The Greatest Riders in
Mountain Bike History
By John Ker
Who are the greatest riders in mountain bike history? That’s a tough question, but it’s one that we thought would be fun to consider.
We have to warn you, though, it’s entirely possible that we’ll fail to mention someone who deserves to be included in this group. If that’s the case, please feel free to send us an e-mail. Tell us who you think should be added to this group, and we’ll see if we can do a follow-up in a later issue to include anybody we might have missed.
THE EARLY DAYS
Some names come to mind immediately from the early days of our sport. When mountain bike racing began in October 1976 with the first Repack downhill races on Mt. Tamalpais, Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher were the top racers.
As the sport grew in the 1980s, riders like Joe Murray and Ned Overend rose to prominence, along with many others. Prior to the first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990, there had been other races billed as “World Championships” that were held in both the U.S. and Europe. Ned Overend won three of those races—two in 1987 (one in Europe and one at Mammoth Mountain in the U.S.) and another one in 1989—so he was already, arguably, the top rider in the world by the time he won the men’s cross-country title at the inaugural UCI Mountain Bike World Championship held in Durango, Colorado, in 1990.
Then came John Tomac. “The Tomes” was the first rider to be widely recognized as the best all-around rider in the world. Many people consider Tomac to be the best rider in mountain bike history. Besides winning numerous national titles in the United States in both cross-country and downhill, he was also one of America’s top riders in dual slalom and trials, winning national-level events in both of those disciplines, too. When Tomac started racing World Cup events in the 1990s, he became one of only two male riders to win both cross-country and downhill World Cup events at the elite level.
The only other male rider to win both XC and DH World Cup races was Rune Hoydahl, who won several XC World Cups and one downhill. Tomac was the true standout, though. He won the 1991 World Cup XC title in the same year that he won the XC category at the World Championships. On top of that, he also took second at the Worlds in the downhill in ’91 and ’97. Though Tomac never won a world downhill title, he did win multiple World Cup races in both cross-country and downhill.
Perhaps even more notable in the record books was America’s top female racer, Juli Furtado. Besides winning three World Cup cross-country titles in the 1990s, Juli also won UCI World Championship titles in both cross-country (1990) and downhill (1992), a feat that could let her challenge Tomac’s position as the best all-around mountain bike racer in history.
As the 1990s unfolded, the sport changed. The advances in full-suspension downhill bikes ended the days when the top racers could use their rigid XC bikes in both cross-country and downhill competitions. Can you imagine the top riders of today racing their 35-pound downhill bikes in the cross-country ranks in the World Cup series? They would be laughed off the mountain. Or, how about today’s XC racers taking their 21-pound bikes on modern-day World Cup downhill courses? They’d have to walk their bikes down long sections of the race courses or risk snapping the frames in two. While some riders in the early 1990s used to take both XC and downhill bikes to the races, the hassles of transporting two bikes and racing both classes soon forced the top riders to choose one category and stick to it at the World Cup level.
WOMEN’S XC WORLD CHAMPIONS
The women’s XC list of UCI world champions reads like a who’s who of cross-country stars. The woman who won the most XC titles is Norway’s Gunn-Rita Dahle (Flesja), who won the title four times. After her, Canada’s Alison Sydor and Spain’s Margarita Fullana each won the title three times. Five women won the title twice: Italy’s Paola Pezzo, Russia’s Irina Kalentieva, France’s Julie Bresset, Canada’s Catharine Pendrel and France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Four American women have won the title once: Juli Furtado (1990), Ruthie Matthes (1991), Alison Dunlap (2001) and Kate Courtney (2018).
MEN’S XC WORLD CHAMPIONS
In the men’s ranks, Switzerland’s Nino Schurter is the undisputed king of XC racing. He’s won the UCI World Championship in the Elite Men’s ranks eight times, and his career isn’t over yet. France’s Julien Absalon comes next with five Worlds titles, while Denmark’s Henrik Djernis has three and Canada’s Roland Green has two. Twelve more riders have one UCI World Championship XC title each, including two Americans, Ned Overend (1990) and John Tomac (1991).
WOMEN’S DOWNHILL WORLD CHAMPIONS
In the downhill ranks, France’s Anne-Caroline Chausson stands head and shoulders above all the other women. She won nine Elite Women’s Downhill World Championships. The next most successful rider in this category is Great Britain’s Rachel Atherton, who has won five such titles. Three other women have won two titles each: France’s Sabrina Jonnier and Emmeline Ragot, along with Italy’s Giovanna Bonazzi. Only three Americans have won the Elite Women’s Downhill title at the Worlds: Juli Furtado (1992), Missy Giove (1994), and Leigh Donovan (1995).
MEN’S DOWNHILL WORLD CHAMPIONS
In the men’s ranks, France’s Nicolas Vouilloz has the record with seven gold medals in the Elite Men’s downhill category. Fellow Frenchman Loic Bruni is next with four, while South Africa’s Greg Minnaar and Australia’s Sam Hill each have three. Only four Americans have won the downhill world title: Greg Herbold (1990), Dave Cullinan (1992), Mike King (1993), and Myles Rockwell (2001). Myles was the only racer to break Vouilloz’s streak, as Nico won every other World Championship in the Elite Men’s downhill category from 1995 to 2002. When it comes to the most medals, though, Greg Minnaar holds the record with a total of 10, thanks to his three gold medals, four silver and three bronze.
WOMEN’S WORLD CUP XC CHAMPIONS
In the Women’s World Cup XC ranks, Norway’s Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja won the series four times in a row, from 2003 through 2006. Juli Furtado, Alison Sydor, Catharine Pendrel and Jolanda Neff have each won the title three times. Americans Sara Ballantyne (1990), Ruthie Matthes (1992), Alison Dunlap (2002) and Kate Courtney are the only U.S. women besides Furtado to win the World Cup XC title, with each taking it once.
