Nepal and Olympic mountainbiking

Nepal’s delegation to the 2012 Olympic Games consisted of five athletes only:

  1. Two runners (Tilak Ram Tharu and Pramila Rijal): both could participate (in the 100 m sprint event) because they had gained two ‘universality places’ from the International Association of Athletics Federatons (IAAF). As one could expect, they did not make it into the quarterfinals. [I am not saying this to demean their performance (Tilak clocked a time of 10.38 seconds) but just to acknowledge a well-known fact: Olympic competitors who have not made it through the regular qualification events rarely make the podium.]
  2. Two swimmers (Prashidha Jung Shah and Shreya Dhital): both could participate (in the 50 and 100 m freestyle swimming races respectively) because they had also gained two universality places from the International Swimming Federation (FINA). They also did not advance into the quarterfinals.
  3. One shooter (Sneh Rana): she could participate (in the 10 m air rifle event) because Nepal had been given a wild card in shooting. She also did not advance very far.

While there have been times when things were better (Nepal had some more horses – including boxers and weightlifters – in the Olympics a few decades ago), no athlete from Nepal has ever won an Olympic medal. So do Nepal’s MTB riders stand a better chance? And, if so, how can we make the most of this chance?

Mountainbiking was introduced as an Olympic discipline in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. While this is fairly recent as compared to more established Olympic disciplines (such as running and swimming indeed), one cannot say it is something new. Indeed, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) will see the sixth Olympic mountainbike championship races. Olympic mountainbiking is actually a specialty within the more general mountainbiking discipline. More specifically, the International Cycling Union (UCI) refers to it as the ‘Cross-Country Olympic’ (XCO) discipline and its regulations dictate the format of such races: the course of an Olympic format cross-country event must be between 4 and 6 km in length, and the duration of the race is between 1 hour and 30 minutes and 1 hours and 45 minutes. Indeed, riders who need more time are usually being lapped by the faster riders and, hence, are to be taken out of the race according to the UCI regulations (which is what happened to the participants from China and Guam during the 2012 Olympics). In addition, there is also the so-called 80% rule: any rider whose lap time is 80% slower of that of the race leader’s first lap is also to be pulled out of the race. Finally, technical problems may also force a racer out (this is what happened to the French racer Julien Absalon during the 2012 Games, who was one of the favorites for the podium).

How does one get into the Olympic MTB races?

It is very likely that the UCI will use the same qualification system for the Rio 2016 Games as the one it used for the 2012 and 2008 Olympics in London and Beijing respectively. This system is based on a two-year period of qualification, at the end of which 50 men and 30 women get a rider spot. The majority of these 50/30 rider spots are allocated based on the national rankings as tallied by the UCI. These national rankings are, in turn, compiled from the UCI points which the top three individual riders for each nation accumulate over a season as they participate in UCI-sanctioned races.

There are various types of UCI-sanctioned MTB races: world championships, world cups, continental championships (such as the Asian MTB Championship Race which took place in Chengdu in May this year), national championships and – importantly – ‘various other’ (such as one-day MTB marathon races or multi-stage races). However, it is important to note that the race needs to be sanctioned by the UCI – i.e. one has to get the race on the UCI International Calendar – before it will earn the participating riders any points. Without going into too much detail, it is probably useful to note that organizing a UCI-sanctioned race costs a lot of money and takes a lot of effort. That is why Nepal’s so-called National MTB Championship – the 12th edition of which was organized by the Nepal Cycling Association in Pokhara in March this year (in both the Olympic cross-country and downhill disciplines) – is not a UCI-sanctioned race: among other things, it would require the presence of UCI officials, loads of prize money and plenty of other fees and costs – all of which are meticulously spelled out in the so-called ‘UCI financial obligations.’ While Nepal’s Cycling Association has to be applauded for organizing the Nepali national MTB championship races every year (two disciplines are included: XCO and downhill), it is unlikely it will have the financial capacity to make it a UCI-sanctioned event in the very near future. That is probably a reality we should just accept for the time being.

