Going For Gold
The Downhill World Championships 2016
Alan Milway is coach to Atherton Racing, has worked with many top riders and teams and has coached 5 World Champions. Here is his preview to this weekend's World Championships from Val di Sole.
Arguably the biggest event in the Downhill MTB race schedule, the World Champs is a special event that reaches outside of the MTB community to draw interest from the mainstream sports media and it has been held annually since 1990.
Win this event and your achievements are ranked and rewarded by your national as being of the very highest level and the rainbow stripes allows comparisons to be drawn with other athletes at the very top of their sports.
The World Cup series awards consistent brilliance and an ability to ride at your best all year. However for the World Champs, this need for sustained dominance is stripped back entirely. Put it together for one run and you can wear the rainbow stripes on your jersey for the rest of your career.
The format of the World Champs event schedule is somewhat different to a regular World Cup race, and makes it a very different event for the riders. At World Cups generally track walk is on a Thursday, and then practice is split in to two groups, with practice on Friday, further practice Saturday morning before qualifying which seeds you for finals and also gives points for the championship, and then on Sunday there is a short period of practice before finals.
At the World Champs things start earlier in the week and the schedule is far more disjointed. Track walk was on Wednesday last year in Andorra, and practice is split in to Juniors, Women and Elite men slots. All the while dovetailed between Cross Country and Trials scheduling. This can mean a short period of practice in the day, or big gaps between sessions that can make practice days feel long, but also quite limited in terms of track time.
There is no seeding run, with riders seeded for the final via their UCI ranking. There used to be a seeding run, but this caused problems with riders ‘sand bagging’, and stopping on track, or slowing to secure an earlier time slot. This was done either to reduce the pressure on them, or to get more favourable weather conditions. This seeding run has now been replaced by a timed training run, which offers nothing but a marker to who wanted to put in a fast run against the clock before racing starts.
British Cycling offers support for this event to the GB team and sends along a team of people, this seems to vary year to year and can be useful to a degree. Bringing in experts to help and assist at a World Championships is excellent in theory, but if they aren’t thoroughly familiar with the sport, it can almost cause more confusion and change for the riders. I experienced this in Val di Sole in 2008 with a GB representative trying to change certain plans and offer massages when the rider in question wasn’t used to this at all during a race weekend and it just added another element of the unfamiliar. British Cycling offer funding for travel to the riders if selected but this does depend on the criteria met, and often isn’t full funding. I don’t know the figures for this year, but in previous years it has been part funding unless you have met specific criteria. I have also heard that in previous years riders have been asked to pay for their GB race jersey, which is a sorry situation in my opinion.
At a World Cup event you need points to qualify for the event, are then ranked, and the top 80 men have a separate practice session. The top 20 riders are also protected during qualifying in case of crashes/mechanicals.
However, at the World Champs you are selected to represent your country by reaching various national qualifying criteria. This can produce a field that has a much bigger variation in skill/ performance level. From our perspective ‘Team GB’ has a very competitive selection process and the team manager, alongside the selection committee at British Cycling, will choose their riders. This often means very fast riders wont make the team, as there is such strength in depth in this country. Riders who have been in the top 20 or 30 at World Cups this year may not even make the grade. But the flip side is that for some nations with a less competitive national set up, they can select riders who are well below the required standard to race a World Cup.
I’ve seen riders from Israel, Kazakhstan, Columbia, Hungary and Poland (to name just a few) who are proudly representing their country, but in all honesty are not suited to a challenging international standard track and can cause problems for the fast guys and women as they are riding very different lines and at a much slower speed!
There is one racer who stands above the rest in terms of World Championships success, and that is Anne Caroline Chausson. The peerless French woman has been World Champion a staggering 12 times! Three consecutive junior titles, followed by 8 consecutive senior titles, a year out through injury and then another title to make it 9. If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, her time as a junior in 1995 was 6 seconds FASTER than the senior women’s winning time of Leigh Donovan, and would have placed her 46th in the men’s race that year. Astonishing.
In the men’s event, it is another French racer, Nico Vouilloz, who stands clear as the most successful with 10 titles – 7 as a senior. The dominance of these two, whose careers ran concurrently, has certainly shaped the sport and although you ‘only’ have to perform to your potential for one run to get the crown, to do this year after year and remain on top form each day shows that the wildcard riders who could theoretically challenge for the win are often limited by their mental strength come race day.
When it comes down to standout event, 2011 in Champery has to rank up there as the most fascinating race and outcome – a dry week practicing on a treacherously difficult track, for the heavens to open for race day. Most of the field had committed to just getting down in one piece, and you could see it in their riding. However Danny Hart had other ideas and his run will go down in YouTube legend for his riding and the commentary of Pagey (Nigel Page) and Rob Warner! I was Danny’s coach at the time, and his hunger for it was clear – his attitude was that it would be no different to a wet ride in Hamsterley forest and he’d just follow the river of water down as fast as he could; knowing that there would be riders out there who were riding to preserve a ‘clean’ run, which also fuelled his fire, and it is this attitude that he seems to have harnessed this year with his recent great run of form and an absolute desire to “want to win".
The 2014 world Championships in Norway was also very special from a personal standpoint as my athletes became World Champions in both the men’s and women’s races, with Gee Atherton and Manon Carpenter winning gold, and Rachel Atherton taking silver. To win both world titles on the day is something that I think any coach in any sport would dream of.
From a marketing point of view the World Championships really is a showcase for companies and they will often spray custom bikes, helmets, shoes, pedals, bars… you name it, it will be a ‘one off’ for that race and have the photographers slavering over it for pictures. Not only that, but bikes can be modified for this race – Pietermaritzburg being a case in point, where the relatively smooth and pedally track led to some riders racing lighter and stiffer bikes with dropper posts.
At one stage lycra was worn for the event – even when it had been ‘outlawed’ in the World Cup series, with the road dominated governing bodies cladding the riders in their road kit. The Kiwis seemed to always look good in their black kit with the white fern – short sleeves, minimal padding, and flat out style.
Personally I’d like to get back to this no holds barred approach to race kit and lycra – it is a time trial down a hill after all and when medals are decided by fractions of a second, why are we bothering to find these time advantages in the body through fitness, or the bike through set up but not via lycra clothing ‘because it doesn’t suit the image of Downhill’? There are plenty of images to show how cool Palmer, Peaty etc looked in full lycra and bullet heads back in the day and we should lead not follow moto in that respect, so I don’t buy that. In an event that is seen by a much wider audience it also leaves more questions as to its validity as a true ‘against the clock’ race by those viewing from outside our little downhill bubble.
This year the World Champs returns to Val di Sole, a track that is brutal, technical and long, and where in 2008 Sam Hill crashed out after a storming run but still took bronze and Gee Atherton won alongside his sister Rachel. It will be an exciting return to this venue that will crown a truly worthy champion. Will we see one of the previous champions step back in to familiar surroundings? Will Loic Bruni defend his title? Will Aaron Gwin finally get the win that has so far eluded him? Or will one of the ‘wild card’ riders who can put together a barn storming run, hold it together under the pressure of all eyes and cameras to stake their claim on the gold?
It’s not long to wait, and as ever, this will be one of the most exciting weeks of racing as we build up to race day!