Lourdes Wildcard? Unlikely
A fresh winner looks unlikely at Lourdes but as Steve Jones finds out, crazier things have happened.....
The World Cup Wildcard
The men’s UCI World Cup Downhill of 2015 was interesting in many respects, the rise Loic Bruni, the ability of Aaron Gwin to win without a chain being two. Greg Minnaar becoming the winningest racer ever the third. With only three individual winners it also backed up the theory that winning a world cup is harder than ever with no newcomers taking the very top step. At the same time we saw the rise of the wildcard to the podium spaces in the men’s category.
There was a huge ruck for podium places, a total of 17 different people visiting them, (such numbers hadn’t happened since 2005 when there were 18) and of those we saw no less than six new faces on the podium – Mike Jones, Sam Dale, Loris Vergier, Connor Fearon, Marcelo Gutierrez and Dean Lucas. Such a swarm of new faces hadn’t been seen since 2011 when Danny Hart, Josh Brycelend, Brook Macdonald and Troy Brosnan emerged but even that year the total amount of podium numbers were lower as Atherton and Minnaar tried valiantly to hold back the force of Gwin in full flow.
Way back in 1993, the first official World Cup downhill season, Rune Hoydahl won his own world cup in Norway but failed to even get a podium elsewhere. He did of course go on to win many world cup cross country races and in doing so is the only man to do this along with the inimitable John Tomac. Other notable one-off results in the early nineties include Bruni Zanchi, Are 1995. In fact the Italian and the Norwegian along with Ivan Olego Moreno at Grouse Mountain 2003 are the only others who have one podium, one win.
This season Aaron Gwin looks to defend his title on a German bike. Now Marcus Klaussman is nowadays seen as a pillar of downhill, a man with an insatiable appetite to compete. Yes, he is a wild one in that he’s the only German to have won a world cup AND did it on a German bike. But Klaussman was a regular podium finisher, second overall in the series in 1996. Hardly a wildcard.
Of course you need to be quite careful when giving certain riders the 'wildcard' tag when in fact they are top flight, top ten racers who might in fact be top of their sport in their home countries. Just because a rider might not have podiumed a world cup doesn't mean they're rookies at all but experienced successful professionals.
Many people talk of the rapid rise and fall of Shaun Palmer but consider an even crazier story is that of Bas De Bever. Only a couple of tenths off Palmer at Cairns Worlds in 1996, Bas de Bever, a Dutchman on a Dutch bike won the World Cup opener in South Africa in 1997 at the ripe old age of 29. And at his first ever world cup!
Gerwin Peters was another winner from the flatlands yet Christian Taillefer a Frenchman on a French bike (Peugeot) at a French race (Les Gets 1998) is the only other that stands out as one of the daft moments of the nineties.
What of the Americans? Rockwell, Palmer, King, were all one hit winners but also gained series top five placings so they were consistent too although Palmer's fifth was from only one podium position in '96. Indeed Palmer reached his zenith in 1999 at Big Bear but never featured on the podium again. Todd Tanner also had three podiums culminating in a win then no further podium placings. Corrado Herin, won the series in 1997, his first world cup season then literally disappeared out of the top ten for the next three years of racing.
Moving into the 21st century the races have been relatively settled in terms of wins (six riders have won about eighty percent of the races in the last ten years) whilst over forty individuals have graced the podium.
Heading back in time the arrival of Chris Kovarik, leg trailing power, sliding was a savage moment of the late nineties. The Australian arrived in Big Bear the moment we first saw Palmer win and the last time he podiumed in his brief world cup career. A few weeks later Kovarik pushed the reigning champion Nico Vouilloz to the wire at Squaw Valley. This marked a pretty fierce arrival and a wildcard for definite.
After nearly taking a win on successive weekends at Vars in 2001 (Peaty won by a second) and Grouse where he lost out by less than a tenth, Kovarik won the last race of the season in ‘01 before totally decimating the field at Fort William’s first ever race in 2002. Fellow Aussie Nathan Rennie won Alp duez that year, his only one. And then Hill arrived. But let’s not forget Jared Graves’s run two tenths off Greg Minnaar in Angel Fire 05.
That was the same year the then seventeen year old Brendan Fairclough snuck into third at Pila World Cup 2005 as a junior…. now that was WILD. (And it COULD still happen. Everyone would go wild that's for sure). And the same year Dan Atherton was second at Willingen equally up there. Remember this was the season where eighteen individuals podiumed world cup racing. For about a decade the number has remained at around a dozen on average until last season.
For European craziness then we have to first look to the French riders Fabien Pedamanaud and Julien Camellini and both of whom were close at Maribor world cup in 07 and 08 respectively. Yet fellow countryman Thirion fully eclipses both these results with the wildest run from nowhere to actually win a race Andorra in 2013. With only one more podium to his name.
So the big question...will the names Sam Dale, Mike Jones from Britain along with Dean Lucas, Loris Vergier, Connor Fearon, Neko Mulally, George Branigan come to the fore again this season or will there be cull of visits to those steps?
And an even bigger question is can someone pull the rabbit from the hat at Lourdes? In recent years Matt Simmonds 0.366 seconds off at Meribel 2014, Connor Fearon 0.045 off winning at Leogang 2015 proved that something magical can be achieved without prior world cup podium experience, that moving from top ten to winning isn’t impossible.
But the reality? World Cup downhill appears to have transitioned over the last two years, as it has done on several other occasions in history. Half a dozen years ago the names Gwin, Bruni, Brosnan didn't even feature on podium spaces, but now they dominate, and this year it's highly probable they'll do so again. Having said that of the two B's they only have one world cup between them and going into their sixth and seventh world cup seasons respectively probably need to get a move on.
(Below. Francisco Pardal. Meribel 2014. Wild as you like)