Downhill mountain biking is all about answering one simple question. And that is, which rider can reach the bottom of a hill in the quickest time possible.
The hill in question is usually a mountain, the course is anything but smooth, and the risks are enormous. But ask any racer or fan and they’ll say there’s nothing else quite like it, which is one of the reasons it’s such a thrill to watch, whether you’re a cycling fan or not.
Downhill season recap
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So it’s as simple as riding from the top to the bottom of a hill?
Yes and no! Downhill is a gravity sport, which pits bike riders against each other and the clock on a mountain course. From the start gate to the finish line a course can take three minutes to complete, so that’s three full minutes of total focus and flat-out racing.
Riders come down the course one-by-one and their times are recorded. The fastest rider down the hill is the winner, but the competition is so nail-bitingly close – despite how crazy difficult the courses are – that victory often comes down to a few fractions of a second.
Race tracks are usually steep and filled with the kind of features you’d expect to see climbers scaling up, rather than people on bikes riding (or jumping) down. Riders can reach speeds of up to 70kph while navigating wet slippery roots, gap jumps, boulder fields and courses that are so steep it’s almost impossible to walk them.
On top of the difficult terrain, high speed and hardcore conditions means high consequences when things go wrong, and the crashes in downhill are notoriously spectacular.
The Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is also the premier race series, with rounds happening all around the world, which means that racers have to adapt to everything from midge-riddled, rain soaked and muddy Scotland to hot, humid and snake-infested Australia.
Could I take my bike on a downhill course?
That’s a big no! The average commuter bike would barely last a minute before falling apart and throwing you off.
Downhill bikes are specially designed for the rigours of this type of racing. They’ve got suspension similar to most cars and motorbikes to handle the incredibly rough ground they’re riding over, as well as powerful brakes, so they can control their high speeds. The bikes also feature precision engineered carbon frames that are the perfect blend of stiffness and strength, while also being super-light. In fact, they’re like the Formula One of bikes.
And just like Formula One, because of the high speeds, safety is crucial, so downhill mountain bikers wear full-face helmets to protect their head, goggles to protect their eyes, plus knee pads, gloves and other protective equipment.
Sounds like downhill mountain biking is a bit like Formula One?
Yes, if you crossed Formula One with motocross and sent them straight down the side of a mountain.
It’s got multiple rounds in different locations, cutting edge technology and the fact that racers are part of trade teams and ride their manufacturers' bikes.
Why do spectators go mad for it?
Downhill mountain biking has everything you could ever want in terms of thrilling viewing.
There’s unpredictability, as anyone could win and anything can happen. Crashes, mechanical failures, weather changes – it all means that while there are favourites, the underdog still has a fighting chance.
There’s the skill, speed and bravery of the men and women who train hard and leave everything out there on the course in the battle to be the best.
You don’t even need to leave the comfort of your living room to watch it. Every round is broadcast live on Red Bull TV, so you can catch the excitement in real time with cameras following nearly every section of the course, so you don’t miss a moment of the action.
If that’s whetted your appetite, you can discover more about the different types of mountain bike racing or learn about the craziness that is Red Bull Rampage too. If you think the tracks that the downhillers ride are tough, wait until you see what the Rampage riders do!
What goes on across the race weekend?
While the mechanics are building up the race bikes, the athletes that are racing are allowed to walk the track and check out any changes that have been made since they were last there. The track walk takes place before the riders are allowed to take their bikes onto the course. When they walk the track, riders will be looking for the fastest lines, but will also be having to bear in mind that the track will change heavily over the course of the weekend, thanks to both weather and traffic.
Lines, or the routes around/over/through obstacles and features, can make or break a DH run. Obviously, bikes go fastest in a straight line, but it's not all about finding the most direct line down the hill. Taking the inside through a turn may add up to a shorter distance, but may also cost the rider valuable speed compared to railing around its outside. The challenge is to balance the two. At speed. Down a mountain.
Each rider's bike is fitted with a small timing transponder. In this open session, riders can set times and work on their lines. There are no points or prizes to be gained from timed training (or 'practice' as it's more commonly referred to), but it can turn into an interesting mind game of 'who's going fastest where'.
There's a lot of stopping and starting trackside, as riders try to work out which lines are working and are worth having a go at. For spectators, it's a great chance to see their favourite pros up close.
Qualifying and seeding
The day before finals race day riders take part in qualifying. Here, the athletes set off on the downhill course according to their UCI World Cup ranking to set a time. The time they record determines the order they leave the start hut on race day. The benefit of starting last/going fastest in seeding is that you know exactly what time you have to beat.
Points are awarded for this qualifying session – not many, but in a tight fight they can mean the difference between victory and second place.
The weather can play its part here, too. Over the years, we've seen top riders post slower times if inclement weather is due to hit on race day. The idea is to get down the track while it's still in reasonable condition, but it's a big gamble. If a top UCI World Cup ranked rider is unable to complete their run due to a crash or something like a mechanical they are given 'protected rider' status. This allows them to race in finals.
The big one. There's usually a practice session in the morning for riders to check things out before the big headphones-and-warm-up routine begins. Most riders will take a turbo-trainer to the top of the track to help wake their legs up and prepare themselves for the chaos to come.
There's a hot seat at the finish line, where the current fastest rider gets to sit and sweat it out as, one-by-one, their rivals attempt to topple their time. Times can tumble as each rider crosses the line, but UCI World Cups have been won from early in the order – like when Aaron Gwin won in Lourdes in 2015 after qualifying in a lowly 21st.
Points mean prizes
So aside from a pretty trophy and some flowers, what do you get for winning a UCI World Cup? Well, there's some nominal cash up for grabs, but more importantly you get points. Get more points than anyone else and you win the overall World Cup title. This is a big deal. Winning the overall means the athlete can claim to have been the most consistent rider through the season among their fellow competitors!
Points per position
1st = 200 2nd = 160 3rd = 140 4th = 125 5th = 110
Don't forget that, this being cycling, the World Cup champion is not the same as the World Champion. The World Championships are a one-off race at the end of the World Cup season. Their 'all or nothing' status divides opinion among the riders who are there representing nations as opposed to the trade teams they ride for throughout the year.