Cycling has long been a fan-favorite sport at the quadrennial Summer Olympics. But many may not be aware that there are also styles of cycling that compete outside of the primetime telecast that is shown. Mountain biking is one of these cycling sports that is raced at each Summer Olympics, typically in a close-by area of the host city’s region that has hills and mountains. With this in mind, is mountain biking alone actually a sport in the Olympics?
Mountain biking has been a category in the Summer Olympics since the Atlanta, Georgia games in 1996. The sport is known as mountain bike racing and is competitive inside of the category of cross-country racing that is played over a two-day period during the duration of each Summer Olympic Games.
For many cycling enthusiasts, mountain bike racing is one of the most popular and celebrated events in Olympic cycling. Therefore, in this guide, we will take an in-depth look at cross-country racing at the Summer Olympics. We will discuss the history of the sport, notable events since the 1996 games, as well as the various styles and race dynamics that come with the mountain bike race at the Olympics. Read on to find out more.
Is Mountain Biking In The Olympics?
Mountain biking has long been a popular leisure sporting activity, but around the mid-twentieth century, mountain bike racing began to catch on in popularity across the world. This sport is incredibly intense and requires incredible mountain biking skills in addition to strong physical fitness and stamina.
Mountain bike racing is also more popularly known as cross-country cycling due to the sport taking place across a span of roughly 3+ miles of rough and rocky terrain, either within a mountain range or a valley with plenty of hills and slopes. The terrain is the key to the dynamics of this style of cycling.
Cross-Country Cycling and Olympic Debut
Even though cross-country cycling has long been a popular style of cycling, it took many years for the sport to make its debut at the Summer Olympics. There were pushes to add cross-country racing to the Summer Games in 1984, 1988, and 1992 but to no avail.
Olympic advisory committees inside of the sporting events of the Summer Olympics are tasked with deciding and ultimately voting on the inclusion or exclusion of sports in each Summer Olympic Games. Factors such as financial considerations as well as sports popularity and the hosting city’s ability to provide an appropriate venue are all taken into consideration when judges consider adding a sport.
Venue accessibility is the most important factor when considering such a terrain-specific sport as cross-country cycling. For example, Olympic mountain bike racing must be performed on single tracks located in both forest and mountain ranges to allow for the endurance techniques required for cross-country cycling.
Since 1996, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo have all been able to accommodate single tracks, fire road trails, and paved trails to connect to all of these rough and challenging geographic features that are needed for cross-country cycling.
If a chosen host city does not have the required terrain, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) may also choose to host cross-country racing in a remote area somewhere within the host country’s territory.
Is Mountain Biking New To The Olympics?
Mountain biking is considered to be relatively new to the Summer Olympics. Since its premiere at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the sport has become one of the most anticipated races in the cycling sports schedule.
When the decision was made to include mountain biking at the 1996 Games, two races were decided upon for both men and women. The two races occur on two days out of the 16-day Olympic program, one day for the men’s race and one day for the women’s race.
With the creation of bikes designed to withstand impacts typically experienced on a trail came the global recognition of Mountain Biking as an outdoor sport. In 1996 at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Mountain Bike Cross-Country (MTB Cross-country) was officially recognized as an Olympic sport, and mountain biking enthusiasts have been glued to their screens at each of the seven games since the inaugural MTB race.
Throughout the event, mountain bikers are required to traverse the rough terrain, and each race, both the men’s and women’s races, last anywhere from 90 to 105 minutes, with the three top race finishers receiving gold, silver, and bronze Olympic medals.
Olympic Mountain Biking Specifics
As mentioned, it takes riders between 90–105 minutes to navigate the course, which consists of four to six kilometers of mostly narrow dirt single-track trails with steep ascents and descents and rocky sections.
There are also feed areas where riders can fix bikes and eat and/or drink. Since mountain bike racing consists of a wide range of intense movements and endurance functions, some riders will choose to eat a single serving of trail mix or even a candy bar in quick rotation.
The race features a mass start and multiple laps, with the first rider to complete the required laps winning gold. However, riders whose time is 80 percent lower than that of the race leader’s first lap are eliminated. As you can see, this makes the cross-country races at the Summer Olympics high intensity and an example of superb mastery of quick reflexes and lower body strength.
All the mountain biking racers start the race at the same time, and it becomes a skill of endurance to not veer off course or crash throughout the numerous jumps, slopes, turns, and fluctuations in speed intensity based on open trails or infrequent ridges, rocks, and hills.
Each host city for the Olympics since 1996 has had its own varying lengths for the mountain bike course. The course at the 2016 Games in Rio was 5 km, whereas the course at the Tokyo Games of 2020 (held in the summer of 2021) was only 4.1km, but there were many more rough areas of terrain at the Tokyo course when compared to the Rio course.
Olympic mountain biking is unique in that each quadrennial cycle is essentially the luck of the draw for those cyclers competing. The course chosen is largely natural and not man-made, which means some courses could be more challenging based on the geographic terrain of each individual host city.
Rules and Regulations
Rules and regulations for the exact specifics of how cross-country cycling can be set out for Olympic competitions are issued by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale). The course for an Olympic format cross-country event should use an attractive layout, ideally in a cloverleaf design, to encourage easy viewing for spectators and any television coverage.
