The wide-eyed fun and chaos of attending an MTB World Cup

3 days embedded with Trek Factory Racing in the middle of the Swiss Alps

The first thing you’ll notice at your first World Cup are the angles. Sharp angles. The two centerpiece race courses in Lenzerheide twist, fold and stack on themselves and each other. The team, sponsor and event tents and trucks fit snugly in serpentine rows. There are passageways to get around the concourse, but going up often means going under, going left requires a series of rights, and all routes eventually lead somewhere event staff don’t want you to be.

By the end, you’ll realize that Lenzerheide may be the perfect place to host an event as big as a cross country/downhill World Cup double. The course is a short walk from the hotels and restaurants in town. The staging area and finish lines are at the bottom of a mountainside inlaid with the tracks, creating a natural amphitheater. There are a million nooks and vantage points to watch the action if you can navigate the MC Escher-ian layout.

But your first impression is that this is impossible. How does anyone know where they’re headed? How could anyone think this makes sense? You’re a lost puppy. The only thing to do is head in a direction — any direction — and hope you’ll figure out where you’re going from there.

Ever wonder what it’s like to attend a World Cup? The best way to find out is to go. But in lieu of buying plane tickets and figuring out transportation to the remote heights of the Swiss Alps, here’s an attempt at the next best thing. Here’s how one person spent three densely-packed, electric days at high altitude with Trek Factory Racing.

From left to right, Ryan Gaul, Kade Edwards and Loris Vergier at the top of track walk. | Photo by Ross Bell

Track walk - Learn your lines

Downhill mountain bike racing feels like the bad boy cousin to cross country racing. The latter is still racing in the traditional sense. Competitors line up, and whoever crosses the line first, wins. It takes toughness, sure — Lenzerheide’s boulders, roots, drops and loose, loam-y soil aren’t for amateurs — but XC riders aren’t built like the burlier speed freaks that carom down mountains for fun. 

Which is why it’s so surprising how soothing downhill racing sounds up close. On Friday morning, I went up to the top of the course on a funicular and walked down the winding and sometimes treacherously steep sidelines of the track. Riders went by during a practice session ahead of qualifying, and every time they passed, the wheels softly padded on the dirt like distant horse hooves. When they landed from a jump or drop, the bikes made a sound like the baff of a pillow in a pillow fight.

Early in the course, a gaggle of maybe 20 riders stood with their bikes laid down on their sides watching other riders take on a tricky bend. TFR mechanic Daniel Bladon was there taking cell phone footage that he could show Loris Vergier, the team’s only rider on the weekend. He explained that he had seen a hundred riders go by, “and not one did it the same way.”

The mass of riders ready for downhill practice. | Photo by author

To an untrained eye, that seems preposterous. For the first dozen riders or so, it’s hard to tell that any of them are doing anything differently. A bunch of riders rip by on some seriously sketchy dirt, and that’s an overwhelming sight by itself.

But as more riders go by, you start to see variations. They’re trying to navigate a stump before a sharp right hand turn. Some try to go outside the stump to get a cleaner line on the inside. Others go inside the stump and try to maintain a higher speed deep into the banked curve of the turn, hoping to make up for the longer distance they travel. Some try to have it all, aiming inside the stump and inside the turn, which creates several harrowing moments of riders bailing out when they clip the inside pole marking the turn’s apex.

Every approach is unique, a reflection of each rider’s ability to do geometry and physics calculations at ass-on-fire speed. Despite the meticulous scouting and strategy in every downhill run, it’s still a sport of old fashioned quick-twitch instincts. In the end, the riders are always winging it.

A long, long way down. | Photo by author

And just like a language you don’t understand, it’s easy to appreciate the sport even if you couldn’t possibly fathom the millions of micro-decisions that riders make on every run. Later, Vergier would lay down one of the best runs of the day, taking P3 in qualifying, then go back to the team tent telling everyone how much better it could have been. 

That’s not to say he was down on the result. Vergier says he “messed up the top,” but there’s no air of disappointment. More like anticipation. A good run with a bad start gives him reason to be optimistic. He was the third best rider on the day, and he knows how he can go even faster. A man who knows his bike and his body this well, of course you believe him.

Jolanda Neff warming up behind the tent before short track. | Photo by Ross Bell

Short Track - Start fast

Vlad Dascalu and Anton Cooper pre-ride the short track course together an hour-and-a-half ahead of their 6:30 p.m. start time. They’re calm, chatting, riding easy.

On their second practice lap, they stop at the pits to chat with team mechanic Litu. They discuss tire pressure. They settle on 19-21 psi to improve grip. Back at the team tent, Litu, who serves as the primary mechanic for Dascalu, says that the choice was a good one. “When he says it’s good, it’s good. It makes my life easy.” He smiles.

