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Opinion: The Hidden Difficulties of the World Cup Calendar for Privateers

Life as a privateer is challenging enough financially, and this year's race calendar makes it even harder

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Pinkbike’s first State of the Sport survey last year gave me a lot of food for thought, and I wasn’t alone. In fact, the results from the remuneration section even inspired the Pinkbike staff to start our own World Cup team, so we could ensure certain standards of pay are being met.

In that section, we surveyed the World Cup riders who finished in the top 40 overall of the previous two seasons. There were no surprises then that included in our sample were some of the sport’s brightest stars but also, within that top 40, some that were running on a very tight budget to say the least.

Even some of the riders existing right at the sharp end were merely getting their expenses paid and not taking home a real wage. As bad as this is, and it is bad, they get to follow their passion, right? Well, no. Not really. Riding a bike, like any job, should be paid fairly to ensure a fair standard of living, especially when there is something of an industry boom happening. The gulf in wages and the apparent lack of support via teams also made me think of the privateers and their own struggles.

It’s strange to think that a lot of these riders aren’t even necessarily investing in their racing career now to reap the benefits in the future, and hopefully make back some of their money. In fact, unless they make it to the very top, the best they can hope for is no longer paying through the nose just to attend the races.

As the international governing body, the UCI is meant to ensure that the riders take home a wage that is equivalent to a living wage in their home country, but as we found in the survey, this just isn’t the case. The idea they can return home to work is always operating on the assumption that they’re fit, healthy and uninjured for the off season to hopefully earn some money to cover their racing expenses. 

When you’re a privateer, there are no free rides. (Photo: Sven Martin)

Extreme sport is a funny thing in some ways. Is it just racing? Or is it entertainment? If we’re being entertained, do we owe something to the riders? Class B rallying, for instance, was very exciting to watch and it was the large, captivated audience that was one reason so many manufacturers wanted to be part of it.

The increase in high-speed downhill courses in recent years, as well as bikes getting more and more capable means that even on technically demanding tracks the speeds are still relatively high. This means that the riders are risking life and limb, and sadly that’s not an exaggeration.

Racing demands a lot of a rider and a lot of that can simply be the logistics of attending the events. For example this year, the opening round of the season in Lourdes, France, this weekend is decidedly early. It means that not only do you have Northern Hemisphere riders jetting around Europe and North America to try and get some bike time for a race that is just a few days after winter officially finishes, but I’ve heard that some trade teams are not bringing over Junior racers for the event. It’s simply too expensive to fly somebody out, while also factoring any Covid-related restrictions, for one weekend in the most likely cold and sodden South of France.

Riding a bike, like any job, should be paid fairly to ensure a fair standard of living, especially when there is something of an industry boom. The gulf in wages and the apparent lack of support via teams also made me think of the privateers and their own struggles.

When the season resumes, the Scottish World Cup is normally in the first weekend of June. This year, however, it’s in mid-May. There are other rounds, too, to not quite be when you’d expect them. 

This year Leogang isn’t the following weekend after Fort William. Normally, the two races run back to back. In my opinion, this makes it far easier for racers, particularly privateers to attend. It’s more compatible with work schedules and one large convoy moving down makes ride sharing easier. This year however, there is two weeks of downtime in between. I’m not sure how helpful this is.

(Photo: Sven Martin)

If we look at pre-pandemic season openers, 2019 had a late April race in Maribor, Slovenia, and an early-April start in Croatia 2018, although that event did at least tie in nicely with a European Cup the week before in Slovenia to make it something of a doubleheader.

The opening round in Lourdes this year is in late March. This means that a lot of non-European riders have to travel a huge distance for just one weekend of racing. Either that, or they risk compromising their overall position, which is very important for a lot of riders. Even with a French or Portugal Cup the week before the race, I’m not sure that has the same draw as a European round of the World Cup.

It’s also not uncommon for the travel map of mid-season European rounds to look like a game of Pong, as the teams and riders bounce from one side of Europe to another. For instance, in 2017 Leogang occupyied the second weekend of June, then there were two rounds of the Crankworx tour in the following weeks, both located in the Alps. With the Swiss round of the World Cup looming, you’d hope it would be next but instead it was off to Andorra before returning east to race at Lenzerheide. This meant that the whole circus drove or flew across Europe and back for no particular reason. It just felt needless. 

The UCI and Crankworx aren’t organized by the same entity, however, I think a bit more cohesion between them both would not go amiss. It’s the riders who are bearing the brunt of any extra travel.

I suppose you’re going to have the North American rounds at some point, but having them sandwiched in the middle and not at the end of the European leg does seem a little odd. In fairness, at least at that point the calendar balances races weekends and downtime well though.

(Photo: Sven Martin)

Of course, no World Cup rider has it easy, but the Southern Hemisphere privateers have always had a lot of my admiration. Yes, they’re often affable and easygoing, and are known for their off-bike antics as much as the on-bike ones, but the fact that they slogged it out for years while living in vans gets a shit ton of my respect. Apart from the odd round in Cairns or South Africa, they never have much of a home advantage. It sounds trivial but even things like time zones and jet lag can affect a rider, especially when your body clock is turned on its head and you have to go full bore on a track you’ve maybe not even seen before.

I’m not saying that the UCI is trying to make it difficult for privateers—I don’t think they’re making it hard on purpose—but I think they could do a far better job at making it a lot easier. We have a rider’s rep, what about a privateer’s rep elected by the current non-trade team elite riders? It surely has to get better than going halfway around the world for three days of riding bikes in the French drizzle, at a place that isn’t immune to weather-affected racing, as we’ve seen in the past.

There are all these factors, and that’s not to even mention the environmental impact. Honestly, World Cup racing and its associated travel isn’t great for the planet but that’s not to say it couldn’t be better. Either way, I would love to see more support for riders all around and less unnecessary travel.