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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

There are those who will always advocate a close finish rule to sport. Schladming, Austria, round three of the World Cup series and the final round of the first European leg, was no such race.

Having qualified poorly after a tumble in the semis Chris Kovarik had the pleasure of a dry and dusty run and took the lead at about the same time as the top seeds were drinking coffee ready for their runs, and not too far from where the Australian was sitting. It then rained for about an hour. So adversity, mismatch, underdogs, call it what you will, but all the top fifteen basically had not a cat in hells chance of unseating one of the strongest downhill racers on the planet...not in the mud anyway.

So to begin at nearly the end, for the gravity of the deed done by the third round winner has to be measured in the circumstances in which it was executed...Minnaar, Pascal, Atherton, Rennie, Gracia. Pick a name, no one was able to get within three seconds of Kovarik, for he had the comfort of dry roots, clear goggles and a rain free mountain. It should have been ‘game over’.

As the weather laid ambush to the hill the Australian took cover in the tent and watched the race unfold increasingly amongst a sea of hard luck tales. OK Rennie did well to get within three seconds with a flat near the bottom and Minnaar was pretty heroic to keep it within five after a tumble. But these are big margins, for the top thirty at this point were separated by less than ten seconds on a hill not known for its smoothness and sensibility. It was technical, tight and unthinkably twisty.

With three minute margins between riders (for the benefit of TV) and with almost everyone down at the finish, a southern hemisphere rider would certainly win round three. Gee Atherton and Marc Beaumont, marvellously third and fourth in the semi but undone in the final, looked up on the screen as Sam Hill in short sleeves and knee pads set off unimaginably quickly. It was about three fifteen in the afternoon and as Hill hit the split the crowds had something tangible on which to support claims that visually he was ‘on it’ this weekend. Five seconds up...oh my god...everyone went nuts. The movers and shakers of the close finish movement...well they shook, and Hill had half the hill to go.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Round 1: Vigo, Spain

Up until Schladming the series had been tight but certainly not uneventful. There had been a couple of black days for many people, maybe not Wall Street type black days but certainly profits and losses had a part to play. Steve Peat was the first to play a key role in the helter skelter of the World Cup travelling village, although many of his opposition still wonder just where he managed to gain so much time at the opener at Vigo, northern Portugal but still part of Spain kind of thing.

By all accounts Vigo was a corker. Peaty’s win by several seconds was at the time mammoth, as to the sudden arrival of a load of Aussie’s onto the podium. Not surprisingly Hill, Hannah and Rennie were at home in a place never too far from the sea, on a track that had all the elements of a classic encounter. Rock, cambers, drops and wide open sections, all run in glorious sunshine with a partisan crowd baying for blood and great performances from the Maxxis team. Mickael Pascal did the honours in securing a top ten place for his team but Vasquez, Ivan Olego and Guardia Pascal were conspicuously out of it. As was Marielle Saner in the womens, in a race wrapped up by the French Intense rider and former World Cup champion, Sabrina Jonnier. Tracy Moseley second, Rachel Atherton third.

4X began largely as it finished last season with reigning champion Mickael Prokop showing no signs of wanting to surrender the title too easily. Steve Peat showed just what a great all round rider he is with second place just ahead of the oldest man in the World Cups Bas De Bever. Lopes, jetlagged, powered in for fourth. The womens event was dominated by Jill Kintner, and the Yeti rider did well to fend off a strong challenge from Specialized’s Anneke Beerten who is concentrating on the head to head events more this season. Dirt’s Vanessa Quin was third and Britain’s Joey Gough looked menacing in fifth.

With a race well won, and the Aussies thirsty, so began the regular...sorry, traditional trip down the boozer. Now I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill here, for the Germans did such a splendid job of that in round two, but what basically happened that spring evening on the Atlantic coast was there was a minor skirmish that led to the tallest of the people on the street...a daft northerner with what the locals saw as a fistful of dollars after his epic win...being taken off by the local upholders of law and order. Slam.

Painfully, that was just the start of the reigning champions woes, for just a few weeks later he slammed down hard on a Fort William 4X track and was out of the series for at least six weeks with a separated shoulder. The southern hemisphere suddenly looked dangerous for the title.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Round 2: Willingen, Germany

Heading to Willingen reigning World Champion Fabien Barel seemed to be the favourite European to prevent what could possibly be becoming a southern hemisphere rout. But again profit and loss was the name of the game here too. Several losses stand out, particularly the large amount of bikes that were stolen from the event that coincided with a German bike festival. Not only was Rowan Sorrell’s Orange taken from his hotel but also a brace of apparently top–secret Japanese built Honda bicycles sporting revolutionary internal transmission. Although by this point the technicians had made these items external to the bike and made them largely “useless to the thieves or anyone else" as Martin Whitely the G Cross team manager pointed out. The Showa boys would probably have a fair bit to say about that I’m sure.

