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Does Having Junior Categories in World Cup DH Make a Difference?

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11/27/2017 10:32 AM
Edited Date/Time: 11/27/2017 10:34 AM


I had never really thought much about this topic until our Inside Line podcast with Kathy Sessler, Team Manager for the Santa Cruz Syndicate, which launched a few days ago. She and I discussed the 2018 World Cup DH and her feelings on the finals being reduced to the Top 60 qualified Elite Men's riders instead of the Top 80 that we're used to. She elaborated on team manager meetings with the UCI and a variety of options that were presented to make race day run more efficiently. One of those ideas was moving Juniors to Saturday so the Elite Men and Women had more time on Sunday. That idea did not hold up to a vote with most team managers against it. Kathy went on further to share that she doesn't feel Junior development programs / categories at the World Cup level do much good. She believes that the kids either have "it" or they don't and trying to foster elite-level talent in DH through a Jr. development process involving World Cup competition doesn't yield success.

Listen to a portion of the discussion from our podcast

I dug into last year's qualifying results to see how many of groms would have qualified for Elite race day if they were all allowed to race the same class. I didn't bother comparing finals results b/c it's all about making the show, right?
- Lourdes - 3:09.4 to qualify = Top 5 Junior qualifiers would have qualified in Elite Men
- Fort William - 5:16.4 to qualify = Top 10 Juniors
- Leogang - 3:26.5 to qualify = Top 3 Juniors
- Andorra - 4:31.6 to qualify = Top 4 Juniors
- Lenzerheide - 3:18.5 to qualify = Top 7 Juniors
- Mont Sainte Anne - 4:27.1 to qualify = Top 7 Juniors
- Val di Sole - 4:02.5 to qualify = Top 9 Juniors

Does Kathy's argument hold water? At Fort William, 10 young rippers would have made the Elite show, 9 at Val di Sole. For the last couple years, we've always discussed where 1st-place groms would have finished in Elites. Why shouldn't the racing age just be 15 or 16+ for Elite World Cup DH competition instead of having a full class that takes up time and space on an already-cramped race weekend?

Remember, this is about World Cup DH race weekends only, not being against general Junior racer development, XC events or even World Champs categories.

Photo at the top by Dan Hearn

11/27/2017 11:05 AM

Those guys placing 80th position in WC also don't have the "it" she's talking about either. Perhaps Juniors at the WC level is not needed but I'm curious what Kathy's proposal would be.


11/27/2017 11:06 AM

Also interesting that nobody mentioned the women. Nothing to see here – carry on.


11/27/2017 11:07 AM
Edited Date/Time: 11/27/2017 11:09 AM

Got the pod on my list this week so take my comments with a grain of salt, but I do think that WC DH is at a bit of a crossroads here: Is it a series for the best riders in the world to compete? Or is it just going to be a few weekends a year that are the biggest races?

I am not sure the answer, but Kathy thoughts here make me think that WC DH is a series for the fastest guys in the world and the series should cater to that group. Kind of like how you have the NBA (the best), G League (tier 2), and College/HS/AAU for development...

I am not sure if DH racing is there yet because you need to have a real series to focus on development... The NBA barely just got the G League going and basketball is a pretty big sport.


11/27/2017 12:09 PM

more winners = more better

JR WC makes opportunities for sponsors to get a return on their dollar (good for riders) and more opportinties for fans to get interested (good for viewership and popularity)... less winners makes less opportunity...

Kathy is right about having it or not.. but thats the nature of time trialing... no real need for categories... but for promotion of the brands, and teh creation of stories built around the racing and the riders there is a difference...

Look at the difference between how you can market Finn Illes vs how you can market Phil Atwill... and they are both doing similar times on the race tracks... they are different stories, and both are creating excitement and reasons to watch and get invested emotionally in the racing... this would not be possible without the JRs...


Memory Pilot Sox, Mudguards, Custom Mudguards

11/27/2017 12:17 PM

Am I missing the point, or is everyone else?

The World Junior races are meant to be a path to full WC racing. It seems obvious that the best in the jnr category would be good enough to start qualifying for the next level. It's like that in every sport.

