Rob Jones, the Canadian institution
The group of people who are very important for a mountain bike world championship certainly include journalists. They carry the news about an event like the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz in Albstadt into the world. One of the most prominent representatives of the mountain bike press is the Canadian Rob Jones. He is a profound expert on the subject and already played a major role in the development of the sport in the 1980s. One of several reasons to talk to him in detail for the series 20 heads for 2020.
Anyone who has visited the Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt may have noticed Rob Jones, a tall man with sparse hair, which he often covers with a hat. Equipped with a red photographer’s vest, with powerful photo apparatus, he is one of those people who are allowed to experience the inside of the finishing of every race. Rob Jones has been an integral part of the international mountain bike scene and for 25 years. To describe him as an insitution of the sport is certainly no exaggeration.
The conversation takes place via video phone call. He is at home in Paris, Ontario, a small town about 45 southwest of Toronto. Lake Ontario in the east, Lake Erie in the south and Lake Huron in the west. Rob Jones, his wife Tracy and their two dogs are at home in quarantine. Jones was at the track world championship in Berlin at the end of February, beginning of March and after his return he showed cold symptoms. At the time of the interview he was still waiting for the result of the test for the corona virus.
Rob, you’re still in quarantine right now?
Yeah, sure. We’re not barricaded, but we’ll stay home and if we take the dogs for a walk, we’ll keep a 10-foot distance. Tracy went shopping and she managed to get some toilet paper. I don’t know how it is in Germany, but people here are crazy for toilet paper.
Just as they are here.
Rob, you’re someone who’s basically been involved with mountain biking since the beginning. In various positions. It’s actually long overdue for us to have a little chat with you about the whole story, especially the early days.
You mean before I die (laughs).
We don’t want to make any connections there. Okay, can you give me an insight into how you got into cycling?
In the mid 70’s I was a street cyclist. Cycling is not as big a sport in Canada as it is in Europe, but back then it was a very, very small sport. But I was a cyclist and raced there for a while.
How long did you ride there? And at what level?
For about a year and a half. The system was different back then. There was a distinction between amateurs and professionals. I rode mainly in Spain and France. I wasn’t good enough to become a professional. At that time there was an enormous amount of doping without a real control system. To be honest, it was an important reason why I went back. For a lot of people back then, cycling was the opportunity to have a better life and there was a lot of pressure to do everything possible to achieve that (professional status). I was from North America and had the chance to go back to university, most people did not have that opportunity.
Did you make money with sports?
No, no. Sometimes you weren’t even allowed to take a set of tires, or you would have been counted as a pro. The rules were that strict for amateurs. I mean, that doesn’t mean that some didn’t get paid under-the-table. But you weren’t allowed anything. There were a lot of clubs that supported you at the races, but no sponsorship. If you got caught, you lost your amateur status. To be in the Olympics, you had to be an amateur which is why even the good amateurs had no interest in losing that status.
What did you live on then?
I had savings and it was really cheap to live in Spain back then.
Was it some kind of dream you were following or why did you go on this adventure?
It was a kind of dream. If you really wanted to become a racing cyclist, you had to go to Europe at that time. There were good cyclists in North America, but there were few races and if you were passionate about it, you had to go to Europe. Maybe just like it would be the case with the NHL for a German hockey player. I wasn’t at that level, I was a good climber, but I would never have become a superstar (laughs).
So you left the scene there again?
At the end of the 70s I returned to Canada to continue and finish my university studies. But I stayed connected to the sport and during this time I also met my wife Tracy. Something we did right at the beginning was to go cycling together.
In the 70’s young Americans in California began to ride their bikes down the mountains, especially Mount Tamalpais, adapting their sports equipment to the conditions and basically the mountain bike was born. In 1981, Specialized launched its “Stumpjumper”, the first mountain bike in mass production. Consequently, this new off-road sport took its course in the USA and the North American continent.
And what happened next?
Wait, I think I should start earlier in time. I graduated in math and got a job that summer in a bike shop, the biggest one in Canada. So I got more and more into this sport. I rode more bikes again, competed in local races. And it was in this time when the first mountain bikes appeared.
When was that?
That was in the early 80s. While I was working in this bike shop, the first shipment of Specialized Stumpjumpers arrived and I got one of them. It was pretty cool, I rode a lot and it was a lot of fun. I then gradually got around to starting a mountain bike organization with others. At that time neither the UCI nor the Canadian Cycling Federation had recognized mountain biking as a discipline. I was a road cycling commissioner, so I had some background with regard to rules etc. So I was asked if I could help develop something.
So you wrote the first set of rules?
No, in the USA there was already the NORBA (National Off Road Bicycle Association), which was the first official association (for mountain biking). I worked together with Glen Odell, head of the NORBA. We signed an agreement that we mutually recognize our licenses. Patrice Drouin did the same simultaneously in Quebec. He had also set up an organization for mountain bikers there, AQVM (Assocation Quebec Velo Montagne). So there was a NORBA North in Ontario which I organized, AQVM which Patrice organized and NORBA in the USA. What I am proud of: We had the same prize money for women and men in our series.