In the event gears and power probably did play a part in the result, for the man–made track, literally bulldozed out of the hill and surfaced a short time before the event, rendered the surface just that...like damp render. The course was soggy and energy sapping. Most of the racers hated it. It was therefore an event for the strong minded. Barel should have gone well in this one but for whatever reasons he missed his allocated semi final run time and was therefore unable to compete for the final. No points for the flying Frenchman. With both the G Cross Honda boys managing to get spare bikes sorted for the race and scoring top three results it was left to Haro rider Mick Hannah to shut down the semi by three seconds.

Going into the final it looked likely that either Minnaar or Hannah would end the day with the series leaders jersey. The final was run in largely sunny conditions but half way through the German skies let rip and the top racers mechanics opened up their tool boxes to swap to wet weather tyres to aid grip on the grass section three quarters of the way down the hill. The big gains however were made on the huge jumps on the tough man made top section where both Minnaar and Dan Atherton starred, Atherton on his way to his first World Cup podium and an amazing but not unlikely second place. For the northern hemisphere Dan was the sole podium placement as Matti Lehikoinen, up at the split, lost out on the lower slopes, but still seventh was a result. As for Hannah, the semi success was not to be repeated as he was undone on a particularly slippery piece of hand made rock half way down. No more points and a big dent in his chances.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Winningest World Cup winner of all time Anne Caroline Chausson turned up at Willingen, which kind of upset some of her rivals. Being the greatest ever does do things to some folk. Rachel Atherton was having none of it though and proceeded to destroy both the famous Frenchwoman and all before her in the semi final. Big points for the young Brit. The final was more of the older variety as Chausson used her massive experience to gun the Commencal down the hill and onto the podium ahead of a future French star, Emmeline Ragot. Dirt magazines Vanessa Quinn, after a poor Vigo, pulled her finger out to net third, with Atherton fourth. Sabrina knuckled down for fifth but still retained the leaders jersey.

4X was plain and simply a pretty deflated affair, but it did not pass without a significant amount of hot air. The women’s event was the main cause of the controversy as the officials first decided to cancel the event, only to change their minds as some racers looked from the bottom of the hill in despair. Anneke Beerten was at the top of the hill and quickly dispatched Fionn Griffiths to back up her already strong showing in Vigo. The arguments continue as to whether it was all fair and square. The men’s event was cancelled due to the start gate not working. Hopeless.

 

Round 3: Sladming, Austria

And so to Schladming. Set just under the snow line on the northern slopes of the Niedere Tauern, with the dramatic backdrop of 10,000ft Hoher Dachstein across the valley, it was a drama played out on a largely spit and sawdust hill. It was a track low on frills but wired full of root. It was fast and it was slow. Throbbingly tight yet full of risk, many would not make it down through lack of understanding of the mountain karma, others through straightforward lack of natural riding skill and bottle. Schladming would cruelly shine a bright light on those who had not vowed to hand over risk to the hill Gods.

The town was good and Rob Warner had helped put a fair old spread on. The 4X also had been taken to new earth built heights by Phil Saxenna, although not quite the 60,000ton start ramp at Willingen, that would have been quite a pile of dirt in anyone’s backyard. Many people described the Schladming track as BMX in the hills. Racing was, as are most 4X events, all over after a few seconds...the first turn. Racing, as often happens, leads into a train like procession down the hill, with the crowds desperate for something to happen through fair means or foul. Ruts, flat corners, cambers and dead slow turns? None of it. Somehow the sport needs to figure out how to bring together a group of riders that are so close together in their qualifying times into several turns at the same time. Maybe it cannot be done.

It was all very polite. “After you...no after you." Weird, surely if there’s not going to be any barging or a drop of fisticuffs then why not race in a straight line? 400 meters, laned, doubles, tables, slow bits, quick bits. Head to head sprinting and a photo finish. What more does it need to be? Lopes won...on flats. Gracia miraculously netted third, and Prokop, again on flats, fourth. Anneke Beerten continued to dominate the women’s event, although super Brit Joey Gough took a great second...notorious commentator Dan Jarvis was brought to tears. Joergensen third, Kintner fourth.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

The 26 year old Australian Chris Kovarik had made his European return at Germany of course but such was the nature of that event that he cannot be judged, but his strong finish had already moved him into tenth place in the series after his first race. Minnaar was leading the series, a fair old distance ahead of Hill, 430 points and 295 points. Peaty was fourth and the both Atherton’s, Dan and Gee, were slotted into the elite top ten. Gracia’s head was apparently “still not quite where it should have been" according to his mechanic, but is it ever? And Barel was barely scraping a top twenty because of whatever had gone on during that rainy day in Germany.

The battle of the Women was a tight affair. Sabrina led the youngest World Cup racer Rachel Atherton, and the not yet fossilized Emmiline Ragot was third. Vanessa Quin and Tracey Moseley made it up to five. Chausson, missing from round one with a shoulder struggling to sort itself out, was her own insouciant yet ever focused self and carried ‘scare seconds’ even by just being there.

