing is one such discipline. We caught up with Team Spur’s manager TIM BASSINGTHWAIGHTE to find out what XCO-racing is all about. IMAGE: MICHAL CERVENY_UCI.

The Elite Men ripping off the start line of the Lenzerheide XCO World Cup
Credit: Michal Cerveny_UCI

I’m Tim Bassingthwaighte, and I manage Team Spur, a professional mountain bike team. The team is made up of Alan Hatherly, an U23 cross country specialist and current SA Elite XCO Champion, and Ariane Lüthi, five-time winner of the Absa Cape Epic. I have been with Team Spur for 18 exciting months and experienced first- hand the highs and lows of professional bike racing. Managing Team Spur is a crash-course in logistics, planning for all the events and travels behind the scenes, as well as on-the-ground hustling at events to ensure our riders can focus purely on shredding trails.

Q: What is the basic definition of cross country racing?

Olympic Cross Country (XCO) is the Olympic discipline of mountain biking – lap racing on a closed circuit with natural and manmade obstacles along the route. Courses are 4 – 6km long and riders line up in a grid format, based on their individual ranking, for a mass start. Races are typically 90 minutes long for the Elite categories with Elite Men usually racing seven laps, Elite Women and U23 Men six laps and the U23 Women five laps.

Q: What makes it different to other formats and why do South Africans enjoy participating and supporting it so much?

XCO is fast paced and the increasingly technical nature of courses makes for exciting and close racing. Add to that spectator-friendly course layouts and its obvious why South African fans enjoy the action. Where marathon mountain biking is often a long loop or point-to-point route which challenges one’s endurance and stamina over multiple hours, XCO is a flat-out hustle for 90 minutes. Spectators can move to different sections of the course throughout the race and see multiple aspects of the racing. XCO courses at the top level have become more technical over the years so the casual rider can see close-up how to navigate tough obstacles at speed.

Q: What are some of best XCO tracks in the country?

Cascades in Pietermaritzburg is one of the most well-known tracks and has previously hosted UCI World Cup events and the 2013 UCI World Championships. But we have a number of other world-class XCO tracks across the country: Mankele, just outside Nelspruit, is a favourite among athletes and teams and, of course, the new UCI XCO World Cup venue in Stellenbosch looks like it’ll be a ripper. Q Is there a big difference in training or preparing for XCO versus other MTB disciplines such as marathons or stage races? Yes, the shorter duration of XCO races and the often steep climbs and descents translates to a much bigger focus on explosive efforts and short periods of higher intensity. Base training is still important to ensure you have it in you to go the distance, however the focus at the end of each training block will be high intensity sessions. Where a marathon race is all about endurance and a stage race requires repeated endurance efforts over days, an XCO is all wrapped up in a couple of hours.

Q: Do you agree that most local weekend warriors should invest in some skills training and why?

Definitely. With mountain bike routes becoming more technical, skills training is of great benefit. Also, modern bikes are able to handle more – you’ll be surprised what limits you can push your body and your bike to with the correct technique in place. Skills training gives you the ability to read the trails, and the knowledge to handle yourself and your bike so you can fly through sections. This all translates to confidence on the bike which allows you to tackle these sections with more speed, but also save energy and stress.

Q: Do you think the addition of dropper post to any mountain bike will improve skills and stability?

Within reason, yes. The dropper post allows the rider to get further back over the rear wheel during technical descents and drop offs. With this you are able to shift your centre of gravity, making you more stable on the bike which allows you to hit more technical sections with confidence. This little extra room will help you to feel more comfortable on tricky sections, and combined with a skills clinic or two, you’ll be smashing your PB’s in no time.

Q: What does hosting the UCI World Cup in Stellenbosch mean to the region and the country as a whole?

The Western Cape’s amazing network of trails is synonymous with mountain biking. A large number of world class events are already hosted here, and the addition of a UCI World Cup will further boost the region’s popularity. A World Cup attracts a truly global audience, both in terms of media coverage and tourism to the area. With the UCI World Cup, Cape Town Cycle Tour and the Absa Cape Epic all within two weeks of each other, the Western Cape will be the main focus in the cycling world over this time. It’ll also provide many youngsters the chance to see some of their favourite riders up close and, if they’re lucky, even ride alongside them.

Q: What are you expecting from this event? From Team Spur’s and our local riders’ sides?

Team Spur’s XCO specialist, Alan Hatherly will be lining up in the U23 Men’s event. Alan had an extremely successful 2017, which saw him claim second at the UCI World Cup in Andorra in June, and a silver medal at the UCI World Championships in Cairns, Australia last September. We are looking for a big result from him with a home ground advantage. We have a strong batch of local riders, some of whom will be experiencing their first World Cup. The competition at a World Cup is on another level, however and the experience a young rider can gain from this opportunity could be the foundation of a great future in the sport. Team Spur riders serve as ambassadors to the Spur Schools Mountain Bike League, the cycling development series that helped build Alan Hatherly into the racer he is today. We expect to see plenty of our Spur scholars at the event, and look forward to cheering on our rising stars as they tackle the Coetzenburg course.

Q: Why do you think XCO tracks and races have become so much more difficult over the past five years?

With advances in bike technology riders and bikes are able to handle more and more on the trails. Bikes are becoming lighter and frame geometries are able to handle steeper terrain and gnarlier obstacles, while allowing the rider to be more in control. Bike suspension now allows fine adjustments to suit a rider’s preference and course terrain. Course designers have therefore had to develop more progressive
XCO tracks to test riders and equipment and keep racing interesting. Tactical knowhow then comes into play, requiring riders to be all-rounders to be competitive.

Q: Besides Alan, are there any other notable riders we should look out for?

Fellow Specialized rider Simon Andreassen from Denmark will be one of the U23 men to focus on. In the Elite ladies’ category, the bubbly crowd favourite and current South African Champion, Mariske Strauss is a local worthy of cheering for. Nino Schurter is the man to beat in the Elite Men’s race, and we look forward to seeing who will be challenging him up front.

Q: Luckily for us, mountain bikes are adapting too. Do you agree that dual sus bikes are the new normal and that we won’t be seeing hardtails at these races for much longer?

Yes, Alan’s new Specialized S-Works Epic, for example, is only marginally heavier than his old hardtail. With this improvement the weight benefits the hardtail used to provide is somewhat redundant. Riders are able to tackle steep climbs with dual suspension bikes as well as navigate technical sections with ease. With higher grades of carbon and improved suspension platforms, such as the Specialized Brain system, bikes are also stiffer and firmer when climbing, yet they still provide sufficient cushion over the rocky trails. This all translates to less energy loss and fatigue on demanding trails, which is great news on challenging XCO courses.

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