Mountain-bike legend Brian Lopes won a commanding victory in the first-ever UCI World Cup Cross-Country Eliminator event yesterday in Houffalize, Belgium, proving to the world that he is more than just a gravity specialist.
The 40-year-old Lopes—who as a gravity racer racked up more World Cup wins than any male mountain biker in the sport's history—dominated the UCI's debut XC Eliminator, remaining strong from his qualifying run through four more grueling heats to stand proudly at the top of the podium.
"This really means a lot," Lopes told bikemag.com shortly after his win. "You guys know that for the last three months I've been back on a training program specifically for these events, and [winning it] is a nice reward.
"It also adds another World Cup win to my overall count—and one in another discipline—so that's really nice."
The Eliminator course in Houffalize featured steep climbs and descents, and was far hillier and more technically demanding than the courses in last year's UCI XC Eliminator 'test events' in England's Dalby Forest and Offenburg, Germany. Lopes, who already had been worried about retaining his stamina through several demanding heats, had concerns about how the steepness of the climbs might affect his endurance.
"[This course] threw a curve ball at me, really," Lopes said. "The two courses I did last year were nothing similar to this one. The climb on this course was ridiculous. I wasn't really prepared for anything like that.
"That second climb was friggin' steep," he continued. "It was no joke. I honestly didn't know how I would feel in the later rounds. You're doing kind of an unknown effort on a hill like this. I was just trying to play my cards right. My strategy was to try to conserve as much energy throughout the races as I could. I really had to dig deep and try to open up a gap."
In the final heat, Lopes sprinted to the front from the start, only to come unclipped on the first turn into the initial climb, briefly dabbing with his inside foot before recovering and powering away from his three rivals. Reaching the top first, Lopes easily dropped his competitors on the descent for a convincing win.
"There was a bunch of shaley rock in that turn, and it was a steep transition," Lopes explained. "It was kind of a random thing. I dabbed a foot down but got clipped back in and just pulled away."
Though the UCI's new Eliminator format is receiving mixed reviews from mountain bikers—some of whom complain that the wooden roll-ins to flat at the start are anti-climactic and fail to showcase the finer technical aspects of the sport—many maintain that the race could be a successful way to make cross-country events more spectator-friendly.
"I think the easier the course, the more exciting the race will be for spectators," said Lopes. "But I don't think this [Houffalize] course was the best example of a sprint eliminator. Still, as far as bike-handling skills go, I always want to see a course with more technical things in it."
In recent months, Lopes has stepped up his training in earnest, spending serious saddle time on both mountain and road bikes and doing weekly 'simulation' sessions of the eliminator format on a grassy hilltop near his home in Laguna Beach, California.
Bike magazine recently caught up with Lopes during one of his simulation sessions and grilled him about the new shift in his long career and how it factors into his views on mountain biking. Check out the fruits of our labor in the July issue of Bike.