Cross country first appeared at the Games in Atlanta in 1996. The mountain bike races in Rio this weekend will be the 6th time the cross country discipline has appeared at the Games. Here is a look at 20 years of mountain bike Olympic history, how it’s changed, and what has stayed the same.
One of the most visible differences in current Olympic mountain biking is the design and nature of the course. While earlier courses were very natural, involving minimal construction aside from clearing a track, large portions were also in heavily wooded areas – a stark contrast to the near 85% visibility of the total course from the high point in Rio. Courses were also nearly twice as long with laps of 11km in Atlanta to 5km in Rio. This has impacted three key elements of racing: rider support, race duration, and coverage and spectator viewing.
Course design first started to change in Beijing, where rocks and boulders were shipped over and cemented in to the course after rider feedback from the test event was that it was too easy. By race day, after rain heavy enough to postpone for a day, the course was certainly challenging enough, particularly once fatigue set in and even the gold medal winners saw the course try to upset their day.
The course in Rio is designed to be technically challenging, both spectator and broadcaster friendly, and still showcase the host city and nation. If you want to learn more about the Flip-Flops, Rio-Rocks, 40 Degrees and the rest of the features that made the course a hit with riders during the test event last October, you can here.
Over the years the level of support that can be provided to riders during the race has increased. Original rules stipulated that riders couldn’t receive any outside assistance, and so had to carry all spares and tools they might need during a race. Eventually, tech zones were introduced where accredited supporter could provide assistance. There are now usually two, and up to three, tech zones where full support can be provided. They double with the feed zones, and with laps so short and tech and feed zones so frequent, it is possible for riders to simply ‘drink and drop’ and not even need to carry drink bottles on the during races.
It can be risky to rely solely on tech zones for assistance though. It is never legal to go backwards on the course, so if a puncture or mechanical occurs immediately after a tech zone the rider must continue to the next one to receive assistance. If no tools or spares are carried at all, it can be costly.
The women’s race has always been one lap less than the men’s race. But when the laps were longer this made the men’s races significantly longer than the women’s. In Atlanta, Bart Brentjens took 27 minutes longer to win his race in 2:17 minutes than
In the last few years total time has become the same. Women still do 1 lap less but with the shorter lap times the total time is now roughly the same for both men and women. The difference between men’s and women’s winning times consistently decreased from 27 minutes in 1996, to 20 minutes in 2000, 19 minutes in 2004 and 10 minutes in 2008. In London in 2012 they were 1:29 and 1:30, and it was the women who raced that extra minute.
Coverage and Spectator Viewing
Shorter courses means less ground to cover as a spectator and the ability to get quickly from one section to another to see riders pass by multiple times per lap. The clearing of tress on most of the London and Rio courses has also made for great high-point viewing. 60-70% of the London course could be seen from one point of the course, and up to 90% of the Rio course will be visible from the high point!
And between the clearing and small overall area of land, cameras can now get to just about every part of the course to maximise the action we will watch via satellite/cable TV or internet streaming. It might look a bit funny in the traditional sense of mountain biking, but it sure makes for great viewing!
Mountain bike technology has come a long, long way since the sport was introduced to the Olympics. In 1996, bronze medalist Susan DeMattei raced on a hard tail Diamondback with a titanium (very flash for the time) frame and Manitou shock up front, probably claiming 80mm of travel but yielding a bit less. It had GripShift gear shifters controlling 21 or 24 gears, bar ends and V-brakes. She raced with clipless pedals, but hadn’t been using them for that long at the time.
Tubeless tires didn’t exist, and the only wheel size option was 26-inch. There were no aid stations and she had a seat bag with CO2 cartridges and tools in case of a mechanical problem.
Fast forward 20 years and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone not racing these Games without a carbon frame. A lot of riders will elect to race hard tails, but the majority will still have the option of a lightweight full suspension bike should they prefer it. Whether they run suspension just up front, or front and rear, they’ll have a plush 95-100mm and remote lockout, possibly electronic.
Most will run a single shifter, either running a single ring up front with 12 down the back, or a double up front and 11 down the back that is all controlled by a single shifter. Yep – the number of gears went up, then came back down. A long way down in the case of 1x (that’s ‘one-by’, or single chain ring on the front). If it’s a double up front it’ll be electronic.
There’s still two brake levers (made of carbon), but forget about cables – it’s all hydraulic, all the time. Speaking of hydraulic, a few might even be running dropper seat posts. Most are hydraulic, but there are some wireless models being developed.
Inner tubes are long gone. These days most cross country riders carry them around on training rides. Some of them will be so old they’ll be useless if they’re ever needed… Most tires are tubeless (where a seal is formed between the rim and the tire), but some are ‘tubulars’ – crudely speaking, like a tire because it has tread, but like a tube because it is fully enclosed, and glued to the rim.
And of course, wheel-size. There were a couple of 26″ wheels floating around on the London course but I’ll be totally shocked if there are any this year. They’ll all be 27.5″ or 29″.
The geometry is a bit different these days too. Look no further than stem length and bar width for confirmation. Stems have shrunk (from 100mm+ to 60-80mm being the norm), while bars, well they’ve grown a LOT! 560mm, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less was standard back in the day. Now it’s uncommon to see anything less than 700m. But no riser bars, and no bar ends (not even the little stubby ones, let alone the massive old tree catchers!).
Olympic mountain bike (XCO) medalist since 1996
There is one rider who will be in Rio this weekend and also raced in Atlanta… Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flessja! She won’t be the oldest (that’ll be Sabine Spitz, at 44). She doesn’t have the full collection of Olympic plate numbers as she missed Sydney in 2000, but no other rider on the start line this weekend spans the history of Olympic MTB.
If you’d like to take a bit more of a trip down memory lane or brush up on a bit more history, check out some footage of past Olympic races:
Parts 2, 3 and 4 are also on YouTube
Part 2 is also on YouTube