Orbea Factory Team: How to Craft a Team for the New Age XC Racing

By Jiri Kaloc

Orbea Factory Team is new on the XC cycling scene and will have to fight for a place in the spotlight. But they have the advantage of being able to build a new team from the ground up to fit into the modern racing environment. We had a chance to talk to their team manager, Pierre Lebreton, to peek behind the scenes of a modern XC team.

How have the physical and mental demands on riders in XC racing evolved over recent years?

The last few years have seen the Olympic XC tracks evolve and the short-track format appear and grow. This has led to some changes in the qualities required to perform at the highest level. Whether it’s the short 20-minute races or the classic 1,5-hour format, the effort remained high but there’s more room for different types of riders than ever. “Puncheurs” are now also taking their place at the top of the hierarchy and battling it out with the climbers. Mental demands have also escalated, with race outcomes often uncertain until the final minutes. We’re more involved in reacting to the tactics of our main competitors, our riders need to understand the qualities of their rivals and have the ability to react quickly as well as stay patient. Additionally, the compact World Cup week schedule, featuring 2 races in 3 days, requires quick recovery and sustained focus from riders.

With many XC courses now incorporating more technical sections that resemble those in enduro or downhill, how do you prepare your riders for these challenges while maintaining their speed and endurance for the less technical parts?

I think that’s what makes mountain biking and XC so interesting. You have to be an all-rounder, and most of the top riders love the technical challenge. Indeed, some technical parts are more and more man-built and look spectacular like in enduro and downhill but I wouldn’t say that XC racing is more technical now than it was before. I actually think that there are opportunities to bring an even better show, for example, with more technical climbs or more line choices. Anyways, the riders have to be ready for anything they may encounter on a race track. Training involves identifying potential track features (e.g., off-camber sections, roots, mud) and incorporating specific training for these elements into annual plans. We organize training camps or preparation races aimed to find the terrain that allows usto work in a specific feature. There are also the bikes and equipment. Bikes geometries, suspensions, and tyres are all evolving to allow for bigger jumps and to clear sections with bigger rocks.

Orbea Factory Team
Orbea Factory Team is new on the XC cycling scene and will have to fight for a place in the spotlight.

With races becoming more demanding, how has the approach to rider nutrition, hydration, and post-race recovery shifted? Are there any innovative methods or technologies you’re integrating?

Nutrition is indeed a key part of performance for us, as it’s always been. We follow the latest research on this topic, while the goal is to integrate the science in the most natural way possible for the riders. We are staying in a big home together most of the time so that we have more control over the meals. I would say that 90% of the knowledge that we apply, the riders don’t even notice it. This helps us not create additional mental load for them around eating. As for special sports nutrition products, we work closely with 226ERS. Their products follow the most up-to-date guidelines and we regularly try and use prototypes. The riders have to fuel intense daily training, so I’d say that there are two main points of innovation – minimising digestive system strain and maximising energy supply during races because XCO mountain biking relies entirely on carbohydrate energy. The body’s reserves of carbohydrates are limited, so the better intake you have, the longer you will ride at your fastest pace.

How are advancements in bike technology and equipment playing a role in the modern XC team’s training and racing strategy?

The innovation in bike technology improves the racing but also the preparation of the riders. For example, our Orbea Oiz brings much more comfort with its 120-mm suspension travel and its wider rims and tyres. This allows the riders to spend more time on their mountain bike and less time on the road. If they live in an area where the tracks are rocky or bumpy, it can be tiring for the muscles. Lighter e-bikes like the Rise model are also making their debut as regular training tools for riders, they allow them to cover more distance and spend more time on technical sections while saving energy.

The development of power meters eases the analysis of the demands of our sport. The heart rate devices are now being worn 24/7, together with the power meter data are allowing better guidance in training and an improved control of fatigue.

As far as race strategy is concerned, the evolution of equipment is guided by strategic performance choices. We’re fortunate to collaborate with Orbea for frames, Shimano for drivetrains, pedals, and shoes, Fox for suspensions, Oquo for wheels, Hiru for clothing, and Maxxis for tyres. These partnerships empower us to stay informed about the latest developments in the discipline and changes in XC tracks. The goal is to stay one step ahead of our competitors.

Orbea factory racing
The last few years have seen the Olympic XC tracks evolve and the short-track format appear and grow.

Building a cohesive team is essential for success. How do you foster a positive and collaborative team culture, especially when balancing the needs and ambitions of individual riders?

Team cohesion starts by bringing the right people together. Mountain biking is indeed an individual sport but my job is to help riders notice and experience the fact that they benefit from each other. I feel that this is happening naturally for our group this season and I’m really happy about that. As for the staff, working in a World Cup team requires to be a real professional as a mechanic, physio, etc. But I also require something on top of that, you have to be able to handle yourself under pressure and in the context of a competition. I believe that chasing common goals is a good way to naturally support each other, even when there is a more individual quest.

How have race strategy and in-race communication changed to keep up with the evolving nature of XC courses and the abilities of competitors?

Race strategies didn’t change much if you are looking at the big picture. The biggest thing is probably the fact that it’s more common to see a group of riders until the end of the race. Some years ago, it was more common to see riders fighting each other at a distance, modulating with their own pace and the gaps between each other. Communication during the race is made easier because the tracks are getting more and more compact, so I can usually personally see the riders and speak to them several times a lap. Our staff is using the live video, live timing, and the radio to help each rider set the right pace and make the right decisions. We can’t speak directly to the riders through radio as it’s not allowed but we go to the right places to communicate with them along the track.

How are you working with sponsors and brands to align with the changing landscape and perceptions of XC racing?

I see two different approaches here that I consider a part of our mission.

One is the development of equipment. We work to constantly adapt to changes in our discipline and to take advantage of technical developments in materials, processes and techniques. The goal is to have the best-performing gear for the riders.

And the other is how we communicate. We produce content ourselves, we share our story and we make it available to our sponsors. The victory or a podium finish aren’t the only interesting things about XC racing. The path you follow to get there is what counts. And this is what we want to capture for our fans in the best possible way.

Both missions are exciting for us. On one hand, developing equipment that will allow our riders to perform better and also every mountain biker to enjoy their rides more. And on the other hand, trying to inspire racing fans by sharing our experiences.

How are you adapting your team’s outreach and engagement strategies to captivate both seasoned cycling enthusiasts and newcomers to the sport?

I think that what we experience and share is relatable and could be interesting to anyone, even outside of XC racing. Fighting, winning, losing, working together to chase goals, supporting each other, travelling, discovering new places and meeting people. That’s what will grab the attention of people, from someone who doesn’t even do the sport to the biggest XC mountain bike fan. For us as fans of the sport, it’s quite natural and easy to share more specific information on top of that. Things like technical information, settings or training advice, aimed more at the experienced audience.