If the juniors who'd qualify in the elite field were that good from their first race, then there probably wouldn't be a need for the junior circuit, but they're not.


11/27/2017 12:26 PM

@mp, i think the idea is opening the elite field up to everyone would give top 10 jrs (rounding up) a place to go, pushing out some of the existing top 80 who may not have "it" thus making it even more competitive?

@mph24, doesn't college ball kind of make up for lack of a dev program in basketball?

@erik saunders, great point about promoting a winner.

all this is interesting and fun to discuss!


11/27/2017 12:36 PM

sAFETY wrote:

Am I missing the point, or is everyone else?

The World Junior races are meant to be a path to full WC racing. It seems ...more

some juniors would qualify in elite's at their first-ever junior world cup DH race path needed. they've been on the path via local/regional/national-level races already.

i don't know what finn's first WC race was as a junior, but in 2016 at msa (the only race i bothered to check...pretty sure his first season as a WC jr was 2016), he would have finished around 50th place in elite's on race day. he already had the ability to compete with elites at age 16 (or however old he was).


11/27/2017 12:46 PM

Loved the podcast. Nice job by the way. It did change my view a bit, especially on the UCI in DH racing.

Something she repeated, was that for some personalities the results aren't even that important. With Minaar she had somebody to bring in the results, while the others were doing a good job and useful for the sponsors just by their fanbase and personality.

I think this is becoming more and more important, where the sponsors of am upcoming rider might not only compare his race results, but also his social media following before deciding to sponsor somebody.

Because of that I think it's only reasonable to give even some of the best juniors the big stage.

However I also haven't followed the sport for long enough to know if there is somebody that really made it out of the juniors that way.


11/27/2017 12:48 PM

sspomer wrote:

some juniors would qualify in elite's at their first-ever junior world cup DH race path needed. they've been on ...more

Sure, there's going to be outliers like Illes, but that's almost certainly the exception, not the rule. How did Hart or Gwin do in their first Juniors race?

We can't expect all junior racers to kill it from the beginning.

The only advantage I see of eliminating the category is that it would level the playing field a bit for racers who don't have committed parents with deep pockets or generous sponsors. Keeping things at a national level up to a certain age would probably keep more racers in the hunt as they mature, some faster than others.


11/27/2017 2:34 PM

It's worth remembering that the Juniors used to be run together with Elites at world cups up until...was it 2013 when the current format came in? Before then, Juniors had their own podium ceremony but could also podium in the Elite ranks. I'm pretty sure Sam Hill at Fort William in '03, Troy Brosnan at Val di Sole in '11 and Loic Bruni at Windham in '12 all got Elite podiums as juniors. I'm probably missing a few others in there, but the possibility of an elite podium as a junior is something I like, and a good predictor of future success.

Really though, I see this as being more important from an operational standpoint. I just watch these races at home, but the scheduling aspects might be pretty significant for the people on the ground at the races.


11/27/2017 9:01 PM
Edited Date/Time: 11/27/2017 9:03 PM

This was one of my favorite Inside Line episodes- such a depth of knowledge and great stories shared.

That said, my eyebrows had a hard time with her interpretation of "rider development." Maybe taking the phrase a little too literally? The way I see rider development is that in order to get young riders racing at a high level, you first have to get/keep them racing, which requires a race series.

If the argument is that the development has to happen on the national level rather than at the world cup, that would hold water, but almost in the same breath it was noted that the US Pro downhill series is struggling at best. Gwin may have hopped onto a DH bike at 19 years old or whatever and blown everyone away, but it was a lifetime of BMX and MX that gave him those skills. That's development.

All other sports have tiers, often correlated with age. But in a niche sport, with small local fields generally, if not a World Cup Junior series there would have to be some other arena for high-level competition where young riders can get noticed, get support and see enough success to stay in it. Unless we just want to optimistically hope for crossovers from other two-wheeled skill sports. Without high-level national racing or a junior world cup it's hard to see that happening.


11/28/2017 1:34 AM

So at any given race, a handful of Juniors would have qualified for the Elite finals. I haven't checked but I'd wager that those Juniors would place inside the top 40 Elite in the finals, or even top 20 in some cases.