The women’s short track race is first. As start time approaches, a cacophony rises. The sounds don’t have any logical connection to the sport — chainsaws, snare drums, a lone electric guitar — but in addition to the booming music from the PA system — AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” intro plays as the announcer’s begin rider introductions — they create the feeling of an imminent explosion. People mill around everywhere. The course barriers are somewhat of a suggestion. The course turns in and out of the woods, and there are fans at every odd corner.

The view from the course. | Photo by author

The best vantage point is on a small hill just past the second of two switchback turns after the start. From there, you can see roughly half the course, including the climb that riders will take on nine times. The course is running fast because forecasted morning rain held off. There’s almost no time or space to breathe as the riders mash their legs for 20 minutes. Both races devolve into battles of attrition; every time riders emerge from the woods onto the pavement towards the line, the lead group is several riders smaller. TFR’s Jolanda Neff rides brilliantly, taking third after nearly catching the solo leader, Jenny Rissveds, but her first reaction to the result was that she “suffered a lot.”

“But I’m really happy with the result,” she continues. “The races here in Lenzerheide are always hard. Like really hard. You’re so gassed. It’s a little bit of altitude, so once you’re hurting, you’re really hurting.”

Happy pre-short track Vlad Dascalu.

Cooper and Dascalu make small mistakes, but put themselves in good position for Sunday’s Olympic-distance event by taking 11th and eighth, respectively. They hoped for more, especially Dascalu, who entered the race having finished at least fourth in the last seven XCC and XCO World Cup events he completed. But in their exhausted post-race rehashings back at the team tent, they don’t spend much time bemoaning what could have been.

Mostly, they’re gassed. At the highest level of racing, superhuman performance is normal. And if you can’t quite reach those dizzying heights for one all-out, drag race effort, well, there’s not much else to do except knock the dust off. There’s another race in two days.

Vergier's mechanic P.A. tuning up the rig. | Photo by Ross Bell

DH Finals - Raise the level

Ryan Gaul, the DH team liaison, is bouncing around the team tent at 10:38 a.m. on Saturday. He’s just cracked a Coke. “It’s race day. I’m amped,” he says. The DH staff tend to keep the vibe loose. The day’s mission is written on a whiteboard in the massage area: “Loris Race Fast.”

At 12:13 p.m., the mood is a little quieter, the adrenaline just after waking up on race day having worn off. Vergier won’t race for approximately three hours, and he’s the only TFR rider in action — Reece Wilson, Charlie Harrison and Kade Edwards are all battling injuries. Gaul is pacing now. “I hate this part,” he says.

Words of wisdom. | Photo by author

At 2:25 p.m., approximately one hour before his start time, Vergier heads out of the tent for the lift to the top of the course. The Frenchman says “bisous” to everyone in earshot, and hugs Silja Stadler, the team’s physiotherapist. Vergier seems to be leaving for a school day. Somehow, I feel more confident he’s going to have a big day.

At 3:06 p.m. I’m standing next to Gaul and Stadler in the team manager’s area of the course, just inside the fence holding back a swell of fans at the bottom of the run. Vergier will be the third-to-last rider on the day. We watch about a dozen riders come down beforehand, each hailed by a growing roar of vuvuzelas and chainsaws. 

Two men commentate on the action over the loudspeakers, taking turns speaking and impressively alternating among English, German and French. Somehow, they never once interrupt each other, despite also never once letting the mic grow cold. They’re brutally honest when a rider finishes a bad run — “that’s not at all what he’s capable of” they say as one rider rolls to a stop in the finish area — which feels rude.

Vergier watching the final runs. | Photo by Ross Bell

The crowd oohs and aahs with every new split time on the video screen. A cheer goes up for Andreas Kolb, who moves into second place by just .007 seconds. Just before Vergier drops in, Gaul explains that downhill tracks evolve throughout the weekend, and even throughout the two-plus hours of competition. A tire might kick a rock onto the course, for example, and ruin a line that a rider had scouted across multiple practice runs. 

Vergier’s first split is worrisome. He proves himself correct that there was a lot of time to gain at the top. Unfortunately, the timer shows him “red” — that is, behind the winning pace — at 15th place. He gains time as the course goes on, but only posts red splits in comparison to then-leader Finn Iles — ninth at Split 2, sixth at Split 3, seventh at Split 4 and sixth at the line. Only two riders are left after Vergier and both go faster, including Amaury Pierron, who wins the competition by a mind-boggling 1.4 seconds over Iles.

