There it is, Gwin, Hannah, Minaar on the top steps here in PMB,
There it is, Gwin, Hannah, Minaar on the top steps here in PMB,

Back on top, Aaron Gwin made his mark at the start of the 2014 season.

The World Cup is back like it's never been away, and while the Pietermaritzburg track generates controversy and comment every year, it has always produced fast, close racing, just the sort that produces great stats to pore over after the race. Mick Hannah got pipped at the post by the last man down for the second year running at Pitermaritzburg. This time it was Aaron Gwin who took the win, making it two wins for him, and three to Greg Minnaar on the all time PMB roll of honour. So where was it won and lost?

Like the riders, I've been hard at work training all winter and you'll see that it's all new interactive Geek Stats so click around, hover over stuff and tap on your touchscreens to get even more geek value out of the dots and lines. Without further ado, lets get out the start gate and hopefully not crash in the first corner...

Sector 1

In all his dominance over 2011/12, Gwin often smashed the first sector, pulling out a decent gap which he then consolidated further down the course. Ominously for the rest of the pack, this is exactly what he was back doing on Saturday. He pulled out more than a second over the whole field bar Loic Bruni, and only Troy Brosnan, Greg Minnaar and Neko Mulally stayed within two seconds of the American. Whilst Mick Hannah lost the World Champs last year on the final sector of the course, he left himself a lot to do in the first sector this time - 10th place at Split 1, over 3 seconds back. Other notable mentions go to Remi Thirion, who showed his pace when it gets rough and rocky with 6th place at the first time check, and Timothy Bentley, a PMB local who pipped Andrew Neethling to the second placed South African at split 1 by 0.011 seconds!

Sector 2, aka 'the pedal section'

Probably one of the most talked about sections of any World Cup race course, although not for the right reasons! Like it or not, to win at PMB you **have** to be in the mix on Sector 2 to be in with a chance. It was where the eventual top 3 put down a big gap between them and the rest of the field. Mick Hannah went fastest to haul himself up from 10th to 3rd at split 2. He put down an impressive marker but Minnaar and Gwin were able to hold on, only 0.5 and 0.65 seconds back respectively.

Behind them, there was a big gap back to Sam Dale who put in an impressive effort as did Marcelo Gutierrez Villegas who recovered from a poor 24th fastest at split 1 to go 5th fastest in Sector 2. From Dale back, there there was only a further two seconds to 20th place, so the gap that Hannah, Minnaar and Gwin created here would prove crucial.

Sector 3

A short sharp 40 second sprint to the finish but still all to be won and lost as was shown by Minnaar pipping Hannah last year. Mick showed he had learned his lesson and powered on through the final sector to go fastest yet again but it wasn't enough to overhaul Gwin, who was less than half a second back and took the overall win by almost exactly two seconds. Even before Gwin came down the hill, Hannah said in a hotseat interview that he thought his top section was a little slow and he was proved right. Whilst he closed the gap slightly it was always going to be tough to pull back such a big deficit.

Whilst there was to be no last gasp change at the very top of the leaderboard there was plenty of movement further down. Mick Hannah did get some sort of revenge over Greg Minnaar on the final run into the finish for a start. This year it was Minnaar's turn to fall away, only going 11th fastest, 1.1 seconds slower than Hannah and giving away the second spot on the podium.

Loic Bruni pipped Troy Brosnan to 4th place with the 4th fastest Sector 3, enough to erase the tenth of a second gap at Split 2. Sam Dale also did enough to overhaul Neko Mulally and take 7th place overall with the 8th fastest final sector whilst Mulally could only go 19th fastest.

Steve Peat also showed he still has world class pace with 7th fastest, only a second behind Hannah, whilst Sam Blenkinsop showed the power that he has developed in the last couple of seasons with the third fastest Sector 3.

Was it the pedal what won it?

For once we can confidently say that this race wasn't won and lost in Sector 2. All the riders know the score at PMB these days and the top riders are all physically well equipped for the pain in the middle of this race. Whether it was the course changes or not it's pretty obvious that this race was decided Sector 1. Aaron Gwin took his 650b Enduro through the rocks significantly faster than anyone else other than Loic Bruni, and then stayed on the pace for the rest of the race. Whilst Hannah was quick lower down, he was never going to make up a gap like that, and Minnaar perhaps felt a slight lack of time on the bike over the off season in the final sector.

The heatmap shows that Minnaar and Hannah both had one relatively poor section, placing 10th or 11th whilst Gwin kept the pressure on the whole way down, never placing lower than 3rd on an individual sector.

Finally, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the riders in the overall top 20 that had the biggest discrepancy between their placing on Sector 1 & 3 times combined, and on Sector 2. It makes for some interesting reading. The steeper the line, the bigger the difference with an upward slope showing that they went relatively better on the pedal, and a downward slope indicating they performed best elsewhere.

Clearly Remi Thirion is the starkest example with 11th place if the race was run only on Sectors 1 & 3 but 52nd in Sector 2 (I'm not sure if Remi had a problem in the middle part of the course, just pointing out the placings!). Up at the top end, Loic Bruni and Sam Hill also lost out on the pedal. Bruni was 2nd fastest overall in Sector 1 & 3 but only 12th in Sector 2 whilst Hill was 7th and 18th respectively.

As for gainers, Sam Dale's 4th on the pedal stands out but Aurelien Giordanengo and Matt Simmonds also gained a lot on the pedal with low 20s positions in Sectors 1 & 3 but 10th and 11th places respectively in Sector 2. Perhaps the most puzzling performance of the weekend was that of Gee Atherton. Was he feeling off colour with the same illness as his sister or was he simply off the pace? His line here is relatively flat, and the heatmap pretty consistent, showing he was around top 10 in all sectors. It will be interesting to see how he picks things up in Cairns in a fortnight.

So we're off and running for the World Cup 2014. As much as everyone likes to moan about Pietermaritzburg, it's produced some tight fast racing in the last couple of years and hopefully that will continue all the way through the season. Will we see a repeat of Gwin's 2011/12 domination or have the rest got what it takes to run him closer this time? I can't wait to find out!