You are talking about a handful of the most talented guys in the world. They are the exception, not the rule.

I haven't listened to the podcast yet, but all of this seems a bit elitist. At a regular WC weekend there are probably 5 guys who have the potential to win. Hell, in 2017, without weather or mechanicals there would only have been 2 guys winning ALL the races. Why did all the other guys even turn up?

Should we only have 10 riders in the finals because because WC racing is for the best of the best? Or because it's cheaper and easier?


11/28/2017 4:38 AM

Stop budget bullshit !
Remember the previous years when some elite riders (especially French) could not qualify (on 80th) this on some rounds and now they are on the podium or Top 10 ! (Pierron, Coulanges, ..)
If qualifying would have been so difficult at this moment, have never seen these riders at the top level now !

I know a lot of riders who have the level to come to try the qualification on WC. but there they have no motivation because it will be almost impossible on some rounds (leogang, lenzerheide,.. ) ..

Fortunately that the material, parts, trips and registrations are not expensive !


11/28/2017 7:14 AM

Racing to Win or get a top 5 or even top 10 is a hell of a lot more fun and motivating than racing for a top 80... That is why there are categories, to make it fun to compete at your level.

It would be worth considering letting the top of the top juniors race up if they have achieved a level of racing that warrants racing the big dogs for more experience, etc.

And, what about the ladies? Does any of this translate to junior women?


11/28/2017 7:21 AM
Edited Date/Time: 11/28/2017 7:23 AM

Her claim is that some have it or don't... and that's true. And some that don't have it will figure it out (or not) at the junior levels. What needs to be accounted for here is that there's more to being a pro and competing at that level than the talent. Junior ranks are where folks hone their craft. Teetering around 80th and non-qualification for a 16yr old who "has it" sounds like a great recipe for them to find something else to do.

Also, there were 4 women juniors at Val Di Sole 2017. Na, the sport is doing great!


11/28/2017 7:55 AM

@sspomer - You're right on College ball being a key development area both on and off the court, which I think is important. However, some would argue that for those that "have it" (i.e. Lebron, Simmons, etc.) that it is an unnecessary hurdle to the pros. Same could be said about Finn... From a talent and speed perspective, there's really no reason for him to not be an Elite. The difference with the bball analogy is that Finn gets paid so it's less of an issue.

I think it's important to realize that Kathy's perspective is at the pointy end of the field. The Syndicate fairly routinely sports 3 top 10 overall finishers. Guys like Troy, Minnaar, and Gwin are pretty nice guys, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are practice days where they are pissed because someone who finishes 30-40ish jams up their practice in a section because they are too slow... Gwin/Minnaar/Troy put some serious time into people who finish in mid-pack range on a consistent basis... Ft. Bill - Greg 20 seconds faster than 30th place, VDS - Gwin 16 seconds faster than 30th, etc... If the Gwin, Minnaars, Troys of the world have a bad race without a mechanical they still finish top 15 (prob top 10) which is a lot faster than your mid pack WC guy. We've seen Loic crash and still finish top 20...

From Kathy's perspective, I think she'd say a WC weekend is a race to find out who are the fastest guys/girls in the world and having a separate Junior category with its own race is a burden on the track, timing, and resources for the elites...


11/28/2017 9:06 AM

> I think it's important to realize that Kathy's perspective is at the pointy end of the field

Kathy: Get these losers out of my way. Juniors? SLOOOOW. GTFO... you're either fast or you're not. Empathy, what empathy, GTFO. Just my opinion you know... you don't have to agree with me, I don't care.


11/28/2017 10:27 AM

We really need a good national series for the juniors and race development in general. It would be better for all juniors, and really get more women into racing, too. Women's riding is really taking off in some regions, but we're not seeing it at DH elites, yet.

Would you let your 17 year old kid drop from school to go race WC overseas? Oh hell no, not unless they're a guaranteed superstar like Finn - and there's only one of him. National or even a good regional series would allow lower budget teams to get into the game and essentially be the development league. Luckily where I'm at we've got the NW Cup, but there needs to be more.

Which means we need to build good WC level DH tracks - at least one near each major metro and each major riding area. The answer, as always, is more trails.