MEN’S WORLD CUP XC CHAMPIONS
Among the men, France’s Julien Absalon and Switzerland’s Nino Schurter hold the most titles with seven apiece. Absalon scored his in 2003, 2006–2009, 2014 and 2016. Nino scored his in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017–2019. Nobody else comes close to their records. Absalon also has two Olympic gold medals to Nino’s one gold, one silver and one bronze medal at the Olympics.
Switzerland’s Thomas Frischknecht won three World Cup XC titles in the 1990s. He also picked up a belated World Championship from 1996 after France’s Jerome Chiotti confessed to having used performance-enhancing drugs to win the title. Upon admitting his wrongdoing, Chiotti presented his gold medal to Frischknecht, who had deserved the title.
France’s Miguel Martinez, Australia’s Cadel Evans and South Africa’s Christoph Sauser all won the Elite Men’s XC World Cup Series title twice. Cadel Evans deserves extra credit for his status, as he won the Tour de France in 2011 after retiring from mountain biking.
WOMENS’ WORLD CUP DOWNHILL CHAMPS
Great Britain’s Rachel Atherton is the most successful woman in World Cup downhill racing so far. She has won six World Cup titles to date, spread out between 2008 and 2018; what’s more, she hasn’t retired yet. Two other women have won five titles each. France’s Anne-Caroline Chausson won every title from 1998 to 2002, while France’s Sabrina Jonnier won the series title in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. Only two American women have won the title: Kim Sonier won it in 1994, while America’s Missy Giove won the title twice in 1996 and 1997.
MEN’S WORLD CUP DOWNHILL STARS
France’s Nico Vouilloz and America’s Aaron Gwin are tied for the most World Cup downhill titles in the Elite Men’s category with five each. Greg Minnaar is next with three titles, two second-place finishes at the end of the series and four third-place finishes at year’s end. By the end of 2020, Minnaar was holding the record for the most World Cup downhill wins with 22 so far. To top it off, he also won a dual-slalom race on the World Cup circuit in 2003, upping his total gold-medal count.
Of course, there’s more to racing than cross-country and downhill. There have also been titles in dual-slalom and four-cross racing. In those categories, America’s Brian Lopes seems to be the top rider among the men, winning six World Cup titles split evenly between the two categories. He won three more gold medals in men’s four-cross in the World Championships, as well as a gold medal in the men’s “dual,” which was held at the World Championships in 2000 and 2001, where two racers raced each other down the same course at the same time. Dual was replaced the next year by four-cross, with four racers racing down the same course.
In the women’s ranks, Anneke Beerten holds the record for the most World Cup four-cross titles, with four such crowns.
Anne-Caroline Chausson won the women’s “dual” title at the World Championships both years those races were held. Anne-Caroline also won the four-cross title the following two years at the World Championships.
Australia’s Caroline Buchanan won five four-cross World Championship titles, while Anneke Beerten and America’s Jill Kintner each won three.
When you consider all those combinations, it seems clear that Anne-Caroline Chausson is the top women’s gravity racer in mountain biking, with 13 gold medals in the World Championships and seven more in the World Cup series. It might be worth mentioning that she also won an Olympic gold medal racing BMX.
In the men’s overall medal ranking, the results aren’t quite as clear. Nicolas Vouilloz probably has the best claim to being the top gravity racer to date, since downhill seems to carry a lot more significance and prestige on the international circuit than dual, dual-slalom or four-cross.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER TYPES OF COMPETITION?
We didn’t even mention enduro racing up until now. That’s another area where some of the top downhill riders have proven their ability to win in multiple disciplines. Sam Hill is probably the most impressive among the men, since he’s won three World Championships and two World Cup titles in downhill, as well as three Enduro World Series titles. Among the women, France’s Cecile Ravenel has been the top enduro rider, winning three series titles in a row—2016, 2017 and 2018.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
There’s also the Red Bull Rampage. The top riders in that freeride event have been Canadians Kurt Sorge and Brandon Semenuk, each winning the event three times. Sorge also won a silver medal once, while Semenuk once took a bronze, so Sorge holds a slight advantage.
Gee Atherton placed second in the Red Bull Rampage twice (2004 and 2010), which, combined with his two wins in the downhill category of the UCI World Championships, gives him some bragging rights for multiple-discipline success.
There’s also endurance racing, such as the 24-Hour World Championships and the Cape Epic stage race. Ned Overend pointed us to the success of Christoph Sauser, who won two XC titles at the UCI World Championships and also won the Cape Epic four times. Nino Schurter has won two Cape Epic titles, further cementing his status.
There are also people like Danny MacAskill and Fabio Wibmer, who produce some of the most popular video content in mountain biking. Could they win events at a World Championship level? We don’t know, but we wouldn’t want to bet against them.
Is there any one mountain biker who’s the best rider in history? It’s hard to say.
John Tomac was probably the closest to being the best XC and DH rider in history at the same time, but he only won one UCI World Championship XC title and one World Cup XC title, plus two silver medals in downhill at the Worlds.
Juli Furtado, on the other hand, won both the cross-country and downhill UCI World Championship titles, along with three World Cup XC titles, all in the 1990s, so she’s a definite contender.
Nino Schurter has won the most international XC titles of any man, so he could very well be ranked as the top mountain biker of all time; however, Anne-Caroline Chausson probably has the most world titles of any mountain bike racer, so she’s also a viable candidate for the “greatest-ever” title. After those four riders, it’s hard to pick any one rider who can top their claims to being the best in the world.