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Balancing Act—Why Hosting a World Cup is So Complex

Lourdes is returning to the World Cup calendar after a five-year absence. Martin Whiteley dug into why—and also pinpointed some of the reasons behind the U.S.’s paltry venue presence.

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We’re days away from the 30th World Cup Downhill season kicking off in Lourdes on the French side of the Pyrenees—a venue that has been absent from the circuit for five years. Why? The short answer is: It’s complicated. The long answer involves complex machinations that go on behind the scenes, for many months, trying to arrive at a calendar that needs to placate a large range of invested parties. 

Prior to owning race teams, I worked at the UCI, where I was responsible for overseeing the World Cup property, and before that, I organized two World Cups in Cairns in 1994 and 1995. So, I’ve seen the bidding and allocation process from three distinct perspectives. 

One thing that has become extremely clear in the past 20 years is the comparative lack of venues hosting a World Cup in North America. During the 1990s there were up to three or four U.S. venues each year, yet these days, Snowshoe and Windham have been the only hosts in 17 years.  

2011 World Championships in Champery Switzerland. Champery has also hosted World Cup stops in 2007 and 2010. (Photo: Sven Martin)

The root of the geographic disparity is there are many invested parties that a World Cup calendar announcement needs to satisfy: national federations, local organizing committees, teams, athletes, media, sponsors, TV production, and of course, the fans. For a venue to be considered before being awarded, it needs to have a willing organizer ready to accept the financial model on offer (roughly a $50,000 commitment), as well as a venue that satisfies various criteria, such as racecourse suitability, parking and infrastructure, access to potential fans and so on. Then it needs to be approved by the national federation, which is not always easy as they have their own criteria for approving a venue. In the 1990s, the UCI Mountain Bike Commission, which chose the venues, had technical representatives as members, not politicians, so you had a team rep, athlete rep, organizer rep. This ensured that these key players had a voice in the venues recommended to be rubber-stamped by the UCI Board. It doesn’t happen the same way now. While there are athlete reps on the Commission, teams don’t have direct input into the venue selection other than being asked by the UCI staff for feedback.

Giving top pros a chance to race on their home turf is one of the considerations when weighing host venue bids. This worked in Greg Minnaar’s favor when the South African won the 2013 World Champs in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, a venue that also has hosted four World Cup races, though it has been off the calendar since 2014. (Photo: Sven Martin )

Also, in setting up World Cup weekends on the annual calendar, the UCI must be mindful of other key events that need dates. Apart from working around the Olympics for example, there are many national level race series that are key to growing the sport, and they can’t be shut out of all the summer weekends. They too need top riders for their sponsors, media, and fans.

The Bidding Big Bucks

For most of us, our contact at the UCI is Simon Burney, who’s held a few different titles within the Swiss-based organization, always within off-road cycling, and currently his role is called  “Consultant- Mountain Bike”. He’s been a technical delegate at the Olympics, overseen hundreds of races and worked with all invested mountain bike World Cup parties over the past 10-plus years. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to venue selection.  

Les Gets, France, is one of the longest-running venues on the World Cup calendar, having been a host off and on since 1996. (Photo: Sven Martin )

“The UCI World Cup bidding process works like this: The bid guide is a public document available on the UCI website,” says Burney. “Any event organizer or interested party can bid for a round based on the conditions in the guide, the most important of which is that the bid must have national federation approval in the form of a supporting letter. A new bid comes with a fee of €3,500 and the calendar fees are €32,500 for a single event (DHI or XCO) or €37,500 for a double event (DHI & XCO). Bid deadlines are usually 18 months before the season requested but recently, we’ve been approving calendars in two-year blocks. 

“The decision on the final calendar submitted for approval is based on several factors: Give a balanced calendar for the teams and athletes in and around other events on the calendar; where bids allow, give a geographical spread including some new venues and markets in the calendar; have a number and location of events that fit within the television production budget; capitalize on the popularity of some of the star athletes in the sport by allowing them a ‘home’ race; try to have a mix of ‘classic’ events on the calendar every year for a period, and add new venues in.” 

