- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

The sport of mountain biking was born and raised in the United States, which makes it all the more frustrating to American riders that they’ve been lapped by their European counterparts.

USA Cycling is hoping to change that with a new domestic series that will offer the richest cross-country purse in the world and should attract most of the top riders.

The U.S. Cup Pro Series presented by Sho-Air Cycling Group came together late last year, but the details were announced this week. The four-race series begins next month and includes an $81,000 purse that will be split evenly between the men’s and women’s fields.

By next year, all of the events will carry the highest UCI rating outside of World Cup events. That means more world-class racing and better competition, something that’s been lacking in domestic mountain biking since the boom days of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

“More competition makes the racing tighter and more exciting and pushes all riders to get faster,” Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould told The Associated Press. “Racing in competitive and professionally run domestic races is the best preparation for success at the World Cup.”

The opening round is March 1-2 in Dripping Springs, Texas. The following two races will be held in California later in March, and the finale is June 28-29 in Colorado Springs. All of them will be streamed live online through the We Media Project and USA Cycling.

Along with prizes for winning each round, riders will accrue points toward the series championship, ensuring competitive fields for each race.

“Racing against the best racers in the world will also help Olympic hopefuls elevate their skills, fitness and strategy ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro,” said Scott Tedro, owner of the Sho-Air Cycling Group, which is organizing the series. “It will bring the Olympic cross-country mountain bike movement back into focus in the U.S.”

Things weren’t always so difficult for Americans on the world stage.

While most European riders focused on the road, folks such as Ned Overend and Juli Furtado were choosing the beaten path. They experimented with fatter tires, took meandering rides in the thin air of high peaks and then hurtled themselves down ski runs at breakneck speed.

This was when mountain biking was still done in the mountains.

Overend and Furtado gave the U.S. a sweep of the podium at the first world championships in 1990, and helped usher the discipline into the Olympics. It debuted at the Atlanta Games, but in a dramatically altered version: It had been taken out of the high mountains and relegated to man-made courses in parkland settings that were more spectator-friendly.

As European riders began embracing the sport, they began to dominate American riders, who were slow to adapt to what became known as cross-country mountain biking.

Gould’s bronze at the London Games was just the second Olympic medal won by a rider wearing the stars-and-stripes. Susan DeMattei also won bronze in 1996.

“I think it will help push the U.S. back to the top of the mountain bike world by bringing the racing back to us,” said former U.S. champion Sam Shultz, who is recovering from an injury but plans to compete in the U.S. Cup Pro Series.

“We have always had a tough time traveling to enough races to get the UCI points necessary to achieve good call-ups as well as the maximum number of Olympic start spots,” he said. “This will go a long ways toward giving us the home-turf advantage. Being able to compete against the best and forcing our competitors to take the marathon overseas flights instead of us is great.”

Todd Wells, who also competed at the London Games, hopes the new domestic series will close the considerable financial gap between mountain biking and road racing. Many elite riders give up mountain biking because it’s easier to land sponsors and make a living on the road.

“We have amazing young roader racers,” Wells said, “and most started out mountain biking.”

Wells also thinks the high-profile nature of the races will help the U.S. qualify more riders for World Cup races and lead to increased business support for mountain biking.

“I don’t see any downsides to this series,” said Wells, who is planning to race in each of the events. “The U.S. Cup should help to build mountain bike racing back up in the U.S.”

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