Founder of Abit Gear MTB shorts

11/29/2017 8:15 AM

The Juniors race is not televised in anyway that I can find, so I am not sure in what way that benefits the sponsors. If the "young" rider is able to qualify then they are racing with the big boys. Let the development be done at national and local level. Kids learn fast and I do think that they will either have it or not and soon find their way.

Dont see young F1 Drivers having their own race, its F2.

Scrap Juniors and have a larger field, top 80 men and 20 woman. run it similar to golf.

Day 1 (Friday) Top 150 times (combined sector times) go through to Qualies
Day 2 (Saturday) Qualifiers
Day 3 Sunday Race

Doing it that way Saturday practice would then have less people churning up the track
Just my 2 cents


11/30/2017 10:22 AM
Edited Date/Time: 11/30/2017 10:23 AM

Who care about MTB racing? MTB racers.
At this point, it's a participation sports. We need more racing at any level to get more racers.
What's about having an amateur worldcup categories? with juniors and more women? and junior or am racers can ramp up to the pro division after they smashed this division. This way somebody like Finn would already race the pro class when others could still work on their skills. The pro-elite division could ride harldine-level tracks.
More winner = more better;-) = more sponsors ROI
And yes, we also need more legit local series.


Love anything with wheels on dirt!
Play @ predict the 2022 UCI DH MTB Wordcup winners!

11/30/2017 2:01 PM

My first race against Sam Hill was in Austria in 2002, and I can't really say I was racing him. I thought I would race him, upon arrival. In practice, I was stopped in one corner and looked at some ruts and thought about how to negotiate it. Sam rode through the section, talking to his buddy, and rode out of a rut, three feet up a tree trunk, and kept on going down the track. It was other worldly in my mind, and right at that point, I realized I'd never have it. For that reason alone, I agree with Kathy's comments. You do either have it, or you don't. It took about three seconds for me to realize I didn't. I stayed in the mix of racing because I loved it, even though I knew I'd never be at the top. That was alright with me, because I was a junior, and I didn't have expectations of podiums or great results, I just wanted to ride my bike.

Back then, I feel that I'd prefer to not have had the Junior WC category. I was just in the mix, and I did it because I was driven and passionate, not chasing podiums or top fives. Of course I wanted to do well, but in the finals, when weather is relatively the same, it is always easy to compare times, which is what is always done anyway.

Now, I would personally prefer to see the junior racers who are the best get the airtime along with the top riders, if only the top 30 in Elite are shown. It would be nice to speculate "Finn is so smooth, he obviously trains with Loic", it would be more fun to guess "Will Kaos be the next Ratboy or the next Gee?", it would be easier to argue "Walker is fast, but he just doesn't move enough with 29" wheels under him." Of course, we can't say that stuff, because we rarely get to see them race, and if it was all one, when those juniors are kicking ass, we would be able to see (and cheer on) the next generation of greats.


I'm hungry.

11/30/2017 2:59 PM
Edited Date/Time: 11/30/2017 3:01 PM

I love the fact she's willing to say something that may not be popular and back it up with something somewhat objective.

That said, I don't really agree with her hypothesis. I'll give you one example that popped into my head right away...

Marcelo Gutierrez. He was an off the back Junior, all things considered. He worked. He worked. And he worked.

Now he's a top 10 threat. Is he a top step contender? Not usually, but it could happen...

I don't disagree that the "Michael Jordans" of any sport have it, but in most sports, even at the top level, are populated *not* by legendary talent but "pretty good" talent. As a lifetime riff raff pro myself, I can tell you that the results sheet needs us lackeys.

Should the development of the riff raff take away from the elites? I don't know. I think supporting juniors on the WC scene is a mixed bag, but supporting juniors overall should always be a core focus.

Put another way, the little league world series is a big deal, and rightfully so. But they don't play the LLWC prior to the (real) world series in October or let anything detract from the big show. It has its own thing.

I think if you are good enough to race with the elites as a junior, you should do it. Otherwise, I don't think you should forgo school and a thousand other things that should be more important to travel around and race bikes at 16 (when most likely it'll leave you without a real athletic career at the age of 22)