Three legends pictured in 2016: Rob Warner, Claudio Caluori and Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, the longest-running venue in the game. (Photo: Sven Martin)

There’s a fair bit to juggle, and the standout reveal for most readers is likely the calendar fees. These have certainly gone up since the 1990s and would likely have potential hosts asking: Is it worth it? The UCI doesn’t just take the money and ask the organizer to do the rest. A huge factor here is that the UCI provides as part of this package, the TV production, which is around €250,000 for a DHI or XCO event, and €400,000 for a double. They release 50 percent of the marketing rights to the organizer, provide some officials and the on-site commentators, as well as all the timing services. As a previous event organizer, I can assure you that’s a massive chunk of the budget sorted. In addition, organizers keep all revenue from gate ticket sales, food and beverage licenses and merchandising. As far as bidding and calendar fees go in the world of mountain biking, it costs a lot more for a venue to bid for an Enduro World Series event—somewhere around 50 percent more—and team registration is more expensive too, around three times the cost, so overall, the MTB World Cup is not a bad gig if you can get it. 

Fort William has hosted the greatest number of World Cups in Europe, equal with Houffalize in Belgium at 17. For organizers Lesley Beck and Mike Jardine, this is a major part of their annual business. Anyone who’s been to that event knows what a great job they do in bringing in a massive, enthusiastic, knowledgeable crowd to what seems like the middle of nowhere. Something is clearly working for them, but things could also improve, says Jardine. 

Hosting World Cups represents a significant part of Fort William’s business (pictured in 2009), and the whole region benefits when the circus rolls into town. (Photo: Sven Martin)

“Initially our bid document was very extensive but over the years, the credibility of a proven track record has meant a simpler approach to calendar bids,” he says. “But you are only as good as your last event, so it is crucial to keep the standard of delivery at a high level. There are always doubts about the bid being rejected—we are all subject to the policies and intentions of the UCI and their major partners, which can change. We’ve also had some challenging years when the weather has severely tested the event and introduced concerns about the future. But even in such situations we’ve always maintained great crowds and atmosphere with a dedication to delivering a great event whatever, and I think that is respected. As for improving the bidding procedure, earlier decisions, better consultation with regards to planning, especially with ‘classic’ events and a move toward three-year deals would help us a lot.” 

Most successful venues like Fort William receive strong financial support from their local/regional/national tourism departments and agencies who see these events as a great stimulus for the local economy and an excellent way to promote international tourism. I’ve read Economic Impact Studies carried out by independent bodies, assessing the revenue brought into venues like Fort William and Mont-Sainte-Anne and the figures reach well into the millions. Room nights, bars and restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, even car washes—they all record bumper weeks. 

American Drought 

So why not in the U.S.? In the 1990s, the U.S. had the NORBA Series, which was hugely successful, and the scene was big enough to handle both the World Cup and the NORBA events. They were often held back-to-back, and all the top stars and teams of the time seemed to come from the U.S. Around 1997 that momentum started to shift toward Europe as the Olympic inclusion of XC affected national federation investment into mountain bike racing.

2015  was the last year Windham, New York, hosted a World Cup race. (Photo: Sven Martin)

“It feels like U.S. promoters are more often looking for the next big thing and are not as keen to engage with the national federation or UCI to have events as organizers in Europe, so for a while it was marathon events such as Leadville 100 that were very popular and more recently it’s gravel races,” says the UCI’s Burney. “There are very few gravity events as there was certainly a period where liability and insurance were an issue at some big resorts where we had seen major events, Big Bear for example. This didn’t help encourage organizers to try and host major events. I think we are starting to see more interest in UCI World Cups in the USA, and in the next three to four years I feel we’ll be back there with more rounds. It’s a big market for the cycle industry, and we should be there.” 

Snowshoe, West Virginia, in 2019, the first year the U.S. resort made it onto the World Cup calendar. It returned in 2021 for a rare season-ending doubleheader and is on this year’s calendar as well.  (Photo: Sven Martin)

Jardine, who’s visited World Cup races outside of Europe, felt it was more to do with the market strength in Europe, but he’s open to expansion. 

“There’s a big concentration of markets and activity in Europe so I think that focus is inevitable, especially when the total number of World Cups is limited,” he says. “The costs associated with traveling and the environmental impact are also relevant, but to be a true World Cup there needs to be a willingness to explore beyond the European boundaries. This has been happening, with three venues from 10 outside Europe this year. Ideally any additional World Cups should be exploring new countries.” 

Cairns, Australia, has made intermittent appearances on the World Cup calendar over the lift of the race series, and last hosted an international federation race in 2017, with that year’s World Champs. (Photo: Sven Martin)

For teams that invest in big set-ups for their European pits, there is a concern about too much expansion. As one of the few European-based, privately owned teams with a full truck set up in North America, I can tell you it’s not financially viable, but it has other add-on values that make it worthwhile for me, like athlete and staff comfort for working conditions and giving the fans something more to check out than a plain white tent. If you start having races in Asia, Africa, South America, Australasia, it then becomes very expensive for the teams to have professional set ups all around the world, so the UCI is seeking a balance. My ideal would be six European events, four North American, and one “exotic” as we call them within the paddock. However, each team manager or owner will have a slightly different preferred combination. Holding events outside of Europe held back-to-back definitely helps with budgeting, however four in a row wouldn’t work, as it‘s too much time away for staff—TV production companies have strict rules about that—and it would eclipse an entire month of the calendar, starving national series events from a free weekend.