The good news is that Nepal, through the combined efforts of the Nepal Cycling Association and Himalayan Single Track, does actually have a few UCI-registered riders, who actually have been collecting UCI points this year (as well as last year) – even if there are no UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Nepal (or anywhere near to Nepal even). To be precise: Nepal has four MTB riders in the UCI’s official Mountain Bike Ranking (Narayan Gopal Maharjan, Aayman Thing Tamang, Buddhi Bahadur Tamang and Mangal Krishna Lama) and their participation in the 19th Asian MTB Championship in Chengdu last month (11-12 May 2013), which was sponsored by Himalayan Single Track, earned them 26, 16, 14 and 12 UCI points respectively. Hence, as a national team, they gathered 56 points for Nepal (the points for a national team are calculated by summing the points of the three best riders only), which results in Nepal being ranked no. 66 out of the 79 countries which are registered with the International Cycling Union and, hence, which can join UCI-sanctioned races. There are other good racers as well, including Ajay Pandit Chhetri and Rajkumar Shreshta, both regular winners of MTB racers in Nepal and nearby (e.g. in India, Thailand and Bhutan recently) – but so they are not on the UCI list.

In short, there is plenty of potential. The bad news is that being the 66th is good, but not good enough. Indeed, as mentioned above, only 50 men, and only 30 women, can join the Olympic MTB races. In addition, the better ranked national teams can send more racers and, hence, these better ranked teams take rider spots away from those countries which are lower down the ranking. To be precise, for the men, nations ranked 1st through 5th can (and will) send three mountain bikers to the Olympics; the 6th through 13th ranked nations will send two; and, finally, the 14th through 24th nations will send one rider each. So these 24 nations alone will get 42 riders spots (5×3 + 8×2 + 11×1) out of the fifty. For the women, it is a similar system.

Just to put things in perspective: Slovakia’s team, which is currently 24th in the UCI MTB Ranking (and, hence, which would just be good enough to send only one rider to the Olympics under the current system), has 665 UCI points. Again, this is not meant to demean the efforts of all involved but to present the facts and figures: Nepal’s top riders need to race more and finish better. Just to give an indication of the challenge, one should note that the winner in a UCI-sanctioned national championship gets 110 points, i.e. twice the total points of all riders of the Nepali team taken together. Or let’s take Belgium – whose position is somewhat more secure, as its team is currently 14th in the ranking: it has accumulated 1281 points in the 2013 season so far (this has been written on 18 June 2013) and its three riders (Kevin Van Hoovels, Jens Schuermans and Sebastien Carabin) are ranked no. 30, 61 and 68 in the UCI ranking respectively and participate in a UCI-sanctioned race every two or three weeks – with varying results but usually finishing pretty good.

Can Nepal advance to Slovakia’s or Belgium’s level in the short term? Maybe, but my guess is that it is not all that likely. So what can Nepal do if it would not be able to advance to the top 24 countries?

Well… There’s eight spots left out of the above-mentioned fifty, so Nepal could vie for those. Indeed, African, American, Asian and Oceanic nations who did not qualify riders based on their country’s ranking could qualify riders for the 2012 Olympics MTB race based on individual rankings from their respective 2011 Continental Championships. Indeed, the top two ranked men and the top ranked women from each Continental Championship, if not already qualified through their nation’s rankings, could also go to the Olympic Games. In other words, if Nepal’s riders would be able win the 2015 Asian MTB Championship races (first or second position for male riders and/or first position for women riders), they would also be able to go to the 2016 Olympics.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s best rider (a real hero as far as I am concerned, if only because other national racing teams in that race were able to give their champions a lot more financial and logistical support) during that race ended 23th only. He clocked a time of 1 hour and 46 minutes which, again, is good, but not good enough, as it is 20 minutes slower than the time of the winner of that race (Kohei Yamamoto from Japan): this difference amounts to a performance gap of about 20%. So what should be done? In my view, Nepal’s Olympic hopefuls should follow a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers join more UCI-sanctioned races.
  2. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers in those races finish better by organizing more races at home (i.e. in Nepal).

Let me detail these two complementary lines of attack somewhat further below.

1. Gathering more UCI points

The cheapest way to gather more UCI points is to send Nepal’s top MTB racers to more UCI-sanctioned races. Alternatively, one could also organize one or more UCI-sanctioned races Nepal (first of all the national championship: most national teams gather a fair amount of points in their own national championship races) but, as mentioned above, that costs heaps of money because (a) you need to pay for a UCI team of officials monitoring the race, because (b) prize money will be UCI-regulated (and, hence, fairly high), and because (c) there are other many other fees and costs (calendar fees, registration fees, etcetera) to be paid to the UCI, all on top of the costs of organizing the race itself, which are also fairly considerable in light of the additional technical and organizational conditions.

