Cunny brings us his round up of the Downhill World Champs in Pietermaritzburg.
There has always been a lot of conversation about this track in South Africa. For some it is too pedally and doesn’t give enough of a challenge but in reality it just gives a different kind of challenge; demanding a lot from a riders physicality.
The early pace in the women’s race was set by BMX World Champion Caroline Buchanan who was first off, being unranked due to having not competed on a mountain bike at world level this year. Fellow Olympic BMXer, Jill Kintner, just pipped Buchanan’s time and not long after Tracey Hannah put in a solid run ahead of both of them.
The hot seat then stayed the same for a while, none of the usual big hitters of the world cup circuit like Siegenthaler, Pugin or Nicole were able to do much to displace the top positions. There was also big disappointment for former Junior World Champion Manon Carpenter who crashed on the top section of the track spoiling her chances of improving on last year’s Bronze medal.
The last two women down the hill have been in blistering form this year and frenchwoman Emmeline Ragot was fast as ever on the technical sections at the top of the track and put herself into the hot seat.
Rachel Atherton has been nothing short of dominant this year on the World Cup circuit and continued that form here with a race run that was in a league of it’s own. Not only was she the fastest on the technical sections but she also looked the most comfortable on the big jumps and put down more power than any of the other girls.
As a result she gained the second title which had been alluding her since she got her first in 2008.
In the men’s category, there had been a lot of talk about equipment with different wheel sizes being used and Aussie, Jared Graves, even riding an Enduro bike. With an early start time due to his commitment to Enduro this year rather than downhill, Jared set a blistering time. Despite being 24th at the first split, after the more technical section of the track, Jared put the bike to it’s perfect use, making it count on the smoother bottom section.
Matt Simmonds was the next really notable contender, storming down the hill with the kind of well-judged aggression we’ve seen him nearly make work so many times. Today it all came together and he’d obviously done his homework; running lightweight kit and semi slick tyres, he’d taken some risks but just the right ones.
Aaron Gwin once again couldn’t produce the form at the World Champs that has won him nine world cups, crashing out of contention. Sam Blenkinsop threw down an exhilarating run, pedalling right up to the lips of jumps and in the air, there was a true excitement in his riding that saw him just off the time of Graves by 0.4.
Mick Hannah knew this was the course that would suit him. Seeing it as his best shot at the title, he has focused on this event since it was announced.
He pedalled into sections where others couldn’t handle the speed, got wild on the fastest parts and had to squash the big jumps that had others pulling up to clear. It was a truly forceful run and saw him take the lead.
Whereas compatriot and three time World Champion, Sam Hill, always knew this track would not be his bag but even so, his horribly fast crash on the bottom section was even worse than he could have imagined.
Winning the worlds in his home country was so enticing to Greg Minnaar that he made this race the main focus of his year. His run was so monstrously fierce that one knew from the offset that it was going to challenge Hannah’s. When he was back at the split, it looked like he might not manage it. Despite looking visibly exhausted he dug so deep that he was able to pull back 1.26 seconds on the bottom section of the track to take the lead.
The last two riders down the hill could not match Greg’s time, Stevie Smith crashed on the first turn and knew instantly that he’d thrown it away so got up slowly despite being fine and just played around for the rest of his run. Gee Atherton was the last man down and looked like he was taking it a bit too steady compared with the ferocious runs by the other top riders.
And so Greg Minnaar defended his title and claimed his third set of rainbow stripes, becoming only the fourth rider to win back-to-back World Championships. A worthy winner on his home soil; he dedicated the win to his late South African team-mate Burry Stander, and former president Nelson Mandela, whose face was painted on the top of his helmet.
1 Greg Minnaar (South Africa) 3:58.058
2 Michael Hannah (Australia) +00.396
3 Jared Graves (Australia) +03.333
4 Samuel Blenkinsop (New Zealand) +03.746
5 Matthew Simmonds (Great Britain) +03.939
1 Rachel Atherton (Great Britain) 4:28.043
2 Emmeline Ragot (France) +08.632
3 Tracey Hannah (Australia) +12.395
4 Jill Kintner (USA) +13.425
5 Caroline Buchanan (Australia) +13.612