The plot thickens. After a dominant first half of the season, Aaron Gwin’s rivals are gaining ground in a manner spookily similar to last season. Loic Bruni missed out on his maiden World Cup win by an agonising 0.2 second margin (it seems it’s not always an advantage to lose your chain…) but the early starts for the overall top 3 made for fascinating watching as the key factor became how many riders would slot in between Aaron Gwin, Minnaar and Bruni. As the top 10 came down the hill, each rider moving in between them closed the points gap in the overall and ramped up the pressure on Gwin going into the final two rounds.
So where did Gwin lose time, and more importantly where did Ratboy find the lines that took him back to the top step less than a year after his horrendous injury at the Worlds in 2014? Let’s take a look shall we?
After the short, tight, hot dusty racing racing of Lenzerheide we went headlong into the exact opposite at Mont Sainte-Anne. The physical course, “a brute” as Josh Bryceland put it, opened up some big time gaps. At split one the top 20 were separated by 8.6 seconds, compared to less than 6.5 seconds for the entire race in Switzerland.
Although the top 20 was spread out, the times were still tight at the top. Bryceland took the early lead with Bruni back by almost 1 second in second place and Brosnan only 1.4 seconds back in third. Minnaar was in touch in 5th place but Gwin was already over 5 seconds back in 8th place at split one and had a lot of work to do. The stand out performer though was Mark Wallace – never in the top 10 at a World Cup before, the Canadian was mixing it up with the big guns on his home turf in 7th place.
Coming into Sector 2 and Mark Wallace proved that sector 1 was no fluke as he hurtled into the middle rock section taking a wide left line and doubling over holes to take the fastest sector 2. This fast sector wasn’t enough for him to make a move in the overall positions at split 2 however. The times were very tight and there was surprising consistency of the top riders between sectors 1 and 2. Of the top 8 at split 1 only Josh Bryceland was outside the top 8 for sector 2 so the overall positions didn’t see much movement. There was one big change at the top though with the swapping of first and second places. Josh Bryceland had to make a small dab in the rock section and could only go 10th fastest. He gave away 1.2 seconds to Bruni, enough to surrender the lead at this point. Apart from that, the only other movement in the top 8 was Minnaar hopping above Marcelo Gutierrez-Villegas into fourth place overall.
Into the final short sector; a mere 27 seconds but there was still time for some excitement. Just like the motorway in Fort William, it’s not the section itself that makes the gaps, it’s the punishing four minutes before that separate the men from the boys and only the fittest still have the legs and arms to keep up the pace.
Surprisingly Gee Atherton has never won at Mont Sainte-Anne in 11 attempts and he had a relatively poor day by his high standards, but he did have the reserves to go fastest on the bottom section in 2015. That was enough to move him up from 15th at split 2 to 12th at the finish. Sam Blenkinsop is also a man who is a regular near the top of the results in any pedally section and he delivered the goods again here with the 5th fastest bottom sector. Mark Wallace kept the home side cheering with the second fastest sector 3 and his best World Cup result to date in 6th.
The key times though were that of Josh Bryceland and Loic Bruni. Whilst Ratboy powered home only half a second behind Atherton, Loic Bruni had some cruel luck, losing his chain near the end of sector 2 and having to tuck and pump as best he could. Agonisingly for Bruni that was the difference between second and first place, giving away half a second to Bryceland and ultimately losing by 0.2 seconds. Disappointment for him, but still good enough to close the gap on Gwin in the overall.
One final rider to note – Sam Hill is still easing himself back in from injury but he just sneaked into the top 20 at the finish and hopefully it’s not too long until we see him climbing higher up the results sheet again…
Who can take the pressure?
25 years old and this venerable venue is still showing no signs of slowing down or letting up on riders. As we move in to the sharp end of the season we start to find out who can handle the pressure at the top of the overall. Gwin seems to have lost a little bit of momentum and it’s Bruni and Minnaar who have both outscored him in the last two rounds. With 200 points for a win, Loic Bruni is only 25 points behind Gwin and Minaar 70 points back. One thing to remember however, is that the next round is Gwin’s home race and he’s had two wins and a second place in his last three outings there. Another win for Gwin and he’ll be sitting pretty come Val di Sole. Another finish behind Bruni and Minnaar however and, to quote one successful football manager, it’ll be squeaky bum time come the World Cup final…