Unfortunately, there are not that many UCI-sanctioned races in Asia so it is not a matter of just looking across the border. Indeed, while there are hundreds of UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Europe, there are only a handful of UCI-sanctioned races in Asia, and travelling to Europe is obviously not so cheap. There is also the visa issue for Nepali riders, which is probably as big as an obstacle as the money barrier – if not bigger. That being said, it is probably the way to go – if we can find the money that is, and if we can solve the visa issue.

Of course, the disadvantage of this fairly exclusive focus on a top-notch ‘Team Nepal’ is that, well… Let’s be frank, it really doesn’t pay to bet on more than three to five riders, because a country’s UCI ranking (and, hence, its Olympic ranking) is based on the UCI points gathered by its top three riders only. So this approach benefits a few riders only – while of the rest of Nepal’s MTB potential is left untapped.

In addition, one should also bear in mind that other countries which are close to Nepal in the UCI MTB ranking (such as Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, etcetera) will obviously try to do the same in the coming two years (every country nurtures Olympic dreams), and these other countries may find even more money to send some more racers to UCI-sanctioned races thereby increasing their chances to accumulate points more rapidly than Nepal.

2. Doing more races in Nepal itself

The second leg of Nepal’s Olympic MTB strategy should be to ensure that more young riders are competing, and that they are competing more regularly. This can easily be done by organizing more low-cost events in Nepal itself as part of a genuine regular national MTB competition.

Races are relatively simple to organize in Nepal: the Kathmandu Valley is just the ideal ground for doing such stuff, and there is also not much of a fuss about insurance, for example. Another advantage is that people (including the media) are generally very supportive. So it only takes a few individuals to quickly get something together. Indeed, a national championship race – as part of a national championship race series – could be organized every month, instead of every year.

More regular races would ensure there would be constant pressure to perform on the above-mentioned elite ‘Team Nepal’, which is good: the elected ‘Team Nepal’ should indeed feel some ‘heat from below’. In short, the organization of regular low-cost races is, in my view, an essential building block in the competitive MTB racing scene which Nepal’s Olympic Committee and Cycling Association would need to further cultivate.

That being said, it does require some money as well: the prizes need to be attractive in order to ensure that Nepal’s riders will want to join, and train for, these races.

In fact, it should be possible to combine both legs of the above-mentioned strategy in my view: (i) as mentioned above, a regular series of national championship races could be organized, and (ii) the prizes for the top five riders of the series could be the sponsoring of their participation in a UCI-sanctioned race abroad, including but not limited to the Asian Continental Championship races. Such approach would build both upon (a) the current tradition of the annual Nepal National Championship Races (XCO and downhill disciplines), which is organized by the Nepal Cycling Association (but not UCI-sanctioned), as well as (b) the current efforts of Himalayan Single Track – which I admire tremendously – to find the required funds for a fully fledged Nepali Riders Fund consisting of truly elite racers which can bring Nepal where it wants to be: in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

An added advantage of combining both is that a series of national championship races – as opposed to the current one-day event – would allow the Nepal Cycling Association to also build up a national ranking system for riders, under which riders would accumulate national (i.e. non-UCI) racing points over a series of national (i.e. non-UCI sanctioned) events. This would ensure more consistency in the selection procedure for ‘Team Nepal’ (if the national championship race is a one-off event only, the risk of illness, a technical defect or an accident may eliminate riders who wouldn’t be eliminated in a multi-stage approach) and it would also ensure that eligible riders would invest even more in training than they are already doing now – which should improve performance as a whole. Finally, such approach would also allow the concept of teams to be integrated into the local MTB scene here. For example, the various MTB outfits in Kathmandu could each form a team, and a team ranking could be made based on the individual rankings – not unlike the way the UCI ranks nations based on the performance of the individual riders.

Is this approach simplistic? I don’t think so. Why are small countries such as Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Estonia or Slovakia (no. 1, 2, 14, 18 and 24 in the current UCI national MTB ranking) so well represented in the rankings? In my view, it is not only because they are conveniently close to all of those UCI-sanctioned race events (or because these countries happen to be better off economically) but also because there’s a very active local mountainbiking scene, with plenty of very low-cost and low-key MTB racing events which all help to ‘feed into’ the bigger objective, and that is to send a handful of extremely well-trained and generously sponsored national riders to the 2016 Olympics. So Nepal should learn from how they do it in order to increase its chances of success for the 2016 Olympics.

Of course, one should also not forget the Asian Games, but for these the clock is ticking even faster: the next Asian Games are to be held in September 2014 already (in Incheon, South Korea).

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