That was around the mid-80s?
The first World Championships organized by NORBA were held in Mammoth Mountain in 1987. For that I set up a Canadian team to compete as official national team. In 1988 Patrice and I were invited to Ottawa by the Canadian Cycling Association (CCA) and they asked us: What´s the deal with the mountain bike thing? (laughs).
You both seemed to be able to explain it well.
What happened before: Marc Lemay, President of the CCA, stood up at the UCI Congress and asked the then UCI President Hein Verbruggen and the assembly what they intended to do with mountain biking. They said: “That’s a good question and you get the task to answer this question. When he came back, he first wanted to know what was going on in Canada. He invited Patrice and me and we explained what we were doing. Marc Lemay, if I remember correctly, became the first chairman of the UCI Mountain Bike Commission and they prepared the first official World Championships in 1990.
Rob Jones studied mathematics and worked as a teacher. At the same time he started writing and photographing for cycling magazines. At times he focused on journalism with his wife Tracy, but he never lost sight of his teaching. Since last year he has been teaching at a college again.
Jones is the General Secretary of the Mountain Bike Press Association, a small, international association of journalists and as such represents the interests of MTB journalists at the UCI. For example, he and the UCI officials mark the special zones reserved for accredited photographers. His journalistic activities are not limited to the mountain bike disciplines, however. He can be seen at international track competitions as well as at major road races such as the Tour de France and cyclo-cross. During his career he has been accredited with no less than 78 Cycling World Championships.
So you were already part of the mountain bike scene when the discipline was recognized by the UCI and things took their course. Can you tell us something about these first, still unofficial world championships in 1987?
Ned Overend was the big name and John Tomac was the young guy. Ladies were not yet involved. It was cross-country races. There was no extra downhill, although that’s where it all started, in Marin County. The main event was cross-country, but it was very different from what it is today. It started with an uphill race, up the Kamikaze downhill. I also rode that to hand out the bottles. Then they switched it and went downhill on the same bikes. And then the next day cross-country. That’s how they did it in 1991 at the first World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne.
Was the World Cup title then awarded as a combination of all three disciplines?
No, it was the cross-country. But people have always rode everything. I can remember Alison Sydor riding her first mountain bike race at the World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne. She was a road racer at the time, had won bronze at the World Championships. Her coach wanted to take her off the road a little bit because he thought she raced too much. But instead of doing nothing, she rode at Mont Sainte Anne. She won the uphill race that went from the bottom of the hill to the top. I can’t remember her result in downhill, but in cross-country she was fifth.
And the discipline of cross-country was also a little different?
Yes. It took over two hours and had more than 3300 meters of altitude difference. The riders had to help themselves, there was no technical help. You had to do everything yourself. That was hard because there were a lot of flats.
Were there several laps or just one big loop?
It was one lap, I think you rode it twice. But that was the case with almost all mountain bike races back then. Very long laps, up to an hour. That was one of the rules for the first ten years or more. We wrote the rules that way, we in Ontario, Patrice in Quebec and NORBA for the US. You had to help yourself.
What was you position back then?
I organized the NORBA North series, the Canadian version of NORBA. In 1987 there were only men. The first six became the national team. Back then, anyone could join, you just had to sign up and you could ride. Like I said, I organized the team. I think our best rider finished eleventh. He was a street cyclist.
You didn’t rode yourself anymore?
No, I had already quit at that time. I never rode a mountain bike race myself. I worked as an instructor and just helped with the organization.
Were you involved when the UCI first created a World Cup series in 1991?
No, I was already working as a journalist. Already in 1987 I wrote some articles for magazines. In 1990 I stopped organizing races and became a journalist. But Patrice Drouin was certainly involved. With Mont Sainte Anne he and his (business) partner Chantal Lachance had an event in the series from the very beginning. Together with the UCI he wrote the rules for mountain biking and designed the concept for World Championships and the World Cup. Mont Sainte Anne has been involved without interruption ever since and I have been involved as a journalist.
Were you already following the whole series back then?
Not in the early years, no. I was still making a living teaching and Tracy ran a bike shop. I went to some races, mostly the North American races. I went to world championships, but to world cups not so often.
When was the first time you went to a World Cup race in Europe?
Oh dear, I have no idea. It must have been the mid-90s. I worked for a number of bike magazines, including Velonews, the biggest American cycling magazine. In 1995, Tracy and I decided to publish our own magazine because American magazines didn’t write much about Canada. We launched Canadian Cyclist and one year later Canadian Cyclist online. So next year we will have our 25th anniversary.
Canadiancyclist.com is one of the oldest cycling portals around.
Yeah, that’s right. We started very early. When I said to Tracy that we start a website, she asked me: what is a website? At that time people still had modems. In 2005 we stopped with the printed magazine and focused entirely on online.
