World Cup Finals, Schladming, Austria

It was a race that seemed to have all the ingredients for a classic showdown, where the precious tenths would be made up on a technical track in some of the darker root strewn corners of the Niedere Tauern, a mountain range south of Salzburg. A hot sunny day and an Englishman in charge of a commanding, and seemingly safe, lead in the series. ‘What if?’ had never even crossed anyone’s mind as Peaty and the rest of the Brits sipped some of the fizzy local Schladminger brew late in the week celebrating John Cheetham’s birthday. There was an underlying feeling that the Syndicate man was living dangerously, but nobody dared talk about it.

The reality of this final was quite flat. And a million miles from the unforgettable fireworks of Les Gets 2002 when Peaty shut down the series with an awesome display of nerve and style to take the race and series. It also left an indelible mark that will forever read: Peat 1st, Vouilloz 2nd, in the Frenchman’s final race.

Here in Austria Peaty was spitting with his performance and far from happy with a semi final run that set the nerves jangling and the team managers in search of calculators to tot up just what he had to do in his final run. For a warrior like him to finish top sixteen sounds easy enough but any sportsman in the world will tell you of the pressure of being put on the spot with so much at stake. He had everything to lose. But Minnaar had to win. Yet whilst the chances of the Santa Cruz star fluffing it or through a mechanical were remotely possible, as proved in this years nationals inches from the line, the chances of the South African behind the bars of what some regard as the fastest bike on earth winning were, as many pointed out, impossible.

The season closed down with it becoming quite clear who the fastest man on the hill is, and will be for the foreseeable future. Whilst his rivals optimistically comment that it’s only every now and again Sam Hill can pull out something special the clock is increasingly telling us that he is the only rider able to ride in this, his dimension. Even an error free Minnaar acknowledges that when everything drops into place for the Australian there is simply nothing he or anyone else can do about it. It started years ago mind you, Lugano Worlds 2003 gave us an idea, and had he stayed on would quite probably have beaten Minnaar for the fastest time of the day. Here in a rain sodden Schladming last year he managed to put eight seconds on Rennie. Several of the top ten that day still murmured that the clocks were wrong even up until this years final run. Pila ’05, after being out with an injury he came back and quite clearly asked questions on what the hell everyone was playing at by killing the entry by several seconds. There have been other moments for definite, either back in Australia or at the NORBA’s, it’s just that these seem to stick as well as the cut down mud tyres he used here on the Planai with such daunting Australian precision (even though they were drifting most of the time).

It may also signal a new era in racing. In a year when the six races have had five winners, and where the times of the top six or seven have been separated by mostly tenths, the very top have been remarkably dealing with the same time differences that track sprinters would be happy with. Just over two seconds separated the top five podium finishers in the five minute Mt St Anne race and two minute Brazilian events. Michael Johnson wore gold shoes because he simply knew that he was that much better than his rivals. Some might see the golden Iron Horse as a little bit cocky but the margins Hill is putting between the best in the World are simply massive. The talk will be of flat pedals, obviously, but like the bikes it is the riders not the pedals that win races. Three of the top five wore flats of course, but more than that, Brendan Fairclough’s fantastic fifth came off the back off a loose, enjoyable practice where he believed in his ability. Either that or someone whispered something in his ear. Whatever, it did the trick, and Fairclough in full flow was one of the sights in Schladming. The French on the other hand, once so dominant in this sport, are going through a lean patch. It is now several years since they held a World Cup and some time since they won one. Barel for the moment holds all the cards and even though Pascal put up a brave qualifying run he has lacked the finish he used to have. Gracia, in a class of his own in practice, just seems to burn down the candle gradually from day one practice to the finals, where very often a different person seems to come out.

But what a season for downhill, from the moment back in May when Hannah stirred it up in Spain and the Honda spat off Minnaar. Some have said that it is only the inconsistency and bad luck of Hill and Barel that Peaty has won this series, but it is almost unheard of for a racer to dominate so quickly on new machinery and until Austria he was the only rider to podium every race, and given the ridiculous closeness of the current top seven or eight, where even a missed pedal stroke or line can cost three places, it’s a mark of consistently close to perfect riding. Nerves must obviously have played a part in Schladming, true he made heavy weather of it, but he had enough in the tank to bring it home. He got the job done and that’s all that matters. A flimsy final run of the year was not what the Sheffield man wanted but it will simply be like pouring petrol onto the ‘07 fires. Even Barel fears that Steve will only get quicker as he tunes in increasingly to the VPP.

Here on the Planai though, in this time sunny Schladming, the sour pusses were well and truly button lipped. This was after all massive. The familiar sounds of gasps from those watching of a rider truly ripping the living daylights out of one of the hardest world cup tracks echoed around the finish.

