2012, Val D’Isere. The World Cup comes to a new French circuit on the back of a stagnant 12 races with honours shared between Gwin and Minnaar.
Gwin was raising the game and only the most successful male racer ever could keep up. Val D’Isere was totally new a new challenge though – bald, steep and cambered, it needed a unique combination of strength and skill to break the code.
Brook MacDonald was in the groove coming into the season. In 2011, he had picked up three podiums racing on an Evil and was hot property.
Mondraker hadn’t won a World Cup since the Summum first emerged under Fabien Barel in Maribor in 2009 and, in Brook and the MS team, they thought they’d found a combination that was destined to take their stretched-out ride to the top spot once again.
But, by his own admission, Brook was enduring a pretty torrid season on the new bike. He was struggling to find form, not massively enjoying riding and crashing out in almost every race. In an attempt to get back up to speed, he flew out early to Val D’Isere to get in some much needed practice. It proved to be absolutely crucial.
The French mountainside delivered carnage on a short, physical course. With rain and thunder throughout the weekend, Aaron Gwin crashed twice and ended up needing stitches in his hand. In the race, there were huge spills for Tracey Hannah, Nick Beer and Spagnolo, who seemed to be on a winner before skittering off course.
On flat pedals, Brook seeded third and then knocked six seconds off that time on race day to land himself in the hotseat by half a second from Gee. All eyes turned to top seed Cam Cole in the start gate but it was the Bulldog that would have the honour of claiming the second ever Kiwi World Cup win.
At 22, Brook grabbed his first World Cup win incredibly young (a good three years younger than Hart) but he was never given the opportunity to kick on and make the most of it. An off-season saw a big move to Trek and the impossible task of filling Gwin’s shoes where Brook remained a podium threat but another switch to GT saw his form seemed to dwindle and slip – an eighth at Mont Sainte Anne was his best result in blue and yellow.
Brook has now returned to Mondraker six years on and will no doubt be expecting to pick up where he left off. At just 26-years-old his best years are still theoretically ahead of him and sometimes there’s nothing better than a change of team to revitalise a rider. He wont have it all his own way though, and two young Brits will be keeping him on his toes.
After that World Champs run in Val Di Sole, it has felt like Laurie Greenland was downhill’s heir-in-waiting. A quietly successful season last year saw him take his first podium in Lenzerheide backed up with two sixth places. Pin him down for an assault on the box at every round next year.
Add to him Mike Jones. So quiet he can sometimes almost be forgotten altogether but overlook a lad who podiumed as a second year elite at your own risk. It’s been a tough couple of years for Jones but he’ll be coming into Mondraker with plenty to prove after not following the rest of the Chain Reaction Cycles team to enduro.
Let’s not get carried away though, with an average age of just 22.67, they are one of the youngest factory teams on the circuit. Specialized run them close at 23 but Santa Cruz (25.67), Trek (27.33), YT (25.33) all have a fair few years on them.
On paper, they’re also not the most successful trio either, just about able to boast ten podiums between them. Compare this to the 75 Minnaar has or the 100 + the Athertons share and it starts to look a bit shaky.
It’s a risk from the Spanish brand to plump for such young riders but all three tasted success as juniors and feel like old hands in the pits. Plus, downhill isn’t just about numbers. Belief, form and commitment can count for far more than past form up on the mountain.
The key stat here is that there are three hungry riders on a bike that’s a proven winner. MS Mondraker are sure to have other teams looking over their shoulders when we land in Croatia in April.