UCI World Downhill Championships: Pietermaritzburg 2013
In the world of cycling the UCI World Championships enjoys an almost mythical status. For our chosen discipline of downhill we have no Olympics, no X–Games, and thus the World Championships is our biggest one–day, one–off, yearly race. Words by John Parkin and photos by Sven Martin, Sebastian Schieck and Victor Lucas.
In the world of cycling the UCI World Championships enjoys an almost mythical status. For our chosen discipline of downhill we have no Olympics, no X–Games, and thus the World Championships is our biggest one–day, one–off, yearly race...
Taken From Dirt issue 140, October 2013
Winning the World Cup overall might gain you more respect from your peers, but there is something altogether more special about the title ‘World Champion’. It does not reward those who are consistent all season, rather the one rider who is able to deal with the pressure and puts together that perfect race run, irrespective of weather conditions, style of track, time of day or phase of the moon.
To be World Champion is to be part of an exclusive group and there are not many who have achieved the heady heights of its glory. Sam Hill, Gee Atherton, Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar in recent years, there are many world class downhill racers who have enjoyed long and successful careers while never gaining entry to the rainbow stripes club.
The location of three World Cups in recent years, Pietermaritzburg has become a regular stop for the circuit. Always provoking at least a little bit of controversy, there is no mountain or chairlift in Kwazulu Natal, the Zulu kingdom having to make do with a hill and minibusses instead. The early attempts at organising a World Cup in PMB were marred by uplift issues but by 2013 these had been completely resolved and the drive up the N3 in the back of a minibus is now a familiar one for the riders.
At 3.14 km long, with only a scant vertical drop, the course builder Nigel Hicks has done an extremely impressive job of working with what he has, and the track that greeted the riders on coursewalk day was hugely improved over the first PMB course from 2009. While still the flattest and most pedally course on the circuit by some margin, the track also holds the title of highest average speed, with flow and maintenance of velocity being the name of the game.
To tuck or to pedal, to sit down or to stand up – these are not questions normally asked at a mountain bike World Cup, but PMB is all about these marginal gains. Vent holes cut in peaks, size medium jerseys for those who usually wear large, gaffer tape over laces and curvaceous number board mounts - everyone tries at least something to cheat the wind. All well and truly within the rules, of course.
While many racers experience a hometown race of sorts (Steve Peat in Fort William, Mick Hannah in Canberra, Fabien Barel in Les Gets) these are all relatively tenuous links compared to Greg Minnaar’s connection to PMB. Born, raised and still living there now, ‘maritzburg is very much Greg’s home. The track mere minutes from his house, Greg enjoys the luxury of sleeping in his own bed the night before the UCI World Downhill Championships. The legion of fans known as the ‘One Life’ crew may occasionally follow Greg around the world but the numbers present in South Africa are quite a sight to behold. With this hometown advantage of sorts comes also what must be a truly immense amount of pressure for Mr Minn.
Having won here twice in the past, this army of fans expect nothing less than a repeat performance, and as Greg himself will tell you, winning a downhill race against this level of competition is no mean feat. An off–season of specific training, added to a base fitness achieved over a lifetime, plus meticulous preparation of equipment and incredible mental strength, are something that Greg shares with all his main competitors. It is what you do on top of these things that separates the riders come race day.
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An unavoidable topic of conversation this year is the (seemingly) perennial question: Does size really matter? 26", 27.5" ish or 29"? Who would have thought a couple of years ago that all three wheel sizes would be raced in a UCI Downhill World Championships? The internet may have been a–buzz with arguments, rants and even the occasional discussion, but still nobody really knew who was taking what to World Champs.
Of the main contenders, Stevie Smith and Nick Beer aboard their Devincis had made the most effort. Completely custom, one–off, World’s specific bikes, their 650B 165mm travel machines were the culmination of a year–long project to fabricate the perfect vehicle for the PMB track. The size of the grins on both Stevie and Nick’s faces after the first day of practice showed how successful the project had been. Confidence was high in the Devinici camp, and the Dave Weagle designed bikes were considered a complete success.
Few of the other top teams had made such a concerted effort with their World Champ’s bikes. Lighter weight build kits, semi–slick tyres and air shocks were the extent of the modifications most had on display. Among the wild cards for the race things got a bit more interesting. Jared Graves and Mitch Ropelato had both opted to try something a little different. Jared with his carbon Yeti SB66c bike and Mitch with his Specialized Enduro 29er.
