What does it take to make a world-leading cross-country mountain bike course?

Designing an exciting, contemporary cross-country mountain bike course takes a heap of different skills and considerations. To find out more we caught up with South African Nick Floros, whose impressive CV includes the design of the cross-county Olympic (XCO) courses for both the Rio and Tokyo Olympic Games. He also designed top-level XCO and cross-country Marathon (XCM) facilities for international events organised in his own country, notably in Pietermaritzburg, host of the 2013 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, the UCI Mountain Bike World Cups (in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014), and the 2014 UCI Cross-country Marathon World Championships. Here’s what he has to say:

“There are so many aspects that need to be taken into consideration when embarking on a new project,” considers Floros, “but if I were to choose three points they would be: firstly, my design needs to be relevant to where the sport is currently and certain characteristics of the design need to push the boundaries of the sport. Then the design also needs to play a part in advertising our sport and keeping it appealing and interesting to the spectator. Another big focus is rider safety – while pushing the limits of the sport we still need to keep the course safe for the riders.”

Nick Floros has seen things develop in course design in the last decade or so.

“From 2009 through to 2014, XCO courses got a lot more technical. In my opinion XCO course design had left the bike industry behind, to a point where an XCO course couldn't become any more technical,” he explains. “Over this period the mountain bike world had moved away from 26-inch wheels with 80mm of fork travel, then came the great debate over 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels. 2015 to 2016 saw a large number of professionals starting to use 29er full suspension bikes for XCO races along with dropper seatposts. XCO equipment had finally evolved to a point where course design could continue to evolve.

“Over the past ten years there has been this relationship between the limits of course design and the capability of rider equipment. As soon as bike companies produced more capable bikes, course designers could build XCO courses that pushed the limits of those bikes.”

In more recent years the UCI has reduced the Elite ride time from 1:30 down to 1:20, and consequently, courses have also become shorter…

“Closer to 4km in length,” confirms Floros. “I look back at the courses I was designing and building ten years ago. I thought those courses were compact, but by today’s standards I would be able to fit three XCO courses into the same area!”

Besides technology and regulations, he also sees influences from other areas of mountain biking.

“If you look at where XCO courses are at now there are definitely influences from other disciplines. At Nové Město na Moravě (Czech Republic) they even included a portion of a pump track! In general, drop-offs and rock gardens have become larger and more challenging which has come from downhill and enduro trails.”

Floros – who cites the Dusi Valley in KwaZulu-Natal (RSA) and the sheep trails in the south eastern part of Lesotho as his favourite places to ride – tends towards riding natural trails.

“If I have a choice to ride natural trails or bike park trails I would choose natural trails without having to think twice. Natural trails have an organic flow, and keep you thinking.

“However, as course designers we don’t ordinarily get to choose the location where an organiser wants to host the event,” he explains. “Places like Cascades (Pietermaritzburg, RSA) and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games course location were blank canvases. Both these sites had very few natural features to work with so it’s imperative to design man-made features. Without them the course would have been a lot less technical and relatively boring for spectators.”

Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg was very well received, as demonstrated at the 2011 UCI World Cup XCO Team Managers Meeting - an important briefing organised by the UCI where all aspects of the competition are explained.

Nick Floros was introduced at that meeting as the course designer: “All the team managers present stood up and gave me a round of applause. This was a truly humbling and proud moment all at the same time.”

It also impacted mountain biking in South Africa – and beyond.

“The RSA mountain bike community definitely supported the XCO World Cup and the event created a lot of excitement. The UCI Mountain Bike Masters World Championships that were hosted in Pietermaritzburg Bike Park motivated a number of people to get back onto their bike. But the biggest impact, in my opinion, was that the UCI World Cup in Pietermaritzburg gave RSA Elite athletes the opportunity to participate in an international event on their own doorstep. It gave them the opportunity to ride against some of the world’s best athletes in the world without the cost of having to travel to Europe. And young aspiring mountain bikers who were too young to participate in the event but were able to spectate, were motivated to ride competitively. A number of them have gone on to pursue racing careers on foreign shores.

“Cascades MTB Park has also become a successful legacy project. Locals have the opportunity to ride many of the UCI World Cup trails at no charge. This wouldn’t have been possible is it wasn’t for the World Cups being hosted in Pietermaritzburg.”

Course designers face pressures from many angles, but Floros identifies the ones that matter most.

“Hahaha! Where do I start? It obviously changes from project to project. But the three that spring to mind are communication, trying to get a good understanding of how different cultures work, and trying to reduce the environmental impact. Failing to have a good grasp of these points could result in a project being terminated.”

While feedback and constructive criticism also come from a number of angles, it’s riders and team managers who often prove useful.

“They’re normally my first port of call when I’m looking for feedback on the course,” says Floros, who rates Mont-Sainte-Anne in Canada as one of the courses he most admires.

“I’m always happy to listen to their comments so long as they are able to justify their point of view. For example, if a rider tells me the hills are too steep but that rider isn’t the greatest climber... well I might take that opinion with a pinch of salt.

“All levels of riders can appreciate how difficult the climbs and technical sections are, but only Elite riders that will truly appreciate the flow and rhythm of a course. This is primarily due to the speed and momentum they carry.”

Weather conditions are always a consideration. “No organiser wants to cancel their event because of bad weather – yet weather-proofing an XCO course is extremely expensive and can make it look over-constructed and very man-made. Weather-proofing is mandatory on all our high profile designs. With huge TV viewership it’s imperative that the course design allows the best opportunity for the event to take place.”

The process for designing longer XCM courses is quite different.

“For XCO course design thought goes into every metre of it: before a single spade or machine breaks ground, the course is drawn in full, says Floros.

“In contrast an XCM course is normally laid out on a map. In an XCM design there is no need for detailed drawings as there is more flexibility to find natural technical features and to manipulate accents and descents. One of the biggest considerations when designing for XCM is where to place Feed and Technical zones that are accessible to support crews.”

Nick Floros is also a big fan of cross-country Eliminator (XCE).

“If this discipline was around when I was racing, I definitely would have raced it. XCE is fast and exciting. I’ve had the opportunity to design a few XCE courses. The biggest challenge was trying to create enough overtaking opportunities.

“From a UCI rules perspective, there is just as much freedom as XCO. The safety aspect needs a bit more consideration: sharp corners, steps, handrails and poles need to be identified and attended to in the appropriate manner.”

With cross-country E-MTB here to stay, what changes will this bring?

“As I mentioned earlier, as bikes become more capable, course designs will advance and cater for these machines. E-bikes are still very new to the racing scene and I feel they are still trying to work out exactly where they fit in. Will riders prefer long XCM-type events or more enduro-cross events? Only time will tell.

“If I were to design an E-bike course, the uphills would be steep and technical and the descends fun and fast.”

For Floros, it all began way back to when he was a kid riding motorbikes with his mates.

“We used to plan routes for ourselves in our local forest. Once a year we would assist with marking a local Round Table fun ride,” he recalls. “Motorbike riding got too expensive so I moved across to a mountain bike. I ended up helping a friend with his three-day stage race. That’s where my course design and MTB eventing truly started.”

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your tyre-tracks?

“If you want to do this career professionally, do some form of civil engineering course. Only choose this career if you truly love being on a mountain bike and being outdoors. There will be times that the weather is either too cold and wet or too hot and dry, and you have no option but to carry on working. Learn to roll with the punches, never burn your bridges and pursue your dreams!”