Post-race ink. | Photo by author

Vergier is resigned after the race. He had a clean run, but the level has been incredibly high in Lenzerheide, he says. “Some races I crash and get fourth or fifth.”

To race downhill, you have to be a perfectionist who also understands that, ultimately, every run is held together by paper glue. An unseen root, a bad chain link, a bad line or anything less than 100 percent confidence in yourself could result in a bad day. 

Eighth, ultimately, isn’t a heartbreaking result. Vergier just needs to find that race-winning pace. “I think it’s doable,” he says. “Just no mistakes and all confidence.”

He won the very next week.

Anton Cooper after a killer effort in XCO. | Photo by Ross Bell

Elite XCO - Brace for impact

Matt Shriver, the XC team’s support manager, is in his first season on the job, so when asked where he’s going to watch the race, he says, “I don’t know, I need to figure that out.” So commences an adventure in amateur mountaineering. 

At 10:20 a.m., Maddie Munro has returned to the team tent after taking her first top 10 of the year in the women’s U23 category. Neff is warming up behind the tent, concealed by a flap, her rollers emitting a loud buzzing sound. When she emerges from the tent, she’s taken aback: “Oh,” she says, “there’s nobody around!” 

There’s a hint of relief in her voice. As a Swiss rider and reigning Olympic champion, her week has been packed with signings, meet-and-greets, media appearances and more. There are few people in the world more affable, energetic and gracious with their time than Neff, but in the moments before she sets off for the start line, some peace and quiet is nice.

Hopp hopp hopp hopp hopp. | Photo by author

After she leaves, Shriver heads to the course. He wants to get to the top of the hill on the start loop, so as the announcers are making rider introductions, he’s scurrying up a vegetated hill, crossing the track in multiple places, and making me exercise much more than I had planned. Shriver, it should be noted, is a former masters cyclocross World Champion. “Let me know if it’s hard to keep up,” he says. “Also be sure to check for ticks later. I think this area is covered in them.” 

Shriver finds a good spot next to the paved section towards the top of the start loop just as Neff is coming by at the front of the race. As soon as the riders pass, he books it again, this time going down a lower section of the track, making crafty line choices and taking the banked turns at speed, until he’s near the staging area again. Then another series of lefts, rights, unders and overs at a brisk run until he emerges on a hillside clearing in the midst of a twisty portion of the track.

A raucous crowd for Neff. | Photo by Ross Bell

Fans cover the hillside, which works as makeshift tiered seating towards a giant video screen broadcasting the race at the bottom. At the top, the track is laid out so that it’s easy to run from one bend in the course to another and see the riders pass multiple times. By the second lap, Neff establishes a comfortable place in the first chasing group. 

The riders’ imminent arrival is signaled by a motorbike that comes down the track to make sure that no debris or wayward fans are blocking the way. When the riders go by, the Swiss fans yell “hopp hopp hopp hopp hopp” at them at a steady cadence. “Hopp hopp hopp hopp hopp.” Over and over. They even write it on their signs. “Hopp hopp hopp hopp hopp.”

With one lap to go, Shriver is on the run again to catch Neff at the finish. I jog back to the staging area — under, over, etc. — and then make myself look important as I scurry through a VIP tent, behind a pop-up service staff kitchen, and up my umpteenth hill to get to the finishing area and into the press pen.

Maddie Munro still has smiles even as she's catching her breath. | Photo by Ross Bell

Typically, only the top three riders are required to enter the pen and meet with media after the race. Neff, who finished sixth, joins Loana Lecomte, Jenny Rissveds and Alessandra Keller by special request. She’s a big deal in Switzerland, a point hammered home by the fact that she’s the last person still giving interviews after the race, long after the top three riders have taken their podium shots and headed back to their tents. She spends at least 20 minutes rehashing her experience at her home race into cameras, cell phones and voice recorders. 

A security guard taps me on the shoulder and asks me to tell Neff that a group of four kids have been waiting for her at the end of the rider area past the finish line. After I talk to Neff I point out the kids. She smiles and rides in their direction.

The men’s race is more of the same — left, under, over, right, “hopp hopp hopp hopp hopp.” Cooper and Dascalu are riding well in the lead group the first time they pass by, but on the second lap Cooper has dropped back, and on the third lap, so has Dascalu. Precipitously in the latter case, which is bizarre for one of the most consistent riders in the men’s field.

Neff acknowledging the crowd. | Photo by Ross Bell

Both men finish strong — Cooper is 12th after dropping outside the top 20 at one point, Dascalu is 17th after dropping outside the top 40 (!). After the race, Dascalu reveals that he suffered a bad crash. His back wheel got stuck at the top of a banked downhill turn, causing him to lose control and plunge towards a tree. Dascalu was able to take the impact with his shoulder instead of his head, and mercifully ride away from the incident. 

