fort william world cup val di sole macdonald atherton smith
fort william world cup val di sole macdonald atherton smith

Twenty–one years on from the birth of the series, the 2013 six–event World Cup downhill circuit has began in the most stunning fashion...

From Dirt Issue 138 - August 2013

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Sven Martin, Sebastian Schieck, Victor Lucas and Steve Jones.

Featuring five European races, punctuated with a trip to North America mid–August and a showdown in Norway, the World Cup downhill season has already thrown up some stunners. Last year we were left with an Aaron Gwin legacy, the American having won nine of the previous fourteen events, he seemed to have an unassailable poise through the vast and varied landscapes that this series visits and all the rocks and high–speed mayhem in between.

He would have challengers in Greg Minnaar (obviously) and Gee Atherton, both powerful podium finishers; and others in Steve Smith, Brook Macdonald, Danny Hart, Loic Bruni, Josh Bryceland and Cam Cole… brilliant… yet all of whom have struggled to string together some form of consistency, let alone wins. Nevertheless, Brook and Stevie Smith had succeeded at the highest level in 2012, soaring to the heights and latitudes of Val d’Isere and Hafjell respectively. They were fully expected to bring some kind of battle to the new Specialized star for 2013.

By mid Saturday afternoon on June 8th at Fort William it became clear that something was up. Gwin was down, way down. Minnaar was not firing either. They left northern Britain with an ultimatum having only scraped into the top twenty and ten respectively. Gee Atherton was trucking on and it seems like nobody is going stop either him or his little sister Rachel. This then is the on–going drama of the 21st year of World Cup racing.>>

[part title="JUGGERNAUT - GT FACTORY RACING"]

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.

Over the past five years Gee seems to have stolen ground from that most majestic of racers, Greg Minnaar, to achieve the highest podium percentages, 85.2% over the past five years. He is now a guy that wins races. This has taken almost a decade. Seven wins now since his first at Schladming back in 2004, and he’s been competing in World Cup’s for half their (WC) history.

What has allowed this to happen? The Atherton’s wintered well, riding hard tracks, long tracks, getting up to their necks in training, a well oiled race outfit with over a decade’s experience behind them. Crucially a new bike was made, and finally after many years they now had the machinery to compete within the hundredths of a second that separate a race win from the rest of the pack.

juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-9
juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-9

It’s not only hardware and solid training that has got them this far. Take for example just one of the staff – in Piotr Michaliszyn they have a spannerman thirsty for knowledge, if not a shade obstinate when questioned on frame geometries on race day (they’ve worked their digits out correctly and the team are collectively now dishing out a fair old number on the opposition). It’s great to see Gee now riding a bike that fits him and the measuring doesn’t stop on the bikes, for every race Gee appears to be getting his chassis measured up by the body managers, just one part of a huge team of workers behind the scenes that go into delivering the top position on the podium. How long will it last? The comfort will grow and the pressure will drop with each and every race… they seem fully destined to win this.

[part title="THE GWIN ULTIMATUM"]

juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-5
juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-5

It was fully being expected that the world series would pick up where it left off, that Gwin would have wintered well, kept warm in the sunny Californian climate and re–emerged to regain full control. His four on the trot in 2012 scooped the series in no uncertain terms. This young star that had risen in the space of three years had established himself as one of the greatest downhill racers ever. He had learned to close down events, usually dominating both quali’s and finals.

Check for a minute the timescale. The season’s opener at Fort William was a month short of a full year since Gwin had his last win in Windham. A lot happened since that event. Injury, bike, tyres, team and manager changes, fallout from the move from Trek to Specialized – how had these affected his preparations?

There is a theory that Gwin actually went into free fall before the year began. He got injured at Val d’Isere, a mechanical at Leogang Worlds, another crash in Hafjell. Autumn saw internal troubles being spilled across the internet and the cut with Trek, a bike and team with whom he had gained major, major success with. The fall out was considerable. How much did that affect him?

The dust had settled. Gwin was picking away at his preparation for the season and he opened in grand fashion by winning Sea Otter. Whilst the rest of the World headed to Italian Riviera rocks, Gwin rocked up on a 29er Enduro and smoked them. Theory 2 – had wheel size changes affected his perception of speed?

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.

Another theory is that Gwin himself believed that he had an unassailable grip on world downhill. Complacency and confidence. Interrelated but worlds apart. How could a rider so far ahead fail to be anywhere else but at the top?

Gwin partly answered his critics in Val di Sole. Yes questions remained over his choice of bike and preparation. Why had the team turned up in Fort William without taking in some form of major winter training? Why had he not tried a range of sizes on the Specialized Demo? Why had he gone to a smaller bike with inherently less space and stability? Why had it taken him and the team until Val di Sole to discover this?

Was it a woman, had he got on the beer Kovarik/Rennie style? Was it food poisoning? Whatever, in Val di Sole having plummeted to some depth he made a remarkable turnaround to briefly lead the race. Swapping over to a large Demo with more space up front and began to arm wrestle the quali’s leading the first two splits before narrowly losing out to Gee by a second over the three minute course. A major improvement to the nine–second Fort William mauling. Gwin pulled out an almost identical final run time but it was not enough when the top ten had upped their game by on average three to four seconds. It was a very different story to the nine–second bruising he dished out last year.