Up to and including 2004, help from the outside was not permitted in cross-country sports. The bikers had to repair defects themselves, a change of the wheel was impossible. This basically meant that the competition was over on that day. Tubes were put into the jersey pockets and a few tools, too, but there were also methods that circumvented the regulations. As long as no commissioner discovered it and no competitor complained about it, the loss of time could be reduced. Since 2005, help and change of the wheels has been allowed in the technical zones. Especially from North America there was resistance against this rule.
If you look back on this time since you´ve observed the mountain bike sport, what would you say were the big developmental steps?
I think the biggest step was probably allowing outside technical assistance in 2005. That changed things dramatically, the way people were riding the races. A flat tire no longer meant that the race was over. It is still possible to get a reasonable result. People certainly rode harder, with more risk. And the other point is the reduction of the format from over two hours to 90 minutes. This has affected a whole generation of racers. I remember an interview with Julien Absalon about this who said he had to be much faster and race much more intensively within a shorter time. Some made the transfer, and some didn’t because they preferred a different style. Early stars like Tinker Juarez (USA) have said goodbye to that because they said that’s not what they liked.
There was a lot of discussion about these steps, these decisions of the UCI. The traditionalists wanted to stick to the old structure.
If you look at it closely, the effect of the technical assistance was almost negated by the shortening of the races. By the time I get to the Technical Zone for a change, I lose so much time that I don’t stand a chance, because the races are so short and they are so fast. Depending on where on the course you have the defect. In this way it is ironic.
But now there is also tyre technology like latex milk that can alleviate the problem of a defect.
Yes. On the one hand, I can understand the decisions from the perspective of the medial use of the sport. And it’s also better for the spectators on location. It used to be more boring. But it’s not the same sport anymore. We can argue about whether it’s better or worse for days.
And what do you personally think about it?
Personally, I love the idea of long distances along the countryside, being on your own. For me this is the original essence of mountain biking. But on the other hand it’s like this: if you want to see the sport grow and develop, it doesn’t work. Without these changes the sport would not have developed the way it did. It was necessary to be part of the Olympic program, but it lost its roots a bit in the process. Today the races can be really exciting. The Old Style races were basically time trials, where every rider raced on his own. The modern races are much more exciting.
If you look at the old results, there was often a ten-minute difference between first place and ten.
Or more. I remember races on laps of 15 or 18 kilometres. We took photos at the start, jumped into a van, drove like crazy, stopped near the track, jumped into the bushes and tried to find them. If we were lucky, we got there before the riders and could take pictures. Then we ran back and chased to the finish. You did not see much of the races. Also in this respect a lot of things got definitely better. We’re not at the Tour de France, where you have four helicopters and motorcycles. Like I said, it had to be done. I just think it’s a bit of a shame that what made mountain biking so unique, which is relying on yourself, has been lost. I think this is hardly to be found in any other sport.
Are you still enthusiastic about this sport?
Oh yes. A big part (of my enthusiasm) is because of the athletes. It is always exciting to see the fights and when young riders participate. And it is still nice for me to watch young Canadians get better and advance to the top of the world. I had the pleasure to follow Alison Syder, Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, Catharine Pendrel or Marie-Hélène Prèmont. Then Emily Batty and now Peter Disera and Haley Smith. I have accompanied three generations of athletes. I find that exciting. Tracks, yes, some of them are interesting. But without the athletes it means nothing. The riders do the racing, that’s how it’s always been.
What has changed over the last 30 years from your perspective as a journalist?
It has certainly become more professional and social media has changed a lot. Also in the way we journalists communicate with athletes. The mountain bike community is small and we journalists are automatically part of it. In the beginning you are Mr. Jones and eventually become Rob. That’s okay, but I don’t like one development. The difference between media and public relations is becoming increasingly blurred. There are too many people accredited as press representatives who do not work journalistically at all, but only for their team or their sponsor. From my point of view, this should be separated more.
You have been coming to Albstadt since 2013. What is your impression of the event?
Large crowds, one of the best spectator events ever. A bit of a special course, because the climbs are so steep. It’s one of those courses suited to some riders, but not to all. There are people who say I don’t like the course and others say I like the course very much. It is in some parts extreme and a bit different from most of the tracks. But I think that´s great. We need courses like this. Not every track has to be like this, but we need a mix of different characteristics for different types of races. That’s why I’m glad that we have it. Of course, when it rains, it changes everything. Some people will complain, but I think that’s part of the outdoor sport. You have to be able to handle your bike even in bad weather.
What are you looking forward to most in Albstadt, whenever the Worlds will take place?
I had hoped to see the athletes for the last time before the Olympic Games. That will not be the case now. If the World Championships take place in autumn, a lot can change. But as always with the World Championships, I am happy to see how young people surprise us. For example like Kate Courtney in 2018.
Short profile Rob Jones
Residence: Paris, Ontario in Canada
Profession: Mathematics lecturer and cycling journalist
Married to Tracy
Athletic career: Bike-Amateur
Professional career: 78 Cycling World Championships, 4 Olympic Games and well more than 100 MTB World Cup races
Further information on: www.wm2020albstadt.de
Photos: Rob Jones