Stadler, the physio, was with Dascalu at the finish line. A cameraman caught footage of the accident and showed it to them just after the race, then sent it to Stadler so that she could pass it along to Dascalu to post on Instagram later. They watch it back at the tent, shake their heads, and smile.

The mood is jovial at the tent; more so than one might expect after a difficult race. The riders exchange war stories. I hear Cooper and Dascalu explain how their races went at least half a dozen times, each with small variations as they pick out new details from the jumble of their working memories. There’s kibitzing around a folding table where fruit and snacks are laid out. 

The unwinding process has begun, but there’s still one race left.

Riley Amos muscling through his fatigue. | Photo by Ross Bell

U23 men's XCO - Enjoy the view

The U23 men’s race typically goes second on the Sunday of a World Cup double, but it was moved to the end of the day so that the elite races wouldn’t have to compete against the end of that day’s Tour de France stage. Twenty-year-old American Riley Amos is the last TFR rider to compete on the weekend.

Indeed, Lenzerheide is clearing out. Back at our prime viewing spot, it’s easy to get to the front row at the big jumps and drops where fans typically crowd. There are a few Swiss fans still dutifully hopp hopp hopp hopp hopping the riders with metronomic precision, never varying their volume or cadence, but besides them, there’s not much other noise until the riders buzz by. I sit down on the hill for the first time. I tell myself to relax and enjoy the air, and I do. 

Amos, less so. He’s a regular contender for the podium, and even won a World Cup race in Leogang last year. But in Lenzerheide, he’s 10th and more than 30 seconds off the front after the first lap. He never finds his legs, finishing 12th. After the race, he stops and pitches himself over his handlebars at the finish line. Back at the tent, he says he felt like he was in “a bit of a fog” throughout the race. I think back to enjoying the breeze on the hillside and feel a little guilty in the face of what the riders have to endure.

Take this photo for example:

Riley Amos post-max effort.

That’s Amos just after the race, in the throes of unfeeling, unthinking, unbelievable exhaustion. The photographer, Ross Bell, is incredible at capturing emotion. It’s a great picture. But it’s not the full picture. 

Start at Amos and zoom out. First there’s the camera lens, just a few inches from his face as he is trying to find his breath. Just outside of the shot is a team physio, holding his water bottle and keeping his bike steady. Around them are scores of riders, some of them also gasping for air, or if they’re one of the first finishers, perhaps chatting amongst one another or with the press. Beyond them are fans, security, more team staff, and gawkers of all types crowding the fences. When Amos leaves the pen, he can be approached by anyone, whether they’re there in an official capacity or not. Immediately following a hard effort, riders have no moment to themselves. 

It’s a lot to process. The first step to becoming a professional rider, it seems, is learning how to put up with the sport’s extracurriculars. Up close, it’s easy to see that the job is about much more than riding a bicycle very fast. Being a pro means not only putting up with the demands for your attention, but appearing to be unbothered by it at all times. One of the most impressive feats the riders pull off is simply never letting their smiles crack, even on a hard day.

Parting shot. | Photo by author

I bumble around all the team trucks, sponsor tents and food stands while the riders head back to their hotel to relax before dinner, and the team staff start packing the trucks. (I offer to help, but it’s clear I would only get in the way of a well-oiled operation.) With the throngs cleared out and makeshift structures coming down, it’s easier to finally absorb the scenery. Verdant mountains looming over the course from just beyond a clear, glistening lake. There. The whole time.

The chaos of a World Cup is so overwhelming that you can almost miss the Alps. But after watching athletes hurl themselves into the wild depths of preparation and pain for three days, maybe the takeaway is that feeling overwhelmed, in this context, is a sign of doing something right.

No one can comprehend what these athletes do. But go to a World Cup and you might get a taste. That’s more than enough.

Dascalu goes vroom. | Photo by Ross Bell

P.S. Want to watch your first World Cup?

Being in the midst of the action in person is nice, but you don’t have to go farther than your laptop to enjoy the racing. Red Bull TV is streaming all of this year’s World Cup races for FREE. You can find all the information you need at their website.

Here’s the World Cup schedule for the remainder of the year:

July 29-31: Snowshoe, United States – XC and DH
Aug. 5-7: Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada – XC and DH
Aug. 24-28: MTB World Championships, Les Gets, France – XC, DH and E-MTB
Sept. 2-4: Val di Sole, Italy – XC and DH