That said he still remains one downhill’s most successful racers, but for downhill’s sake we all hope he’s not just the most fiercely burning star that’s ever been.

[part title="THE KIT – 650, FRAME SIZE AND ALL THAT"]

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.

Reality proved vastly different. There remains a certain reluctance to change amongst many racers worrying more about their shades, tats and team kit to worry about going faster. Progression for many is a curve too steep to climb. Of the bigger teams only the Gstaad Scott and SC Intense turned up with some up to date offerings in wheel evolution (and lets no forget Ben Ried and his Norco). It certainly must have aided Noel Niederberger in his FW win and VDS quali performances but certainly played with Brendan Fairclough’s mind who swapped between the two wheel sizes and also flats and clips. But then it’s no secret what type of thrashing Brook MacDonald can do on the former type of footwear. Good to see a bit of pedal banter back in the mix. Joe Connell and Lewis Buchanan were good for their top thirty places on the 27.5 Intense bikes.

The bigger question hangs around rider size and bike. Steve Smith (6’) appears to have things covered on the large size Wilson. Yet MacDonald (5’ 11") now rides a bike smaller (a large Trek Session) than his previous Mondraker – could/should he go larger? Meanwhile Rachel Atherton is riding a bike larger than Gwin’s (5’11") large Demo – and even the Demo is the largest production carbon large there is – and appears to be increasing her winning margins. Maybe the bigger story lies in the hardware used by six foot plus riders.

juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-3
juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-3

GT/Intense/Scott have allowed themselves to be far more open to change by using aluminium. This marks a change from the rigid moulds and inflexibility that carbon has to follow and might just place those riders in a better position come the Worlds in South Africa. Except by then I fully believe there will be major change of tune all around the pits.

[part title="A MATTER OF WINNING - BUT BEFORE THAT COMES RELIABILITY"]

2013 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Fort William June 7th
2013 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Fort William June 7th

Minnaar, Atherton, Gwin are the names that have underpinned World Cup racing for the last three years. Assuming the latter gets his act back together it looks unlikely to change. For a series laced with star players it’s a picture of watery performances from the big names. More than this, the masterpiece runs have been the preserve of those three riders alone. As mentioned before, there have been exceptions (Beaumont, MacDonald, Smith). A paltry three alternative wins out of twenty races. Winning at the highest level is an almost singular sport requiring a poise and game at a quite different level. Few appear capable of such composure in the current rankings. Steve Smith could well be the exception this season.

It’s been four years since the days when Hill, Peaty, Hannah, Barel had some consistency on the podium too. Are we possibly in a transition similar to ten years ago when Vouilloz (the first man to win a World Cup) left the sport? A brief season dominated by Gracia, Pascal and Rennie – all still involved on varying levels at World Cups.

What those guys had in common was stability (hell I can’t even believe I’m typing that) and it proved that in an odd year the odd win might see you through. Unless this year turns out as peculiar as that (unlikely) then probably not, but back to that second tier under the business of winning comes the basics of podium performances, the groundwork upon which to launch a winning effort. Consider for a moment that Steve Smith for the first time ever has now put in back to back podiums, here in FW and VDS. He’s the man that’s injected some steel into the first few rounds and needs to follow up in Andorra. MacDonald, Sam Blenkinsop, Beaumont, Cole have only once managed back–to–back podiums. At the moment these are not the material of title challenges.

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Ft William, Scotland.

In retrospect expectancy must have weighed heavy on all of them. They must learn to work on their finishing, to close a race down in the same way as some need to identify feeling fast from actually being fast. It was a far from polished start from many of the future stars.

Strong stuff, but even Gee commented as he headed for his final practice run in Val di Sole, “I’d swap those high podium stats for a few more wins any day."

[part title="INTERNATIONAL BULLET PROOF TALENT – THE JUNIOR WORLD SERIES"]

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.

The Brits are flying too. GT Factory rider Vernon has had a troubled few races but the experience will have been priceless and he will no doubt straighten himself out over the next few months. Phil Atwill and Mike Jones were strong at FW, so to Aussie Dean Lucas and France’s Loris Vergier, the FW podium decided over five seconds. Atwill again stormed hard to win the VDS quali’s losing out by a tenth in the finals yet both pretty good for top twenty overall or thereabouts. American Luca Shaw forced his way back in and so to the almost local Gianluca Vernassa, our host for our recent carbon DH test in San Romolo – team mate to none other than Steve Smith.

at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.
at the 2013 UCI MTB World Cup. Val Di Sole, Italy.

REASONS TO REGROUP

juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-17
juggernaut world cup fort william val di sole-17

Many scored to settle. Minnaar and Rachel Atherton will be looking to equal Steve Peat’s World Cup record, Gwin to get back in the mix, yet with a couple of big names somewhat struggling to find composure the time has never been  right for Smith, MacDonald, Hart, Bruni, Brosnan, Brycleand, Blenki, Charre, Ragot, Pugin and Nicole to stick in some performances. Maybe what will happen is a ruck of action from these names over the summer months with riders taking risk, throwing down some wild ones to get in and amongst the action. This alone might not be enough to overhaul the GT juggernaut.