Josh Bryceland napping in the Slovenian sunshine, circa 2009, at Maribor, a longtime regular World Cup venue. (Photo: Sven Martin)

Right now the U.S.’s sole venue, Snowshoe Resort, which is incredibly remote but fully laden with fans, is run very successfully and funded by the resort. Windham tried that model but ended up going a different direction, yet their events were considered some of the best on the world circuit during their five-year run. Organizer Nick Bove reflects on the trials and tribulations of hosting those events:

The costs associated with traveling and the environmental impact are also relevant, but to be a true World Cup there needs to be a willingness to explore beyond the European boundaries.

“The key factor to Windham’s ability to successfully host and organize five UCI World Cups was the community itself. It’s a little known fact that Windham Mountain Resort did not run the UCI races. The resort initially submitted a bid to host the event, however, after realizing the enormous costs involved and the likely net financial loss, they declined the UCI’s offer. Then a small group of dedicated volunteers from the town of Windham stepped up and raised millions of dollars in donations over those five years to pave the road for those U.S. World Cup races. It’s important to understand that this organization was a not-for-profit group that was composed of resourceful and creative volunteers and because of this, they were able to organize these events at a fraction of the cost. Even with the savings from volunteer staff and charitable labor, we had a net “loss” (investment) of close to a million dollars over those five years. Having a profitable event was not the driving force for us. Rather, our volunteer group wanted the exposure of the event. This was an investment in the future of our community. Today, we are reaping the rewards of those investments. Since the World Cup came to Windham, we’ve built 30-plus miles of mountain bike trails, along with the family-friendly Windham Path, and we have seen Windham Mountain Resort invest in a very successful summer mountain bike park. Were the World Cups worth hosting? To be clear, that’s a resounding, ‘Yes.’” 

Passion Project

So you’re reading this as a potential organizer, you calculate your budget and realize this is a feasible project, but your venue is untested. How does the UCI evaluate venues like Losinj, Lousã and Petropolis, who only have a year to prove their worth?

The opening round of the 2018 UCI MTB World Cup DH series in Veli Losinj, Croatia, the only time that venue has hosted. (Photo: Sven Martin)

“We would rarely offer a new venue more than a one-year contract unless maybe the venue/organizer had hosted an HC (Hors Categorie) class event for a number of years for example and we were confident it would be a success,” Burney says. “The whole calendar is a massive juggling act and big puzzle and with the number of rounds mainly dictated by the television budget and what we feel the teams can afford around the rest of their calendar commitments, keeping classics, adding new events, adding new continents or countries—it’s not as easy as a lot of fans think.” 

So as a new venue, you need to make a go of it from year one, it needs to stand alone and work financially with the hope you can get a new contract and build on it in the future. This may be a deterrent for U.S. organizers who want to lock in a three-year deal from the outset to build over time and become profitable. It is a business after all, especially at this level. Even for seasoned professionals like Beck and Jardine from Fort William, the event can still be a gamble. 

“Putting on a World Cup is an expensive business, and costs are increasing every year,” Jardine says. “We don’t know our final gate ticket income (which is usually 40 to 50 percent of the total budget) until the Sunday evening after the race, so planning is always affected by the need to budget very carefully in order to not make a loss. These days, a core level of public funding from local, regional or national organizations (or the hosting resort) is a fundamental requirement, everywhere. This type of involvement is usually based on national or local strategies regarding tourism, promotion, and economic impact.” 

As a venue if you can sort out the complexities of hosting, it generally turns into a positive for the entire region. Maribor, Slovenia, 2009. (Photo: Sven Martin )

Putting aside the new TV production and organization plan with Discovery, which I believe, after hearing more details from Burney, will be a major success for our sport, the overall model for hosting a World Cup is pretty attractive. It takes a lot of work from an organizer to create the venue, muster hundreds of volunteers and stoke them out, negotiate with local authorities and sponsors, and work with the national and international federations. It clearly needs to be a passion project initially, but it should become, as it has for Fort William, Mont-Sainte-Anne and others, a project worth bidding for, year in and year out.