The story of qualifying is one of hits and misses… of finding the flow and of getting into the groove.
This is a track that on the surface looks pretty simple, but to race it successfully you need to be in the zone, to find the right pace, to get the grip and link it all together. The first rock section is only about 25 seconds into the track yet get it wrong and it will affect your rhythm and perception of your run. Many riders I spoke to at the finish line mentioned that they had got this section wrong and that had then had a knock on effect to the rest of their run.
Greg Minnaar finished second but was noticeably unhappy with his run. He had messed up the rocks and that then set the tone for the rest of his run as he tried to make amends. Missed lines, blown corners… as he strove to make back the lost time things may have even become a little dangerous. But he should be happy, the run may have been unsatisfactory but the result, and points, will be much welcomed. And lets not forget that Minnaar won here last year.
Gee Atherton didn’t have much fun up there either, but the biggest loser of the day was current series leader Aaron Gwin. There is no doubt that Gwin is the one to watch, the man of the moment. Second at split one, second at split two (but only by a tiny amount) it all went wrong in the woods and on the now infamous ‘Plunge’ (broken legs, broken commentators). He came into the rooty section before it pretty hot, unclipping one foot as the back end of his bike swung around behind him. Both feet then unclipped, he tried to get back on his bike but with his seat and pants getting slightly tangled he ended up kind of buckarooing about as he tried to regain some kind of control. He went off ‘The Plunge’ not in control and ended up over the bars and down the track… it was not a pretty sight. Thankfully he got up immediately and carried on with his run. Lets hope there is no serious injury for race day.
The biggest winner of the day had to be ‘The Redcar Rocket’. Danny Hart has been looking so good in practice on track this week, but even he seemed surprised with his first place position. He’d had a good run and it had just all come together for him. Lets hope he can hold it all together and come home with the win, because you know what, he bloody deserves it. He has qualified in first position once before, back in 2013 in Fort William, so he knows what it will be like at the top of that hill as the last man down.
There were other big winners today; Mike Jones (fourth) and Laurie Greenland (fifth) made it three Brits in the top five, Adam Brayton made it four in the top seven. Jones’ rear wheel was pretty much destroyed, with three spokes snapping up high in the ‘double stump’ wooded section (where Eddie Masters absolutely nailed himself). Just how he got down from there and finished (at all) with a wheel like that was a miracle! Greenland was ‘stoked’.
One of the few to send the triple jump, he was suffering a bit with arm ache/pump at the bottom… and that is not surprising, as the track has really become beaten up over the last few days, especially on the multiple switchbacks, exposing some nasty looking rocks where it was once smooth. Mix that in with the loose surface and the seemingly innocent is becoming unpredictable.
Back to the men: Commencal too had a great day with a stormer of a run by George Brannigan in second and Remi Thirion in tenth. Brosnan, MacDonald and Fearon filled in the other spots… in fact the top 10 had a very ‘new era’ feel to it. If it stays like this for tomorrow then it really could be a new dawn… but there are some big names lurking outside that top 10 that can do some serious damage come race day.
Half an hour before the men had come down it had been the turn of the women. Rachel Atherton has been almost unbeatable for a long time now. Her 10 straight World Cup wins are remarkable, but qualifying did not go her way. She came down with a clean run but had seemingly not really got it to flow.
One minute and thirty seconds later (or thereabouts) and Tahnee Seagrave crossed the line squeezing into the lead buy 0.469 of a second. Thursday’s timed practice run had hit hard for Tahnee, it didn’t go well, “I had to pull my finger out"… and it worked. Tahnee was happy, Rachel was not. It was with a grim determination that Atherton took the chairlift back up the hill to walk the course again with her brother after the dust had settled later in the afternoon.
The biggest smile of the day has to go to Myriam Nicole. Having broken both of her collarbones (May 2015 and March 2016) she has missed out on a lot of races. In fact her last world class event was the World Championships in Vallnord last year. Emotions were high, but she said that her result at the French Cup last weekend (where she won) had given her confidence that she was still competitive. She was worried about the ‘bike park’ style of the track and that it might not suit her, and that she might not even make the top ten. She came down and finished in third, just over three seconds back. Confidence restored it will be interesting to she where she finishes tomorrow.
Junior men, with 74 entrants, was as competitive as ever. Finn Iles took first place and kept a tight grip on his overall lead. He was down at the first two splits, but he was able to pull back the time he had lost early on. And the man who beat him on those early splits? Intense rider, and Frenchman, Sylvain Cougoureux. If he can keep the hammer down on the lower parts of the track then the win could be his. But here is the problem. Iles is consistent, he has challengers but they can’t match him and his performance on a regular basis. Kevin Marry, Matt Walker and Gaetan Vige have shown moments of brilliance this season, but Iles is usually one step ahead.
Race day looms large and we can’t wait.