Amidst the pre season banter and gamesmanship it was expected that there would be some pulling of cards for the first few rounds. Certainly taking the well–documented benefits in speed and stability offered by the larger twenty seven five (27.5”/650) wheels was assumed to have been one such move by teams.
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.
From Beaumont (5’9” ish) to Minnaar (6’3”) and Payet (6’ 8”) there seems to be a vast range of rider sizes riding a narrow range of size bikes. Bearing in mind road bikes come in almost double the range of sizes then questions must be asked whether non–pro riders as well as the World Cup stars are actually being provided with the best fitting machinery needed. Certainly the Enduro World Series seems to be flagging up development ahead of DH at the minute. It’s now a decade since Fabien Barel began experimenting with bigger, longer bikes on his way to two World titles.
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”]
She’s won as many World Cup downhill races as Nico Vouilloz and Greg Minnaar and if she should win Andorra will match Peaty’s record of 17 World Cup wins. Not bad going for a girl living in deepest Wales. Rachel has very much found it, Emmeline Ragot and the chasing French team have not. Well not this year at least. It’s not so much a sorry state of affairs for the chasing pack but Atherton’s total grip on her game. It’s not so clear–cut in the men’s class.
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.
This leaves the three B’s: Brosnan (Troy), Bruni (Loic) and Bryceland (Josh), and Danny Hart. On paper they have even less of a legacy on the series. The Aussie and French star appear to have the game (remember Bruni lost two seconds in first sector but recovered to podium and could have won in Val di Sole) and now need to deliver the winning ride, along with Hart who had such a strong season last year before getting bust. Bryceland remains an enigma unexplained and even Hart seems to have temporarily lost some menace in his stride – or is this the new–found control of a future champion?
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.”