THE achievements of Britain's top cyclists in the last decade have resulted in a surge in popularity of the sport.
Yet, the accomplishments of Cavendish, Froome and Wiggins on the road and Hoy, Pendleton and Trott on the track have not made any discernible difference to mountain biking.
That, however, could be about to change with the return of the pursuit to the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow in 2014 after an eight year absence. The circuit for the cross country race, perched high above the city at Cathkin Braes, is under construction and already it promises to be something special.
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"The facility has the potential to be a world leader," said Rab Wardell, one of our eminent mountain bikers, as he cast an expert eye over the site. "It is shaping up really well. In fact, it is going to be amazing. It will be the first time a course of a such a high standard has been situated so close to a city centre with such a dense population. It could properly revolutionise mountain biking in this country."
Wardell was so taken with the original plans when he was consulted by developers in his capacity as a development officer with Scottish Cycling last year that he promptly resigned from his job. The Dunfermline-born rider set up his own one-man cycling team, Alpine Bikes Racing, and returned to full-time competition after a six year hiatus. His ultimate objective is qualifying to compete at the Games.
Having last been a member of the Scotland team in Melbourne in 2006, when he rode in both the road race as a member of the support team and in the cross country race, it was an ambitious move with no certainty of success. Yet, his results this season, across the world – his travels have taken him as far afield as France, Israel, Pakistan and Malaysia – have been hugely encouraging.
The selection criteria for Glasgow 2014 has already been set. Success- ful riders have to attain a certain percentage of the winner's times in prominent UCI-sanctioned events, with three places up for grabs for the men's events. Wardell has achieved the required level.
"But it would be a hard decision for selectors," he said. "There are at least five Scottish mountain bikers just now riding at that pace: Grant Ferguson, Kenta Gallagher, Gareth Montgomerie, Dave Henderson and myself. We swap positions every race. But I have noticed a big improvement since going full time. I am riding far more consistently, my fitness has improved and, technically, I have progressed as well. I can take that into next year."
The 27-year-old has accumulated enough coveted UCI points to take part next year in a full season of World Cup events – the highest level of competition in mountain biking. He is optimistic that this will boost his 2014 chances.
Given Wardell's limited funding, competing in Andorra, the Czech Republic, Italy, Norway, Canada, Germany and China, will not be without its financial and logistical difficulties. Many of Wardell's continental rivals are at a distinct advantage because an altogether different cycling culture has existed there for many years with the leading protagonists lionised in the same way professional footballers are here.
World champion Nino Schurter, for example, is rumoured to be sponsored to the tune of €1 million annually by energy company Scott Swisspower.
"Mountain biking is big business in Europe," Wardell said. "The top riders can get to the races without any compromise. I am doing it on a shoestring budget in comparison."
Still, the high standard will be ideal preparation for the Commonwealth Games should he achieve his aim. "The competition is going to be really, really strong," he said. "The South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders are all capable of finishing top 10 in World Cup events."
Wardell envisages the layout of the Cathkin course will be beneficial to the Scottish contestants. "Home advantage will be a factor," he said. "We wanted to make it as technical a course as we could as Scottish mountain bikers are technically very good. European riders tend to value fitness over the technical side. It is a cultural thing."
The men's cross country race at this summer's Olympic Games, won by Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic, was reckoned by many to be the most exciting mountain bike race ever televised live. But the venue at Hadleigh Farm in Essex was criticised within the mountain biking community. Wardell anticipates Cathkin Braes will provide an even more entertaining spectacle. It is one he is determined to be involved in.
"Essentially, the Olympic organisers got an area of nondescript farmland and built a trail on it," he said. "A lot of people were sceptical about it, quite cynical. But spectators could see the majority of the course, the features were big, technical and striking. The racing was also good. There was a sprint finish which is unusual.
"[But] I think Cathkin is going to be a better course. There are better features and it is a better setting. Plus, it is just above Castlemilk and will have a panorama of the entire city. It will be breathtaking."