One week ago today, the world's best lined up at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships for the first-ever eliminator world championships. At the end of the day, most racers thought the eliminator format used in Saalfelden, Austria, was better than most so far, and there is still room for some improvement.
In the eliminator, each racer must qualify and those that do move through heats toward a final just like in a four cross mountain bike event. Courses less than a kilometer in length often feature a majority or all pavement, and the most popular ones are held in city centres to draw crowds. In Saalfelden, racers qualified and competed in a two-lap format, with total times per heat around two minutes, a bit longer than typical so far in the evolution of the young discipline.
Although some riders are now specializing in the eliminator, both the men's and women's world champions were accomplished cross country racers. The UCI held the first eliminator world championship one day after the elite men's and women's cross country races - which solved the problem of riders complaining that they did not want to race a sprint-type event prior to the cross country. However, many favorites still weren't too interested in repeated sprint efforts one day after the elite cross country Worlds.
Men's eliminator world champion Ralph Naef (Switzerland) said to Cyclingnews, "You have to think about when to do the eliminator to make it popular for cross country riders. The UCI has to think about it, like they do at the end of every year, and make a good plan for next year. Today was perfect for me," said Naef after winning.
Women's eliminator world champion Alexandra Engen (Sweden) was also pleased with the course and format and said to Cyclingnews, "I liked the course in that it had technical parts but you still had chances to pass," she said. "People were playing fair in the women's race. I think that the strongest racer won."
Having been a regular eliminator participant, Engen could comment more broadly. "I think it's good that the courses look different. Having it in a town is very spectacular because it brings a lot of audience. It's ok to do a two-lap course as long as you have these different elements - wide sections and technical parts. I think they had a good balance on this course. It was like taking the best of Nove Mesto and La Bresse (World Cup eliminators)."
Veteran racer and former cross country world champion Jose Hermida (Spain) was happy his trade teammate Ralph Naef won, but had some suggestions for improvements to the eliminator.
"We got a well deserved winner," he said to Cyclingnews. "The format was ok, but it was quite dangerous. I think there are a lot of things to improve. We could see some more passes. It was not easy to pass. The safety could be improved. There were many sharp fences. In the future, they should slow down the speed a bit - that will make the races more dynamic, like the women's was, with a change in each corner. It was too difficult to pass in the men's race at our speeds."
Australia's Dan McConnell also shared his thoughts with Cyclingnews. "Qualifying was so important so you could get that inside line. I guess that's the hardest thing with the eliminator - it was won in the qualifier. Hopefully, they can work on that in the future. It has to be a bit more fair off the start. It was good to see Naef, and cross country rider, get out for the win."
"With it being just over two minutes, it was starting to favor the XC guys at the end, but they had to make it through. I think this one was better than the shorter ones. It's good the crowd came out."
Finally, eliminator newbie Anton Cooper (New Zealand), who had just won the junior men's cross country world championship, was enjoying the fast and furious format.
"I thought it was pretty cool. It's the first time I've ever done an eliminator excepting our national championships, which was very different," said Cooper to Cyclingnews. "The atmosphere was good with this crowd. I think the two laps worked well, and the UCI can learn from this event."
"Sure we are getting specialist guys coming in, but these are really good for our (cross country) starts. I think next year, I will be doing the eliminator for each World Cup, if there is one."