World Cup downhill racing is at the sharp end of what can be done on a bike, legends prevail and season super stars make us all wonder who will be next to put down that run we will all remember in years to come.
This sport has changed significantly in it’s short history, Steve Jones takes a look at what was and what will be in the world of downhill.
THE SECOND DECADE
LEGENDS OF MEN’S DOWNHILL AND BEYOND
Words & Photos: Steve Jones
Twenty two years ago the opening World Cup downhill race was won by a junior Frenchman and the series won by a German, Nico Vouilloz and Jurgen Beneke.
Ten years later 2003 was a transitional season for World Cup downhill in many ways, it was the first post-Nico. In retrospect the series was taking a king size breather before diving into an extraordinary decade of downhill forces. The past ten years of World Cup racing has been immense, it has been rich, it has made legends and set records. No one has yet to quite match the great Vouilloz in everything he achieved but history has certainly been set by the current top guns. The names Minnaar, Peaty, Hill, Gwin and Atherton have been the forces for a variety of reasons.
Of course last year World Cup downhill entered its third decade and it began not half as bonkers as its second – 2003 really was a mad one. It began with Gracia winning his last World Cup if that makes sense, then it rained in Grouse mountain which wreaked chaos on the series, four Americans in the top ten, a mad Spaniard on the top step, and all the top boys out of the picture. Peaty was out of action having argued with some Welsh radicals, the Worlds was in Italy, well more Switzerland, Minnaar racing an Intense badged up as otherwise. It concluded at Kaprun but it was half the race of 2002.
It was a trend that continued into 2004 this time the Atherton’s had their own version of badging, these were early days for the family that had just moved into the hills. Corporate wasn’t so comfortable when the boys just wanted to knock up some ramps in the barn, and get up to their wheels in shit somewhere north of Dinas Mawddwy. But it started with a smile, and the new blood of Hill and Atherton having previously been on simmer were starting to put it through the gears. It was the year of technology, the Honda bike, Barel appeared to be taking over Nico’s mantle of tweaking bikes and winning Worlds, and Hill took five podiums from six events. There was a new world order in the making. Gee won his first world cup and suddenly there was talk of a new vanguard of British downhill. Peaty kept it simple on his Orange, swug on a few more Stella’s and convincingly took the title but not before ballsing up another worlds. That was a decade ago.
Steve will be 40 in a few weeks. Its now four years since Peaty won at the highest level but he’s enjoying his racing so why not. He brings experience and charisma to the game, he fully understands what’s needed to win a race and even though the legs might not be what they were or the risk taking not quite as acute, the composure, mindset and technique are in as good a shape as ever. Many of the teenagers still attempting to ‘get it’ but who struggle within compressed time might do well to take a very close look at the Yorkshireman.
Steve’s teammate Greg Minnaar needs to find winning ways again. This might sound slightly strange thing to say of the reigning World Champion. Yet Minnaar was vexed at the start of last season, struggling to find the rhythm he is so well known for when you consider for the past decade Minnaar’s podium percentages have been constantly above 75.
Its now thirteen years since he wrestled Vouilloz off the Vail slopes to take the series on his Global Orange, he went on to win the title on two more occasions, in 05 on the Honda and 08 Santa Cruz. Its certainly been the South Africans decade when it comes to winning races and during a period when he’s had such mixed company from sharp Honda boffins to greasy Cheshire youth’s on his team then his stash of 16 wins makes it incredible. Minnaar in many ways was the biggest winner of the second decade of downhill.
Fort William is significant for Greg in several ways, it marks his 100th World Cup race but also his fifteenth since he last stood on the top step of a World Cup podium, the one that would ultimately equal Peaty’s record of 17.
Sam Hill hasn’t won for four years either and like Atherton at 28 is approaching old school status. His 11 wins and 3 titles in five years was all about belief in heavy traffic. Is Hill cruising? It would be good to see him back up to his real pace and twice last year he got within a couple of seconds of winning a race. With Hill, anything is possible. Is he still a risk? For a man who made a career out of getting lost (as in losing the opposition) we’ve not seen anything vintage for many years. Alpine assassinations were very much a Hill speciality and from Schladming to Champery, Val di Sole to Pila for a man who he could never be described as melodramatic he has delivered some of the sports tragedies and showpieces. Everyone loves Sam Hill.
Hill’s sparring partner from the junior days is doing slightly better these days. Gee Atherton having presumably un-parked his GT from the final showdown in Leogang that went so very wrong is now striding into the 2014 season with a big gang of pretenders hot on his heels, having had the reset button fitted to his new Fury.
Its an anniversary year for Gee, ten years since he won his first world cup in Schladming, a moment in time for many reasons and mainly because he beat his nemesis from the junior ranks, Hill, to a first senior race win. Gee is unlikely to ride badged up bikes these days, its all about cocktails down SE1 to launch their signature bikes and team.
It might be just the tonic, for Atherton probably doesn’t need reminding of the relatively barren decade that followed his 04 win. Eight first places doesn’t seem like fair payback given the risk and effort involved as sister racks up the gold but he is one of the few success stories in the step from junior to pro to winning the big ones. And just consider Gee has ridden at a super high level for this period – 66 percent podium record out of 66 races. In the second half of that decade his percentages climbs to 86 percent. Gee works in a different stratosphere to his young peers that are still searching – that Hafjell root is history.
Having podiumed in 37 out of the last 43 races but won only 6 out of 66 starts must surely rankle for Gee when Aaron Gwin has been so prodigious over a short time, Gwin has 10 wins from 40 starts, pretty insane and considering nine of those those wins were in two years straight.
Very much the enigma, a man who a few years ago was vehemently “out to win every race” Gwin has recently talked of his success in 2012 as partly fluke events. Gwin twice did the triple (three wins on the trot) and yes many have done this including Herin 97, Vouilloz 98, Smith last year but Hill and Gwin have the record of being the only riders to win four on the trot. If Gee’s problems last year were at ground level, Aaron’s were of a more speculative nature, whatever having been so unbelievably brilliant last year certainly was not in the plan – all eyes are on him.
As World Cup strides into its third decade the above stars have left a legacy that the future legends have yet to make inroads – time for some of the boys to start bringing their ‘A ‘ game, one which is currently awash with ‘B’s and awaiting the return of the only real new school big game player in SS – Stevie Smith.
Yes, the immediate future must surely be all about the B’s – Bruni, Brosnan, Blenkinsop, Beaumont, Brook Mac and Bryceland, although this has been talked about many times before, they are podium riders in urgent need to step their game up a notch much more often if they are to make careers as winners rather than podium finishers like so many before them. It appears that the young French star on Lapierre and New Zealand man on Trek are those most likely to do so with a young Hart and Bryceland pushing them hard.
The next decade will undoubtedly lose legends from the front line, new ones will fill in their steps, everything moves on however it could well be that winning downhill remains the kingdom of the slightly more mature rider. And was the last decade one in which we really were blessed with an extraordinarily depth of talent?
Fort William sees the return of the current World Cup Champion, a rider of progression, undaunted focus and cavernous breathe when time is being strangulated. Stevie Smith has already made his mark on the third decade – he comes in on a collision course where the future might transition the past.