The sudden enforcement of an arcane international cycling rule could impact local mountain bike races in Colorado this year.

The long-standing International Cycling Union — or UCI — rule that forbids licensed pros from racing in non-sanctioned races has never really been enforced in mountain biking, allowing hardly flush knobby-tire racers the chance to earn welcome paychecks at races such as Vail's Mountain Games and other local races.

"Those prize purses can be the difference for some people to have the travel funds to get to the next race," said Fort Collins mountain biker Georgia Gould, who won Olympic bronze last summer, a mere month after winning her fourth Mountain Games cross country title.

This fall she got a letter from USA Cycling fining her for racing at the Mountain Games and warning against competing in nonsanctioned races.

"I had no idea there was a rule like that," she said.

When the pro road guys got involved in local races — such as Tom Danielson, winner of last year's Teva Mountain Games time trial — the UCI started paying attention to unsanctioned mountain bike races.

Last year the Leadville Race Series' Alpine Odyssey race in Crested Butte chose to unsanction its race so the dethroned Lance Armstrong could compete while under a worldwide ban from all sanctioned races. The race series has since nixed the Alpine Odyssey race.

"The UCI has not bugged us to enforce the rule, and we haven't enforced it much, but now it's something that has come to light more recently in the last year or two," said Micah Rice, vice president of national events for USA Cycling, which sanctions American races under UCI guidelines. "As the governing body in the U.S., it's our job to uphold a certain level of event."

Time to make a decision

Rice said most race organizers, including Vail's Mountain Games — debuting as the GoPro Mountain Games this June — the Leadville Race Series and Arizona's popular-with-the-pros Whiskey Off Road 50 have expressed interest in sanctioning their races.

Rice said USA Cycling simply wants to encourage race organizers to join the international ranks. And riders need to choose between the international and the local scene.

"Riders at some point — and we agree with the UCI on this — are going to have to make a decision whether they are a World Cup racer and want to go to the Olympics, or do they want to show up at their local bike race and win unsanctioned bike races?" he said. "There are more people interested in racing at the top level, and we want to support that and bring more of these events into the fold."

Josh Colley, director of the Leadville 100, said he was planning to not sanction any of his Leadville Race Series events for 2013 "but not feel the pressure from (USA Cycling)." He decided to sanction all his races with USA Cycling in 2013 "for the purpose of not losing any athletes due to the sanctioning rule." The races will offer one-day USA Cycling cards to unregistered riders.

Rice said unsanctioned races are not necessarily subpar, but sanctioning provides insurance for managing risk and officials who "can make sure the race is fair and no one is cheating."

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a five-time winner of the Mountain Games' cross country race, has dropped off his longtime Trek team's UCI roster for 2013. He remains on the team, though, and will focus on enduro events. He will race again in the Mountain Games.

Horgan-Kobelski said the sudden enforcement of the rule is unfortunate for World Cup racers.

"The whole thing is really bad for the sport," he said. "The riders are caught in a political power struggle between the international/national governing bodies."

Gould said she won't violate the rule again. But she said the rule was meant more for road cyclists, who earn heftier paychecks, than mountain bikers.

"It's a little different than the mountain bike scene, where no one makes money," she said. "I can see their perspective, but it's penalizing the riders when we want to be able to show up at a local event and see other people and see kids and be a role model and maybe, sure, get some big prize money. I can't even go to my local Wednesday short-track races now. I see that as not helping to grow cycling, which is a shame. I think that rule needs to be changed, but I don't see that happening."

"Recovery program" in Breck

Mike McCormack will not be sanctioning his wildly popular, multistage Breck Epic or his new Firebird races at the Eagle Outside Festival in May.

He calls his six-stage Breck Epic "a recovery program for recovering UCI trade-team athletes." When the old rule suddenly became an issue, McCormack, an irreverent spreader of mountain bike stoke, ceremoniously banned UCI president Pat McQuaid from his races.

The cost of sanctioning the Breck Epic or the Firebird races would take money away from race purses, he said. But beyond cost, it's a principle thing. McCormack thinks USA Cycling's cracking down on the rule is hindering growth in mountain biking.

"We don't want to be on that train. I think they are a bit out of sync with where the biking populace is going," he said. "If they want to restrict athletes from participating, well, that says a lot more about them than does it us about us."

McCormack has three rules in the week-long Breck Epic: Don't be a (rude guy,) wear a helmet and don't litter.

"The UCI is an organization of rules," he said. "They want to stop people from being bad. We have three rules, and we want to allow people room to be good."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins