World Cup cross country racing doesn’t start for a full week still, but already there’s been significant chatter about the Albstadt, Germany course that will host the opening round.

New Zealand’s Anton Cooper has voiced his concern about the track on Instagram, after arriving early to preview the track. The former under-23 world champion’s post was met with support from fans and racers around the world, including Geoff Kabush, Emily Batty, Raphaël Gagné, Maxime Marotte and Olympic medallist Marco Fontana.

Organizers argue the changes are intended to make the course safer and racing more fair, but did they go too far?

Albstadt World Cup
Jolanda Neff racing a muddy edition of Albstadt World Cup in 2018. Image: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

While XCO courses have been getting more difficult, the German course is taking some flack online for moving in the opposite direction. The course has generally been one of the less technically demanding courses on the World Cup circuit, but changes ahead of next weekends race look to have taken the teeth out of the few remaining course features.

“I’m not normally one to complain about a course,” Cooper posted, adding “Is this really what the spectators want to see us race on and what will showcase the best riders skill? Not the direction I feel most of my fellow competitors want to see the sport heading either!”

Safety and fairness: Albstadt course changes explained

World Cup cross country racing has greatly benefited from the increasing difficulty of the race tracks. Fans and racers agree that it’s made the racing more exciting to watch as well as made the battles between racers more interesting.

There’s a difference between exciting and dangerous, though. Organizers stated that “Following the 2018 edition of the Albstadt World Cup, where rain heavily effected the course and caused too many crashes, there was a consultation with the UCI and the course has undergone improvement.” The changes are intended to “make it feel safer and – concerning overtaking opportunities – fairer.”

While Albstadt was never the most technical World Cup track, it did have a few notable features. “Mitas Abbyss,” an intimidating rock garden drop-in always helped create separation and test riders technical skills. Rooty sections, which were often muddy in the wet, required finesse and power to cross at speed.

Albstadt World Cup
Nino Schurter drops in on one of Albstadt’s more intimidating features. Image: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Mitas Abbyss, once an intimidating rock garden, appears to largely have been smoothed over with gravel. Several sections through the woods look more like a walking path than a world-class mountain bike course.

Explaining the new-look to Mitas, organizers said two changes had been made. Both changes are for safety reasons. “The compression at the bottom has been filled up and changed into a berm so there is no more danger of crashing into a rider coming from the B-Line,” which organizers say did not happen, but was a potential risk they wanted eliminated. The B-Line has also been made faster, in order to encourage more riders to choose it over the A-Line. “The big time loss (riding the B-Line) in 2018 made riders take too much risk riding the A-Line, especially in the muddy conditions.”

The same rock garden now looks to be largely filled in. Image: Anton Cooper Instagram
Racers and fans back Cooper

Riders are generally loathe to be vocal in their criticisms of a course, and Cooper did acknowledge the immense efforts of the organizers putting on next weekend’s event, but the Kiwi found plenty of support in his post.

“I completely agree with you,” past European champion Florian Vogel chipped in, “Even though they acted in good intent, it is just way to much “overkill” and clearly not the direction our sport needs to go.”

Olympic medallist Marco Fontana joked that the course looked like the German autobahn, suggesting Cooper “better go with a (Porsche) 911.” American XCO racer Keegan Swenson joined in with “Sweet river trail,” while Canadian Olympian Raphaël Gagné thanked Cooper for voicing his concerns.

Cooper’s post shows a formerly technical hairpin corner that now has a bridge over the challenging feature

Fans weighed in too. There were many comments that Cooper should bring a cyclocross, gravel or even road bike for the smoothed-out German track. One comment joked that the gravel walking path style course might provide a more novel challenge, saying “the organizer will probably include joggers with headphones, wrong way direction hikers and unleashed dogs for a technical challenge.”

While the course does look less technical than previous editions, last year’s mud fest showed that any course can provide exciting racing under the right conditions. Heavy rain made otherwise simple features slippery, putting many of the world’s best off their game. Coquitlam, B.C.’s Sandra Walter used the challenge to her advantage, riding to her best World Cup finish in 15th on the slick course.

Ultimately, the excitement comes from the battle between racers, so the opening round will still be a thrilling show. If technical sections don’t separate racers, maybe fans will be treated to another exciting sprint finish like Nino Schurter’s tire-width win over Cooper in Nove Mesto last year.

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