Earlier in the day we witnessed a series champion confirmed in the way of Laurie Greenland. The Trek World Racing junior suffered from illness in the first days of Windham, but like a true champ he kept his head and hopes high and by Saturday was on a charge. Greenland swept the floor – from seventh in qualifying to first in finals and the Junior World Cup series was his. Elsewhere in his category our very own Jacob Dickson was on the throttle all week long and rallied to a second place – not enough to sate his thirst for victory but commendable nonetheless. And to cap a quality top three, FMD’s Neil Stewart – who has suffered unfortunate illness and bad luck so far in his World Cup career – finally pulled together a race run to equal his evident speed.
Rachel Atherton has run away with the series this year, and with her only vague competition Emmeline Ragot injured the title was hers after qualifying in pole position. But she isn’t entirely in a league of her own as Myriam Nicole proved in qualifying – returning from injury and already biting at Atherton’s heels. Nicole crashed out in Windham finals but that’s fine, let’s say she’s testing the water ready for an end-of-season flourish. And while they couldn’t match Atherton’s speed this weekend, the two other Brits at the top of the series points standings – Manon Carpenter and Tahnée Seagrave – have proven they can mix it with her in the past.
The crowd went wild. Even when there was nothing happening they went wild. In fact, no single spectator lining the Windham course needed more excuse to make some noise than their neighbour perking up with a USA chant or the firing up of a chainsaw or just a camera being produced. I’ve been to many, many mountain bike races and, although it probably wasn’t the biggest in numbers, this crowd had enthusiasm like no other. “Did you see that whip? Holy cow!” and “Did you see the racing? INSANE!” and “Holy mackerel!” were just some of the excited exclamations heard along the course’s edge. And seemingly everyone from child to parent to grandparent knew every competitor; “Is that Wyn Masters? WHEELIE WEDNESDAY!” There was a fantastic atmosphere, and I suppose there would be a spread of fans like this in the country that invented the sport.
Speaking of early days downhilling, a lot of talk on the hill during Windham World Cup week was focused on Missy Giove’s return to racing – a one off – as much as the World Cup series itself. Giove was not in town on a comeback incentive, but, even if there wasn’t ever any danger of her presence not being known, the excitement that such a legendary racer and character brought to the race was felt all week long.
To the men: Aaron Gwin won by a country mile. He pulled everyone’s pants down. While the American has been there or thereabouts all season, his last two races have been far from the dominant rides of Lourdes and Leogang. But he made amends by sticking three-and-a-half seconds into the competition on a course that usually only warrants results to be separated by tenths. It was a stunning display of both skill and sheer conviction to the win – even in moments when the slick dust looked like it might get the better of him Gwin pulled the bike into shape and battled on. When he came streaking into the finish area with dust plumes high trailing into the air the crowd was tense but exhilarant – he was clearly onto a winner. Greg Minnaar, the man who has stood on World Cup podiums more than any ever, was poised in the hotseat, but with the speed of Gwin in the upper sections he already looked settled on his second place and happy. Gwin thrust the bike across the line, looked at the time and clenched a fist in celebration.
But there were so many other stories within the men’s category. To name but a few: Sam Hill’s crash, the five Brits in the top ten, Matt Walker’s 11th for the #vanzacs, Loris Vergier’s inspired ride to his first ever World Cup podium, Troy Brosnan’s speed (rivalling Gwin’s time if it weren’t for an early crash), Steve Smith’s return to form and the podium, and of course Bruni. Poor old Bruni. The Frenchman flatted while in contention and we will once again have to wait for probably the most unlucky racer’s time to shine.
World Cup racing is truly edge-of-seat viewing these days, with so many stories and an insane depth of talent. You’ve got the Bernard Kerrs throwing huge gaps and hucks into their runs, you’ve got the Loris Vergiers breaking through from Juniors, you’ve got the comeback stories from the likes of Smith and Nicole. And that’s forgetting that each and every one of the qualifiers (+protected riders) is absolutely hauling ass and putting everything on the line. It’s an amazing spectacle, and nowhere this season has that been more evident than in Windham finals.
Weird Windham. Wonderful windham. Lost out in the woodlands of New York State you would hardly expect to come across such a hive of activity as the event that Windham Mountain put on. But it was a brilliant race and one that some of its competitors will remember for a very long time.