My last blog post seemed to raise a few opinions so I’d better explain further. As I said before Ireland and particularly Dublin is one of the best places I know for xc riding and training, with a great cycling community and a great variety of technical trails within easy access of the capital city. So why do Switzerland have a handful of both male and female xc riders in the top 20 in the world from junior through to elite level whilst Ireland has… err, well, none?! Elite racing is given so much more prestige and recognition here, achievement in sport seems to be more desirable and encouraged. The national newspapers frequently cover mountain bike racing and national races frequently attract 7,000+ spectators.
There are 8 UCI ranked xc races attracting top riders from all over the world in Switzerland this year and none in Ireland. This allows riders to compete in their own country whilst gaining experience of world class level racing, providing inspiration and increasing ambitions. It gives the events more prestige making it easier to attract public and media attention as well as associated funding and financial support. The availability of support not only from the National Cycling body but also from teams from amateur through to professional level cannot be underestimated – making racing financially possible (it is almost unheard of here for an elite rider to work full time), providing valuable expertise and allowing riders to focus on performance.
Development from a young age is well considered in Switzerland. Nationals races have kids races which include skills testing as well as other entertainment to keep them interested throughout the day. Many clubs have a good development structure offering technical coaching, training and race assistance for underage riders. This is only beginning to get going in Ireland.
Up to a certain level the Irish race scene is quite good, it is not considered elitist so there is a wide variety of people taking part, there is a good sociable atmosphere at races, and participation is rapidly increasing. Having raced all over Europe I would still say Djouce, Castlewellan or Kilruddery are amongst the best national standard races courses I’ve ridden, technically and physically challenging as well as great fun to ride.
Its when you get to the top level of the sport that things are lacking with very few riders competing at a real international level, especially for elite women. There is little understanding of the standard of international racing and what is involved to get that fast. There is no structure or guidance and little experience of coaching for riders wanting to compete at that level. Without our own UCI races and with low numbers of elite riders it becomes essential to travel to Europe for anyone wanting to progress in the sport but there is no encouragement to do so. It is logistically and financially difficult with riders left to make their own way. This takes a lot of determination, often leads to doing things the hard way and ultimately often affects results negatively. It is easier to stay at home, win a race all be it at a slower pace and be happy with what we have rather than really progressing and being internationally competitive.
Some of these factors come down to wider cultural economical differences between Switzerland and Ireland (some of which you would never dream of trying to change!), but I’m sure that Ireland has the potential to gain a reputation for being at least as good a place for mountain biking and racing as Switzerland, and develop some top level riders to go with that.