British Cycling has named the riders who will represent Great Britain in the cross country and downhill disciplines at the 2017 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships taking place in Cairns, Australia, from 5th – 10th September. We took the opportunity to follow up the announcement and talked to Ian Dyer, Head Coach, and Simon Watts, lead MTB XC coach, to find out a bit more about some of the plans and decisions happening at British Cycling.
First up, it might seem strange to some that British Cycling is taking 27 riders to the other side of the world for the World Championships in Cairns, but sent no one to the European XC Championships in Italy last week. The explanation for this is one of politics and logistics: originally the European Championships were set to take place in Turkey, and along with a number of other National Federations, British Cycling decided not to attend. Instead, training plans, camps and so on were put in place, and programmed around non-attendance at the race. Then, with so many nations refusing to race in Turkey, the UEC (European Cycling Union) decided on 19th June to move the Championships (on 27-30 July) to Italy in an attempt to attract more riders. At such short notice, British Cycling couldn’t ‘unspend’ what had already been planned, and training schedules hadn’t been geared up to this competition, so they carried on with the schedule they had in place.
British Cycling’s planning seems to be working well so far this season, with some great results for riders on their programme. While UK Sport pulled funding for male XC riders earlier this year, and placed limits on the number of women that could be funded, British Cycling has been continuing to provide coaching, training and racing opportunities for riders. Ian Dyer explained that there are ongoing conversations with UK Sport, and that achievement targets set have already been substantially exceeded (BMX World Championship results no doubt falling into this category). With the main annual review due shortly after the World Championships, British Cycling will surely be hoping put in a strong performance, change a few minds at UK Sport and win back some funding for Tokyo (and beyond) hopefuls. On then to that team selection for Cairns…
Mountain Bike World Championships – XC
Olympian Annie Last will take to the start-line in the elite women’s cross country mountain bike race having taken a career best world cup victory in Lenzerheide earlier this month. She will be joined by fellow Olympian Grant Ferguson who will contest the elite men’s event. Neither of these riders are currently on the British Cycling Olympic programme, so it’s good to see performance based selection winning out here, with riders ‘not on the inside’ still being given opportunities to race at the highest level.
Senior academy rider Evie Richards, who has finished on the podium of all four world cups so far this season, along with Frazer Clacherty will compete in the under-23 events whilst Dan Tullett, Cameron Orr, Emily Wadsworth and Sophie Wright will race in the junior categories. Followers of the XC scene will notice that Isla Short is not on the team list, which will no doubt come as a surprise and disappointment to many, given her recent form. British Cycling declined to comment on the selection of individual athletes, saying only that the criteria and selection process is built around medal competitiveness or trajectory. On the positive side, it is good to see that the value of competition experience at junior and U-23 levels is being recognised, and that younger riders are being given opportunities to race at levels that we perhaps haven’t seen in the past.
Mountain Bike World Championships – XCR
As a testament to the current strength of the British XC squad, five of the selected XC riders will also compete in the team relay, the line-up for which will be confirmed nearer the time. Simon Watts, lead MTB XC coach, says that the relay events are going to form part of his strategy for points collection for Tokyo, so Cairns offers a good opportunity to test out the format with the team. The event has changed from a four lap/three men and one woman format, to a five lap race made up of three men and two women – which should play to the strengths of the current British line-up.
Commonwealth Games 2018
The Commonwealth Games will be held in Queensland in 2018, and the timing of the mountain bike race fits quite well into the calendar – no doubt Simon Watts will be taking a peek at the course with a view to fielding a strong team there next year.
Nineteen British riders have been selected to race the downhill events, with reigning world champions Rachel Atherton and Danny Hart both looking to defend their titles in Australia. Of course, none of the downhill riders attract any funding from UK Sport since it’s not an Olympic event, however British Cycling does have other sources of funding – such as its 135,000 members and commercial partnerships – and it’s these sources that are helping to take riders outside the Olympic Programme (in both XC and DH events) to Cairns.
Ian said that Simon Watts, Lead Coach for MTB XC, has been doing a good job in preparing riders for events. Ian is confident that in Cairns riders will be ‘positioned to deliver their best possible performance’ – but wouldn’t be drawn on setting any particular medal goals, suggesting that having the Head of Coaching set such expectations might just add unnecessary pressure to an athlete’s plate!
The official British Cycling press release quotes Ian: “I believe we have selected a strong squad of riders with a lot of potential for both the cross country and downhill events at this year’s world championships.
“The cross country course includes physical and technical elements including rock gardens, jumps, drops and a stepped climb which will play to the strengths of a lot of our riders. In addition, the location of the event offers an opportunity to our junior riders to experience the impact of long haul travel and racing in heat and humidity.
“We’ve seen some impressive and consistent performances from the cross country riders this season and we’ll be looking for them to carry this form into the world championships.”
Looking further ahead, Ian expects the specific qualifying criteria for Tokyo to be public in early 2018, so the process of gaining the required points will begin. To our ears, there are a number of promising signs for mountain biking’s relationship with British Cycling here: investment in ‘experience’ races for younger riders, riders selected from outside the British Cycling cabal, a points collection strategy for the Olympics, and support for elite downhill riders are all a step forward for British Cycling. Fingers crossed that the current promising signs can be translated into a strong field of British mountain bike riders at international level. We’ll keep you posted.