The UCI recently announced the end of the eliminator sub-discipline of mountain biking at World Cups after 2014. While the eliminator will still be contested as a world championship event next month and in 2015, the eliminator specialists see the writing on the wall, and some of them are contemplating a career switch to pro road racing.
"It's a real shame the eliminator is going away," said eliminator world champion Paul van der Ploeg to Cyclingnews. "It's like four cross - it's all quite political. Obviously, I enjoy the eliminator and anyone I know likes watching it. It's an exciting compliment event to the World Cup series, but when it's not a World Cup event itself, it's going to be a lot smaller than it already is and it could kill the sport.
"I think the eliminator is a very fair cross country race because you do a time trial and whoever is fast on the day gets to go head to head with the other guys who are fast on the day. You're on an even playing field for the time trials whereas in cross country, it's all about start position." Riders starting near the front row in the cross country World Cups often have an advantage over those in back rows as it's usually not very long before the entire pack must funnel into singletrack.
Van der Ploeg has raced both on and off the road, although after winning the Worlds in 2013, he decided to concentrate on racing his mountain bike so he could honor his world champion's jersey all season.
"Although I did have a few offers from road teams going into this season, I focused on the mountain bike because I had the rainbow stripes. I didn't race the road at all this year."
Calling the end of the eliminator "disappointing", Van der Ploeg is planning to head home to Australia and do some national road series events and a few big one-day Classics.
"I will have to change my focus - whether that's cross country mountain bike racing or maybe transitioning to the road as a sprinter. I may finish off the year in Asia with a few road races to get my foot back in the door on the road. Otherwise, I might be struggling to get a job next year."
Van der Ploeg doesn't regret spending this year racing eliminators. "It's been awesome to rep the world champion's jersey all around the world. I only missed the podium in one eliminator event this season and that was at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup," he said. "Eliminators are such a wild experience - I'll remember this year for the rest of my life. It's been good racing, so I can't complain about them."
He's not the only fast eliminator rider considering a switch to road racing. Fabrice Mels, who is leading the eliminator World Cup with one round remaining this weekend in Meribel, France, said, "We didn't have the promotion we needed to keep the discipline growing. It's a fun one, but we didn't have the big names to make big dreams come through."
"Next year, I will race on the road. If there is no eliminator World Cup, mountain biking is pretty much done for me. I'll try to do the bigger racers - my sponsor Salcano may have a Pro Continental team next year."