This was not a track to be scared sick on. To do well it required a free flowing free fall. Any missed lines would be punished, any tightness taught a lesson, for a track that dealt out almost a hundred turns meant the gains were made on apexes and off the brake bottle banks. It was a test. Yeah right, it was bloody awesome.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Quin won the womens seeding run beating the seemingly unbeatable AC Chausson. This has not really happened much in the past ten years (understatement) but then Vanessa is the current World Champion so why not? It was class and it was done with time to spare. “I reckon AC will beat us all by five seconds in the final", laughed Vanessa as she switched mud tyres on and off in the squally interlude before the final. Gaskell sipped Red Bull over at the Animal Atherton pits and Sabrina hid.

Celine Gros came out after dinner and put to rights her fall which had cost her dearly in Germany and in the semi here in Austria to take the hot seat for quite some time. Petra Bernhard, now on Intense, after being off it for some time scored strongly to get back into the top ten. Sabrina snatched the lead from Gros by five seconds, a time that Saner and Moseley failed to get near. With three left on the hill, Atherton went down after her consistently brilliant top three semi finals and failed to get back going finishing deep down in eighteenth. Chausson powered in within two seconds on Jonnier with Quin on the gas and approaching quickly. It was close. AC won but Vanessa must have surely now put doubt into the mind of the Frenchwoman. Sabrina leads the series.

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Had Kovarik won the mens final he would have delighted many fans of his bulldozer style. The Aussie trucks on in a unique way. Chris knew though of the advantage he had gained by racing in drier conditions, the top fifteen seeds nearly all failed to post a faster time. Statistics would probably have pointed to a first Kovarik win for several years. But Hill, last on the mountain, had been staggeringly quick to the half way point and was pressing on. Many racers couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing, but there was no trickery at work here, it was the Iron Horse rider’s wizardry in corners that simply added up over the five–score apexes on his Five Ten flats. Any photographer on the hill would have picked the young Australian as the favourite for this one for he cornered tight and loose whilst the clipped in boys went safe and wide. But in the wet? What really added to the quite extreme drubbing he was about to hand out was his ability not to treat the track any differently in the quickly changing conditions. There are great performances and there is genius...

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Round 1: Vigo, Spain

DH MEN

1. Steve Peat - 2.25.79

2. Greg Minnaar - 2.28.66

3. Sam Hill - 2.30.38

4. Michael Hannah - 2.30.39

5. Nathan Rennie - 2.33.18

DH WOMEN

1. Sabrina Jonnier - 2.55.72

2. Tracy Moseley - 2.56.13

3. Kathy Pruitt - 3.01.42

4. Rachel Atherton - 3.01.97

5. Celine Gros - 3.03.05

4X MEN

1. Michal Prokop

2. Steve Peat

3. Bas De Bever

4. Brian Lopes

4X WOMEN

1. Jill Kintner

2. Anneke Beerten

3. Vanessa Quin

4. Jana Horakova

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Saladini leads. World Cup 4X, Maribor, Slovenia

Round 2: Willengen, Germany

DH MEN

1. Greg Minnaar - 2:19.59

2. Dan Atherton - 2:23.04

3. Nathan Rennie - 2:23.19

4. Chris Kovarik - 2:24.76

5. Sam Hill - 2:25.46

DH WOMEN

1. A C Chausson - 2:42.88

2. Emmeline Ragot - 2:47.38

3. Vanessa Quin - 2:47.92

4. Rachel Atherton - 2:49.53

5. Sabrina Jonnier - 2:54.55

Round 3: Schladming, Austria

MENS DH

1. Sam Hill - 4:03.58

2. Chris Kovarik - 4:11.75

3. Nathan Rennie - 4:14.50

4. Greg Minnaar - 4:14.95

5. Jullien Camellini - 4:15.95

WOMENS DH

1. A C Chausson - 4:45.53

2. Vanessa Quin - 4:45.77

3. Sabrina Joinnier - 4:47.83

4. Marielle Saner - 4:52.69

5. Tracey Moseley - 4:52.79

MENS 4X

1. Brain Lopes

2. Cederic Gracia

3. Michal Prokop

4. Filip Polc

WOMENS 4X

1. Anneke Beerten

2. Joey Gough

3. Sari Joergensen

4. Jill Kinter

Current Overall Standings

MEN DH

1. Greg Minnaar - 595

2. Sam Hill - 545

3. Nathan Rennie - 435

4. Gee Atherton - 307

5. Chris Kovarik - 300

WOMEN DH

1. Sabrina Jonnier - 519

2. Vanessa Quin - 487

3. A C Chausson - 480

4. Rachel Atherton - 401

5. Tracy Moseley - 394

MEN 4X

1. Michal Prokop - 80

2. Brian Lopes - 75

3. Cederic Gracia - 45

4. Steve Peat - 40

5. Filip Polc -38

WOMEN 4X

1. Anneke Beerten - 140

2. Jill Kintner - 70

3. Joey Gough - 55

4. FIionn Griths - 55

5. Anita Molcik - 47

There are those who will always advocate a close finish rule to sport. Schladming, Austria, round three of the World Cup series and the final round of the first European leg, was no such race.