Additionally, the organizer must make the courses available and fully marked for training at least 48 hours before the start of the first race.
Double feed/technical assistance zones are strongly recommended and the course must be marked every kilometer by a sign indicating the distance remaining to the finish line. The course should include a variety of terrains such as road sections, forest tracks, fields, and earth or gravel paths, and include significant amounts of climbing and descending.
Paved roads cannot make up more than 15% of the course, and the course must be wholly rideable even in difficult weather conditions. For the Olympic cross-country races, the course must be marked out using stakes or banners and protected for its entire length.
The starting zone for the mass-start Olympic race must be at least six meters wide for at least 50m before the start line and at least meters wide for at least 100m after the start line.
These regulations help to make the race more competitive based on the uncertainties with the terrain of an individual host city for the Summer Olympics.
How To Qualify For Olympic Mountain Biking
Making the cross-country cycling team for the Summer Olympics every four years is a stunning achievement in its own right, and you can be assured that only the best mountain bikers of each country are going to make the cut.
Men and women over the age of 23 may be entered, granted they have obtained at least 20 UCI points in the UCI XCO individual reference ranking. The national federations may enter a maximum of six supplementary riders per category, though, of course, you’ve got to qualify to ride.
Men and women under 23 may be entered if, in addition to the above, they belong to a UCI Elite MTB team. Mountain bike racing can be a rough sport, and judges will gauge every single facet of a mountain biker’s style and stamina when making a decision from a qualifying round.
In the United States, USA Cycling creates its own extensive selection criteria to determine who will be selected for the Olympic Games. The criteria are written 36 months in advance of the Opening Ceremonies and then must be approved and publicly posted 24 months ahead of the Games.
To create the Olympic Selection Criteria, an author works with the USA Cycling Discipline Directors to create each discipline’s criteria, and then it is reviewed and approved by the USA Cycling Selection Committee. From there, the documents are sent to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), where a working group reviews and approves the document.
Additionally, if the group requests changes, it is sent back to USA Cycling and the Selection Committee to be revised and returned back to the USOPC Working Group. Additionally, a USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council Representative is included in the review of the criteria to ensure that athletes are represented in the process.
This representative does not vote on the final selection of athletes but can be used as a resource for athletes to discuss the details of the criteria and the selection. Once finalized, the Olympic Selection Criteria is posted on usacycling.org, and USA Cycling works with the athletes to help them understand the criteria to qualify.
The final Olympic team for both men and women is typically announced 5 to 6 weeks before a Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Olympic Women’s Mountain Biking
As mentioned, the cross-country cycling race is covered over two days during the Summer Olympics, one day for men and the following day for women or vice versa.
In terms of any noticeable differences between the two events, there are practically none. The race formats of some cycling events are adjusted so that the results of women’s competitions are determined by the same combination of physical, technical, and tactical abilities observed in men’s cycling. But apart from adjusting the time for mountain bike racing at the 2012 Games to the current format of 90-105 minutes, there have been no noticeable variations.
Both men and women are able to execute the same kind of fluctuations in endurance, muscular exertions, and aerodynamics that can be seen in the cross-country cycling race.
Olympic Mountain Biking Distance
The typical distance allotted for the cross-country cycling race at each Olympics varies depending on the particular host city. With this in mind, the typical distance is anywhere between 4-5km from start to finish.
Within this distance, each cycler will have to traverse smooth, single-track, paved, and rocky terrain that will include downward slopes as well as challenging upward slopes. Each race, both for men and women, includes seven laps that total nearly 50 km total.
Mountain bikers have to be prepared for any changes in the weather that may occur on race day, which depending on the weather event, can present new and unexpected challenges to the cyclists.
During the 2021 women’s cross-country race, torrential rain from a passing typhoon drenched the track and created muddy conditions, which caused sliding and falls. The race will typically not be affected due to inclement weather, granted the weather conditions do not pose life-threatening possibilities.
Olympic Downhill Mountain Biking
Downhill mountain biking requires a sharp rise and drop in elevation and is typically performed in a mountainous range. With that being said, these are usually some of the considerations that have made downhill mountain biking consistently excluded from cross-country Olympic cycling.
But this has regularly come against pushback from mountain bike racing fans, and rightly so. This style of cross-country racing is one of the most thrilling and challenging styles within mountain bike racing.
But increased fan demand can lead to changes. This is what was seen with the inclusion of cross-country racing in 1996 after many years of non-consideration from the IOC. Another sport that has fared well from this demand is surfing, which was finally included in the Summer Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
How To Watch Olympic Mountain Biking
The Olympic cross-country mountain biking races are held on two listed days during the Summer Olympics, and depending on where you are watching, the races are sometimes not included in the primetime broadcast outside of brief highlights.
In the United States, NBC is the parent company of all Olympic broadcasts, which means additional networks operated by NBC Universal, such as the USA Network and the Olympic Channel, will typically carry around-the-clock coverage of all the games. The USA network is the best way to watch the mountain bike races in the US, and coverage on the USA network is live and unedited.
As of the 2020 Games in the summer of 2021, NBC’s streaming service Peacock also carried the mountain bike races on-demand after their airing and for a few weeks after. We can assume that this will likely be the same going forward.