There was almost an air of disbelief (again) as the clock registered a three second lead at the split, a discomfort must have filled the hearts of the top ten as they sat and wondered. Emerging onto the lower slopes clearly having very little business with his brakes the fastest racers in the world braced themselves because they could see that there was no way it would only be three seconds as Hill hit the berms horizontal, carved Carmichael like in the corners. Little needed to be said it seemed. It was fair sport and nobody it seems had an answer for it.

Tracy Moseley has been the alcoholic party girl of the season. Drowned in champagne for much of the year she has shown the series how to smile and how to win. The clocks will also show that she downed the Schladming magnum in as close a time to her daft and rather better known drinking compatriot Steve Peat.

But hell it took you long enough Moseley. But sort it out she did and this win has been the most long awaited in downhill. Kaprun was a tough session for Tracy back in 2003 and the hangover shouldn’t have lasted quite as long as it did, but necking magnums aside I doubt she’ll have felt a thing on Monday morning other than joy and relief. It’s been a year where she has dealt with her demons and taken on the pressures. Most of all she has smiled.

The battle has raged all year, obviously, and like Peat she had no real room for error in the final over the World Champion Sabrina Jonnier. The rest of the class seemed to be feeding off the scraps of nerves left by the pair as they went from one side of the globe to the next not really letting one another out of each others sight as they managed tight margins. Where the women’s class was once a done thing, with the unbeatable AC Chausson, it has now become every bit as competitive as the men’s, and with Rachel Atherton getting stronger and Griffiths and Gaskell getting a grip there could be more to come.
When Tracey pulled on the black leaders top at the end of this race there was clear relief that it had been finally decided. There was talk of retiring, which would be terrible because Moseley has demonstrated the spirit of racing that brings very real drama to the sport. This involves dealing with the dark sides, the highs and the lows, all the bloody questions and black tops, and the doubts that she could ever drink quite like that.

Biting his tongue and reluctantly shaking the hand of a rider that had taken out his brother in the semi finals, Dan Atherton showed visible signs of simmering some time after the event that people involved in other, more head to head contact sports, would have forgotten about ages ago.

Taken out, sorry I’ll begin again…When Joost Wichman put the squeeze on Gee Atherton in the final berm as he was holding onto second place the Animal rider kicked the air in disbelief at the treachery of such a move handed out by the racer who eventually came fifth overall in the series. After all it apparently crossed the line of what is and is not acceptable, it’s not the first time, or the last, and the crowds loved it.
Even though 4X is not a contact sport the fact that it can be on these rare moments is really what the crowds come to see. Brian Lopes not contesting the losers final in this years Worlds because of what he saw as a ‘take out’ is the kind of hands in the air reaction footballers do on average every minute. Just imagine if an ‘anything goes’ rule was applied it would be absolutely fantastic. A bit of fisticuffs might actually do the sport some good. The tracks might then actually be designed for real head to head racing, politeness might take a different form, after all, what kind of kamikaze move are people thinking might happen by those dealing the card? A foul is a foul for sure but need it be quite so clean? The sulking would–be superbitches/blokes (usually the ones that rarely reach the quarters) that protest to the littlest form of shoulder rubbing, may even find themselves with something more substantial to chew on.

Imagine it, Gracia would put on his pre race show that only he seems able to pull off, the trumpets would pipe up and the Go–Go girls would shake it up before four men in body armour, eyes hidden behind full face helmets, charge off a near vertical start ramp for forty minutes of, well, fastest rider, cleverest evader wins.

It’s actually very difficult to see just how good Prokop and Kintner are at this sport. It takes such a keen eye to appreciate the undoubted sublime skill that they engage to ride ground like the combination set in Schladming that is goes largely unnoticed. This can be illustrated by the fact that the majority of the crowd and photographers congregated on a flat off–camber right hander and the finish.

Kamil Tatarkovic took a well received win in the men’s and Fionn Griffiths an equally surprising win in the women’s final that will do her CV the world of good. 4X concluded with great entertainment. Kovarik smoked the qualifiers then decided not to ride, Prokop arrived late and many believed he lost because he didn’t know his lines, and the hand–bagging and website banter that followed this and the Worlds was equally as entertaining. Brilliant, can we have some more please? Steve Jones

A hot sunny day and an Englishman in charge of a commanding, and seemingly safe, lead in the series. ‘What if?’ had never even crossed anyone’s mind as Peaty and the rest of the Brits sipped some of the fizzy local Schladminger brew late in the week celebrating John Cheetham’s birthday.

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