How the Olympics actually saved mountain bike racing

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This weekend’s Rio mountain bike races will look quite different from the epic loops, long climbs, and natural singletrack many racers know and love. Elite cross-country racing is not what it used to be, and some pin the blame on the Olympics for giving road racing’s dirtbag brother a tight-cropped haircut, forcing it into a format that’s shorter and less organic.

Has any Olympic sport evolved as much as mountain biking in the last 20 years? It seems unlikely. Tinker still has his dreads, but the Olympic-format XC race courses are now blazing-fast 6km laps (Atlanta was 10.6km), which are much more spectator-friendly. But the change has led to a bit of an existential crisis for some riders and fans.

“Now it’s kind of a long BMX race. Just explosive with a lot of technical stuff,” says Tinker Juarez, who raced in the Atlanta Games. “It’s good or bad. Maybe good for the spectators; it’s a harder chance for riders that have true power and everything to not show their real abilities.”

The shorter format is the World Cup standard as well, and according to Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, 2004 Olympian, that’s a good thing. “World Cup cross-country racing is experiencing a lot of success. They’ve honed in on something that’s a good strategy. It’s fun to watch.” But does a spectator-friendly course lead to a better experience for the average rider? Based on the dwindling MTB participation numbers in traditional XC and a comparison between the NORBA NCS …

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