Mountain bike races
Mountain bike cross country races (of the Cross Country Olympic (XCO) discipline) are categorized by the amount of UCI points that can be gained from them.
Points are only available for official UCI racer categories, i.e. Elite men and women and U23 men and women.
Race categories range from local small races that attract a local community of racers with no points to gain over increasingly more prestigious races that are harder to get into with more points to gain to the Olympic Games with only a limited number of people that have qualified for it in order to take part and where there are a lot of points to gain.
In each official UCI race, the more points there are for the winner, the more people down the list also get points.
E.g. in a Category 3 race,
- the winner gets 10 points,
- 2nd place gets 6 points,
- 3rd place gets 4 points,
- 4th place gets 2 points and
- 5th place gets one point,
In comparison, in a National Champs race,
- the winner gets 110 points,
- 2nd place gets 90 points,
- 3rd place gets 70 points ...
The world ranking position of a rider is basically calculated by adding all your points gained in the year up till today's date (it's a year's sliding window). XCO World rankings can be accessed on the UCI website, where they are updated every couple of weeks.
The different race categories in order of increasing points are shown below (indicating points available for Elite women - the points system is slightly different for men (mainly to make up for the fact that there are usually more men taking part in any one race) and for the U23 category):
- Category 3: 10 Points for the winner, points down to 5th place
- Category 2: 30 Points, points down to 10th place
- Category 1: 60 Points, points down to 15th place
- Hors Classe: 90 Points, points down to 25th place
- National Champs: 110 Points, points down to 25th place
- Continental Champs: 200 Points, points down to 40th place
- World Cups: 250 Points, points down to 60th place (>60th 3 points for each)
- World Champs: 300 Points, points down to 60th place (>60th 5 points for each)
- Olympic Games: 300 Points, points down to 30th place
For mountain bike stage races, the categories are like this with points awarded for overall standings:
Category 2: 80 Points for winner, points down to 25th place
Category 1: 120 Points for winner, points down to 34th place
Hors Classe: 160 Points for winner, points down to 40th place
Usually the more points available, the more frequented the races are by good riders, the harder it will be to get points. At the same time, one can be smart and select races known to be less frequented to try and pick up a lot of points in these. This is usually in further from Europe away countries, e.g. Canada or in countries in which mountain biking is not very big, Turkey or Israel etc. - whereas Germany or Switzerland are the wrong countries to go to to if you are not one of the world's best to pick up points). A calendar of all official UCI points races is made available at the end of each year for the next year on the UCI website.
So, what do you need those points for?
Well, there's two main reasons, one is your gridding position in a race and the second is for qualification purposes. In a points race the people are usually gridded by their UCI points (with exceptions, e.g. for some series like the World Cup series, the first 40 people taking part are gridded by their series standing and the rest are gridded by their UCI points, with the first race only be gridded purely by UCI points). That means if you are the person with most points in that race, you will be gridded in the front row. However, if you have no or very little points, you have to make do with starting at the back of the pack. This is not usually a big factor in races with only a handful of people, but it does make a big difference when there are over 100 starters at the start line and you are gridded in the last row and the course goes straight into a single track section with no overtaking possibilities.... So even if you were the best rider, if you are gridded last it would be very hard to work your way up to the top and is often impossible.
Qualification for races
So, the other reason for collecting points is for qualification purposes. Most people know that not anybody can turn up and take part at an Olympic Games or World Champs. While any licensed rider can turn up to a Cat 1/2/3 or Hors Classe race, it is not that easy to be able to take part in a World Champs race, let alone the Olympic Games. Below I've listed some restrictions/qualification criteria on above named races.
You can only race in the national champs of your nationality. No qualification necessary, only racing license required. You can sign up by yourself to take part.
You can only take part in the continental champs of the continent that your nation is from. You also have to be selected by your cycling federation and there is a maximum number of riders that any country can send. Different countries have different rules about the selection process. E.g. in Germany you have to have placed 1x top 8 or 2x top 15 in a World Cup that year, whereas in other countries it might just be on the grounds of any recent results and believed potential.
Anybody who has got at least 20 UCI points can take part in a World Cup. You still have to be registered by your country's cycling federation, but no selection process takes place. You just have to ask your cycling federation to register you for the World Cup.
As in the Continental Champs, you have to be selected and sent by your country. A country can only send a limited amount of riders. Again, selection criteria lie with your country. In Germany for example the selection criteria are the same as for the Continental Champs.
The Olympics Games are the hardest race to get to take part in: First of all, your nation has to qualify for places. The way this is done is by ranking nations by adding up the points of the last 4 years leading up to the Olympics (i.e. for 2012 that'll be points from 2008-2012) of the top 3 riders ranked of that nation that are ranked in the top 200 (top 300 for men) world rankings. Then, for Elite women, nations ranked 1-8 reserve 2 places each and nations ranked 9-18 reserve 1 place each (it's a few more for men). In addition, Africa, America, Asia and Oceania can send the 1st ranked rider in their continent if they don't qualify in the nations ranking. This rule reflects that most of the XCO action is happening in Europe. So there is only 30 places available in total in the Olympics games for women! Once places are reserved, it's up to the nation to select their best riders - some countries do this in the form of a race-off, others just send the highest ranked rider(s) etc. Remember, highest ranked rider in a country does not necessarily mean best rider in that country - the person may just have been smart in their race selection to accumulate lots of points to help reserve a place for the Olympics.
The small number of riders a country can send to the Olympics often makes the selection criteria a dilemma, especially for those countries that have a lot of very good riders, e.g. Switzerland for men - the 6 best men in Switzerland are also in the top 16 in the world, but they can only send three of them, even though the other three are still probably better than a lot of the other country's riders that are being sent.
There's a few other rules and exceptions to the above, but this is the gist of it. More detailed information can be found in the relevant rule books available on the UCI website.