This July, an estimated 11 million people will come together to watch, in person, the most insufferably boring sporting event on earth. Anticipating heights of monotony that only this event can provide, spectators will travel halfway around the world to catch the tedium as it unfolds. Their days will be overflowing with the utterly mundane, and bookended with soul-crushing gridlock. This Sisyphean event is, of course, the Tour de France.
The better way to watch the Tour is with the 2.6 billion people sitting in their own homes, taking advantage of its incredible coverage. Swarms of cameramen on motorcycles, cranes, in helicopters and on the ground together spin the race into a narrative of the highest drama. You can see strategies play out in real time, and watch them succeed or fail. It offers a glimpse of humanity that the sport of mountain biking rarely reveals. What we like to watch are people competing against the clock or for judges. There is only one discipline of mountain biking that directly pits racer against racer in real time and on the same track, and that is cross country.
Unfortunately, cross country is nearly as hard to watch as the Tour. That's meant both literally and figuratively. Unlike the Tour, the races are short and things happen quickly. It doesn't lend itself to the Tour's media blitz, nor is there funding to support it. Like the Tour, there's no telling where on the course your favorite rider will make a move that ushers them to victory, or where they'll make a mistake that dooms them to defeat. You can only see what's in front of you. And what's in front of you isn't always that exciting. It's just cross country, after all.
But that is changing. Cross country is changing. Bikes are becoming more capable, athletes are prioritizing handling over pure fitness and courses are getting gnarlier. The new shape of XC terrain is a hot topic. Behind it are trailbuilders who have to balance tests of athletes' physical fitness and technical skill. Sometimes that means plotting a loop on an existing trail network, sometimes it means erecting a trail out of raw dirt. It's something South African designer Nick Floros has been doing for 15 years, and he's been integral to the evolution of 'new XC.'
Floros' deep portfolio includes several years of Pietermaritzburg and Stellenbosch's World Cup courses, as well as the 2016 Olympic track in Rio. Designers like Floros are given near-total creative control. There are no rules on how many technical sections there should be, or how technical they can get. "The UCI has some guidelines, but ultimately it's up to the designer to use his discretion." says Floros. "Our rule is we don't build a course or obstacle that we ourselves can't ride in a race situation using a 29-inch hardtail with a 100-millimeter fork." A safety inspection follows, which Floros' trails have never failed, but that doesn't mean they've never caused any carnage. "Back in 2011, we built a rock garden on the Pietermaritzburg World Cup course, called 'Tree House.' A lot of riders found it difficult." That's an understatement. It happened to be a miserably muddy race, and more riders walked the Tree House than rode it. Poor conditions notwithstanding, the Tree House was only a glimpse of things to come in XCO (Olympic-style, short-course cross country). "From 2010 to about 2014, there was a big jump in the technicality of the courses. The limits were definitely being pushed back then."
It's hard to point to exactly when that trend started or where it peaked. Those years saw features like a curved rock wallride in the London Olympics and a descent in Val di Sole, Italy, that included that year's four-cross course, which is essentially a downhill BMX track with rock gardens.
This is how XC is becoming more spectator-friendly. Technical sections are focal points for media and gathering points for fans. Yes, there is more danger, but course designers aren't throwing the lycra-clad to the lions for the fans' sadistic amusement.
Floros, for one, feels this new XC aesthetic is inspired by what athletes are capable of, not what they aren't. "Around 2010, there was a new breed of XCO racers entering onto the world stage. This was the likes of Burry Stander and Nino Schurter, to name a few. These riders had amazing bike handling skills."
You can recognize Nino Schurter by his number plate. It's usually got a '1' on it. Schurter has won the UCI XCO for three of the past six years, and looks like he'll take 2018 as well. You can also recognize him by his steez. Yes, an XC rider with steez. His signature whip gets his bike, bars and body clicked into a position equally casual and unorthodox. It's casual because Schurter does it just for fun, and he does it often. Not just in practice or qualifying, but also during the World Cup finals. It's like Cru Jones doing a backflip on his last lap at Helltrack. But Schurter's whips are unorthodox because they're performed with a fixed seatpost at full mast.
"I feel as long as I can ride downhill as fast as the others I can save the extra weight of a dropper seatpost to get me up the hill a bit faster." It's quite a thing to watch Schurter highpost at high speed with high consequences. He's really good at it. He claims to not recall his saddle position ever causing a crash during a race, though there's compelling video evidence that it has. In Lillehammer, Norway's 2014 World Cup race, Schurter went over the bars and ended up missing first place by 114 seconds. Nevertheless, he and his trainers have done the math, and they find the reward is worth the risk.
It seems at least some of our stereotypes about XC racers are true. Schurter rides a fixed post purely because it's lighter weight. Exactly how much lighter depends on which two posts we're comparing. For example, a 30.9×400-millimeter carbon Enve fixed post weighs about 200 grams while the popular 65-millimeter KS LEV Integra CI dropper post is about 400 grams, including remote and cable. That 200-gram penalty is significant. For reference, 200 grams is about the difference between running tubes or going tubeless. But droppers have a lower weight penalty than does full suspension, which is now commonplace after the de facto referendum on course design. And if the referendum continues, Schurter predicts it may make dropper posts seem less out of place. "It's a question of time. If XC courses get more demanding and dropper posts get lighter, then I will probably switch too," he says.
And plenty of people are switching, including the rider who finished 114 seconds ahead of Schurter in 2014. Julien Absalon went on to run a dropper in 2016, and he took home the overall points win that season. While Absalon has slipped down the ranks slightly this year, a younger rider is chasing Schurter through the tape, and he happens to be a recent dropper-post adopter. Maxime Marotte is fourth in the UCI points standing, three behind Schurter. Marotte's been training with a dropper for a while, but has only been racing with one for about a year.
"Honestly, my coach pushed me a little bit in the beginning. Now, I'm completely convinced you are faster on a dropper." Marotte's decision to make the switch was a calculated one. For the rest of us, it's simple: Droppers are more fun, so we use them. But for a professional racer, every component has to offer measurable benefits. "We were not really satisfied with my body position. I am a rider with a bit shorter arms and longer legs, so I was struggling to move on the bike."
Marotte's experience offers a glimpse into how differently XC riders think about dropper posts. For him, it alleviated that struggle for optimal body position, but not so he could gain seconds on the descents. The technical sections on most XCO courses aren't long enough or frequent enough for a racer to shave significant time just by lowering their saddle. According to Marotte, a dropper post offers a chance to recover on the descents. The rolling game of Twister that Nino Schurter plays with his bike takes a lot of energy. Precious, precious energy. "With a dropper, you can just chill out behind the guy in front of you, and then you're ready to attack on the climbs."
Energy conservation even influences the types of droppers you see on the circuit. The 65-millimeter KS post tends to dominate, but not because it's the lightest. That would actually be the 125-millimeter version. "125 is too much," says Marotte. "It takes a lot of energy to go that far down and come up again." It all makes so much sense. Again, these are calculated decisions. Maybe that's why it's taken 15 years for droppers to get a foothold in XC, but Marotte predicts that will start to accelerate. "In three or four years, everyone will be doing it."
Imagine what that would do for cross-country racing. The line that separates XC bikes from trail bikes is already blurred and is getting blurrier. The line that separates XC athletes from enduro athletes is doing the same. If there were a proliferation of dropper posts in the cross-country arms race, the trails would have to evolve even further to keep up, but riders would be safer in the process. The world's most versatile bikes would be on the world's most diverse terrain. And the world's fittest athletes would gather to battle each other, not a clock. That'd be quite a show.