Having raced this bike all season at the newly formed Enduro World Series, Graves professed to feeling much more comfortable on the little bike than his standard DH sled. Openly admitting that it was a compromise, Jared was willing to concede time on the more technical top section in return for what he felt was a massive advantage on the pedal section towards the bottom end of the track. Much more of an unknown entity, ‘Rope–a–dope’ enjoys riding his wagon wheeler and figured he might as well try something at World Champs. Having raced the bike at numerous occasions throughout this season, if there were any able to take advantage of the largest wheel size on offer, Mitch could well be that person. And while the internet practically went into meltdown when Mitch’s bike choice was revealed, Specialized team mechanic Jacy had a rather more level headed approach, “The most important thing is racing what you are comfortable on, pretty much any bike can be fast as long as the rider is happy".
Rachel Atherton talked after the race about one of the biggest obstacles for a rider at World Champs, especially one in the southern hemisphere, is a lack of the ordinary routine. Strange practice time scheduling, scorching hot winter days that confusingly got dark at 4:30pm and the absence of the infrastructure that all of the big teams have present at all European and North American races, it was the rider most able to deal with these changes that would triumph come Sunday afternoon.
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Official course walk on Wednesday was far from the first time most people had seen the track, with many people arriving as early as the previous week to acclimatise to the African weather. What greeted the riders can only be described as a dust bowl. A PMB winter is somewhat different to a rainy European one and the complete and utter lack of any moisture whatsoever had left the track extremely dry. What had once been relatively simple turns were now made exponentially more difficult with the fine dust covering practically the length of the track from top to bottom.
The hard baked surface was deteriorating rapidly with chunks the size of tennis balls becoming dislodged by the foot traffic. As practice commenced, this deterioration accelerated with holes the size of 26" wheels growing almost as fast as the trees on the pedally section. Quite how it is possible for trees to grow 25 feet in the space of 12 months is beyond me, but hey, TIA. This infamous flat drag of previous years, once a barren landscape, was now densely forested. Where 2012 had faced the riders with a seemingly never–ending and somewhat brutal pedalling section, the increased tree cover at least gave the impression of a reduction in length.
Another of the changes from the norm of the World Cup schedule was the removal of qualifying and it being replaced by ‘Mandatory Timed Training’. Having been in place for several years at the UCI World Downhill Championships, with riders seeded before the event based on their UCI standings, the timed training session is still somehow a topic of slight confusion. Riders have to start the run in order to be able to complete on Sunday, but apart from that fact it is merely an approximate gauge of speed. Head games and sneaky tricks abound in the timed run, with certain people going all out in one section of the track and coasting another and some adding in an intentional brake check to mask their true speed. While it may be a good indication of who is on form and on pace, it is merely that, an indication.
While the weather had been consistent up until that point, the heavens opened on Thursday night, but not with a torrential rainstorm as predicted, rather as if the rain gods had thought the track could merely do with an even sprinkling overnight to dampen down the dust. Perfect tacky conditions greeted the riders on Friday morning, an abundance of grip plastered huge grins on the faces of much of the field.
Mick Hannah has been focussing on this race for a full two years now, knowing the high speed nature of Pietermaritzburg suits his strengths as well as any track is ever likely to. Talking to Mick during this season has revealed a quiet confidence regarding this race and setting the fastest first sector time in timed training showed that ‘Sick Mick’ was on pace. The surprise result was the young man in second place, on what some people might consider to be practically a cross country bike.
Mitch Ropelato had piloted his 29" wheeled bicycle faster than anyone had predicted. While Mitch may have been openly confident, such a spectacular result surprised even him. And in first? Moustachioed Canadian hipster, Stevie Smith. With only two 26" wheeled bikes in the top six, there was serious concern that the entire internet might well implode. The wheel size debate had seemingly been put to bed, those on 26" bikes were clearly off the pace.
Rumours were flying in the pits, with nobody quite sure who had done what and where in their timed runs. Hannah had put in the fastest top sector and then coasted the rest, not wanting to take anything out of his legs before Sunday’s impending effort. Aaron Gwin punctured and thus did not post a time. Sam Hill crashed and coasted down. And had Greg Minnaar really executed a three second brake check somewhere in the woods? One thing was clear, nobody had put all of their cards on the table.
