Races we love: The inaugural MTB world championships

Mountain bike worlds turns 30 this year. We recall the original in Durango.

Photo: Nathan Bilow / Getty Images

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First Edition: 1990

First Winner: Ned Overend and Juli Furtado (Cross-country) / Greg Herbold and Cindy Devine (Downhill)

Last Winners: Jordan Sarrou and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (Cross-country) / Reece Wilson and Camille Balanche (Downhill)

Lost within pro cycling’s COVID-19 news cycle this year were a handful of the sport’s milestones and anniversaries. Perhaps none was as important as the 30-year anniversary of the inaugural UCI mountain bike world championships, held in Durango, Colorado, back in 1990.

The 1990 mountain bike worlds helped set the tone for what the sport would eventually become. Fitness enthusiasts cheered on Ned Overend, the man nicknamed “The Lung” due to his supreme cardiovascular strength, who defeated Swiss youngster Thomas Frischknecht in the cross-country race. Cross-over superstar Juli Furtado, a former Nordic skier and road cyclist, won the women’s cross-country. In the downhill, the brash Greg Herbold won the world title and ushered in an era of neon colors and daredevil attitude that pushed mountain biking into the budding category of “extreme sports.”

Like all cycling events in 2020, the UCI mountain bike world championships underwent a major overhaul due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The original format called for the cross-country races to be held in Albstadt, Germany, in late June to slot in before the Olympic games, with the downhill taking place in Leogang, Austria. After Germany imposed strict rules on public events, and the Olympics were called off entirely, organizers took drastic measures to ensure that some level of competition would take place.

They moved both world championships to Leogang and carved out the second weekend in October for competition. Then, they developed an unorthodox World Cup schedule, that placed two cross-country World Cups just days apart at the racing venue in Nové Město, Czech Republic, the week prior to worlds. Officials also limited fan access to the Leogang venue.

The final outcome was a success, in that all of the races were completed without cancellation. Frenchman Jordan Sarrou won the men’s cross-country, while Pauline Ferrand-Prévot defended her title in the women’s XC. The downhill went to Reece Wilson and Camille Balanche, and there were impressive rides in the younger categories by several riders of the future.

Like all of cycling’s adaptations throughout 2020, it was far from perfect. Some riders balked at traveling amid the global pandemic, and were upset that they lost out on the UCI points that go toward starting grid placement and Olympic qualification. And there were a few cases of COVID-19, among them American racer and VeloNews training columnist Hannah Finchamp.

Finchamp’s perspective on why she took the risk to travel to Europe and race seemed to sum up the year: “I’ve put my heart and soul into my dreams on the bike and to deny myself the chance to chase them felt like the thing that would bring the most regret.”

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