The Junior guys have enjoyed a separate race all season at the World Cups and World Champs was no different. On a completely different schedule all week, they walked the course a day early, practiced on their own and raced on Friday morning. With a disappointing field of only five girls, the Junior women’s category was completely dominated by Tahnee Seagrave. Tahnee has been putting in solid results racing with the elite women all season, and a seven second advantage stamped her authority on the event.
[part title="Pietermaritzburg Downhill World Championships 2013: Hometown Hero Part 2"]
All of the top men’s challengers had made their respective national teams and were present in PMB. With last years champion Loic Bruni moving on to the Elite class for 2013, the stage was set for a new winner. Aussie Dean Lucas is leading the World Cup standings, but could only manage a fifth place. Taking a second place last year, Yeti’s Richie Rude was hot favourite and the huge powerhouse didn’t disappoint! Only 4th place at the first split, and out of the top 20 at the speed trap, Richie left himself with a lot of work to do on the lower slopes. Powering his way along the pedal, the young American pulled all of time back and then some, crossing the line with more than a 7 second advantage. Richie was seen wearing his rainbow stripes and a massive grin for the rest of the weekend!
As the sun rose over Pietermaritzburg on Sunday morning, the world’s best awoke, all with the knowledge that a less than perfect run was not going to cut it. World Champs is always exciting, but the combination of circumstances that had led to this point made this one feel a little more open. Would the gamble pay off for Jared? Would Greg stand up to the immense pressure? Would Mick’s training and focus lead to success? Would Stevie take advantage of his custom bike? Would Gee continue his amazing run of results? Would Ropelato pull something incredible out of the bag? All of these and more lay unanswered.
The weird scheduling at World Champs came to a head on race day, where the originally planned 30 minutes of training time was deemed to be in breach of a UCI rule which states that there must be a minimum of 90 minutes of practice on the day of a race. Unfortunately for the DH riders, the newly created XC Eliminator event was using the finish line area and thus while the practice was extended for the requisite 90 minutes, the final 2 jumps of the track were closed off.
This situation was completely farcical, the top riders in the world having to pull of the course before the last corner on the day of the biggest race of the season. Hopefully the riders and team managers made enough of a fuss for this situation not ever to be repeated. The fact that there were no marshals on course for the practice session only served to add to the insanity.
With the juniors having raced on Friday, it was straight into the women. The top girls have really stepped up their game this year, and the addition of BMX World Champion Caroline Buchanan into the mix helped increase the level of competition. After a long list of injuries Tracey Hannah was finally back on form and at almost full strength. Beating Buchanan's early time, Hannah took the hot seat and looked to be in a strong position.
CLICK THROUGH TO VIEW PART two OF THE UCI WORLD DOWNHILL CHAMPIONSHIPS: PIETERMARTITZBURG 2013 GALLERY BEFORE READING ON...
For a while nobody came close, and it was only when Emmeline Ragot came across the line 3.7 seconds up that Tracey had to vacate her seat. Emmeline had taken a win away from Rachel Atherton at the last World Cup, and laid down a solid run to put the pressure on Rach. Manon Carpenter has been solid all season, and has run Rach close on more than one occasion. A crash near the start saw Manon cruise down, well off the pace. Having been a crazy 16 seconds faster in timed training than anyone else, it was evident that Rachel Atherton had plenty in the tank. Passing split two with a full 8 seconds in hand, it would have taken an act of god to stop the inevitable happening. She crossed the line safely and took the rainbows by a huge margin. A truly impressive performance from Miss Atherton, and utterly deserving of the title ‘World Champion’.
The first of the serious contenders in the men’s class was Mitch Ropelato on his 29er speed machine. A tiny mistake saw him go down in the first turn, dashing all hopes of a true big wheeler making the podium. Even with the crash, a top ten middle split time showed that Mitch could have pulled one out of the bag. Next up was Jared Graves, with a decent top split and a spectacular bottom two thirds, Jared settled himself in the hot seat, hoping the time would hold long enough for him to get a medal. Rider after rider went close at the first split, only to lose swathes of time down below.
The only two riders to really challenge were Matt Simmonds and Sam Blenkinsop. Simmonds on his custom painted, but pretty much stock Nukeproof, risking semi slick tyres on both ends, putting in an incredible performance to take fifth place on the day and fastest Brit. Sam Blenkinsop was on an altogether more custom bike, with his Lapierre running 650b wheels. One of the few teams alongside Devinci who had actually done testing on the bigger wheels prior to the race. fourth place on the day for the Kiwi was an impressive result for a rider who has struggled in recent years. It is great to see Blinky back on form. It was beginning to look as if Jared's little bike was paying off with only six riders left when Mick Hannah powered out of the gate. Smashing the first sector and holding onto his lead on the pedal section, Mick was onto a good run and sprinted his way across the line three seconds up. Riding a full on DH bike, Mick had little in the way of modifications. Simply riding the bike he had been on all year faster than anyone else at that point. Loic Bruni wasn’t able to make an impression and finished the day out of the top 10.
Sam Hill was off pace as well, and looking tired he had a high speed over the bars crash on the final rock garden into the finish section. Sam was lucky to be able to get up and walk away from such a gnarly collision with the ground. It was beginning to look as if Mick might have done enough, when hometown hero Greg Minnaar took to the start gate, the third to last rider to go.
A master of consistency, before he even set off down the PMB track Greg was a two time World Champion, and had been on 69 World Cup and World Champs podiums to date, and it was this incredible consistency that he put on display. With the crowd whipped into a frenzy by the somewhat partisan commentary, Greg absolutely smashed the first sector, putting a full second into Hannah. All eyes were on the timing board above the finish, with it seeming almost impossible that he could hold onto this lead in the pedal against the powerhouse from Cairns. Red. The time had slipped slightly, but still within touching distance, anything was possible. As the light fell late in the day, chainsaws echoed through the valley, mingled with Vuvuzelas and screaming fans, all urging Greg to go faster. As he sprinted into view of the bottom of the hill, he looked fresh where Mick had looked tired, maybe his slight time loss in the middle sector was a calculated risk. Crossing the line the crowd erupted, the seemingly impossible had been achieved, Greg had pulled back the time to take a slender lead of 0.396 seconds. A nervous five–minute wait in the hotseat all that stood in front of him, the real work was done.
Now all eyes were on the big screen with only Steve Smith and Gee Atherton left at the top of the hill. Stevie had seemed to be relaxed all week, not suffering under the kind of pressure that must have piled down on Minnaar, but it was not to be. A simple mistake in the tricky first turn left Stevie and his hopes for a gold medal in the dust.
Riding straight through the finish and back up to his guesthouse, the incredible frustration he felt was palpable. Last man in the gate. Gee Atherton has been incredibly strong all season, and enjoys a healthy lead in the World Cup overall because of this, but South Africa did not agree with ‘Geeman’ this time round. Reports of stomach issues during the week seemed to be correct, as he looked down on power and never looked like a real challenger once he was on course. Losing a full four seconds over the 3km track, Gee had to settle for 7th place on the day, leaving Mr Minnaar to pull off something quite spectacular. Greg Minnaar had won in the UCI World Downhill Championships in his back garden, against quite incredible pressure, on his DH bike with 26" wheels.
The barriers at the finish were never going to be enough to stem the crush of the crowd, and the One Life crew descended on the finish arena, hoisting Greg atop their shoulders and proclaiming him their king. There is little left to say about the day from there. All the hype, all the gossip, all the predictions, no longer mattered. With a tear in his eye, Greg was quick to dedicate his win to fellow South African and good friend Burry Stander, who tragically lost his life on a training ride earlier this year. Back to back wins for Greg seal his place in the history books as one of the greatest to ever ride a downhill mountain bike. Congratulations Greg, you deserve it bru!
1. Greg Minnaar South Africa 3:58.058
2. Michael Hannah Australia 3:58.454 +00.396
3. Jared Graves Australia 4:01.391 +03.333
1. Rachel Atherton Great Britain 4:28.043
2. Emmeline Ragot France 4:36.675 +08.632
3. Tracey Hannah Australia 4:40.438 +12.395
1. Richard Rude Jnr USA 4:06.640
2. Loris Vergier France 4:12.367 +05.727
3. Michael Jones Great Britain 4:14.043 +07.403
1. Tahnee Seagrave Great Britain 4:52.001
2. Danielle Beecroft Australia 4:59.513 +07.512
3. Tegan Molloy Australia 5:11.449 +19.448