The 2020 Downhill World Cup was short, but spicy – these are our takeaways
© Bartek Wolinski
It's been short and sweet, but this year's downhill season sure did pack a lot of action into a thrilling month or so of racing. Here are our takeaways from a season that has been like no other.
For a while it seemed there would be no racing in 2020 but thankfully after some hard work from the UCI, venue organisers and of course the athletes we finally had tyres hitting the dirt in competitive action in the last month or so. Two Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Cup rounds and a World Championship may not seem like much but it still had us all enthralled and posed plenty of questions and answers along the way.
Downhill season recap
Here's what we think are the most important points to come from the racing in this shortened year.
1. A longer off-season meant more time to level up
While the lack of World Cup racing through spring into summer this year was a blow to pretty much everyone, it did offer one sliver of a silver lining. Staying at home due to lockdown measures across the globe meant an extended off-season for most of the downhill athletes. This long period allowed them to continue to work on their strength and fitness development in a stable environment.
And boy did some athletes see the benefits with performances when the season finally got underway in September. Younger riders such as Reece Wilson, Matt Walker and Nina Hoffman in particular benefited. The longer off-season generally meant that athletes were able to reach their potential by being afforded the time to work on their strengths and weaknesses on and off the bike.
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2. Tracey Hannah will be missed
After nine years of racing at the highest level, Australian racer Tracey Hannah decided to call it quits in terms of racing at World Cup events. Over her career she’s clocked up a whopping 43 podiums, six medals at World Champ level and scored her long-held career ambition of taking the women's World Cup overall in 2019.
Hannah's presence in the pits and in the women's field will be universally missed. Despite being a fierce competitor, the Australian has always been welcoming to those who have come into women's racing and there is huge respect from the other women towards her. Hannah's presence and friendship has certainly benefited some riders – Emilie Siegenthaler being the standout. Of course it should be pointed out that Hannah hasn't retired and she will continue to ride big at other competitions and events around the world.
Rob talks with Tracey Hannah at Fort William
3. Matt Walker is blossoming into the talent that he was destined to be
Britain's Matt Walker has quietly gone about his business since entering the senior ranks in 2018. The former Junior World Champ didn't have the hype of his peer Finn Iles of Canada but that's worked to the advantage of a rider who is studious in his approach to downhill racing. His professionalism sure bore fruit this year with him taking the World Cup overall title for the men. Not once was he out of the top five in the four World Cup races this year – a run that saw him place 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 3rd in that order.
So what explains his sudden emergence. Lots of hard work, including trying to get stronger, bigger and fitter with strength work off the bike since last year's season end. The power he's built has come through and then some. Add that to his already strong analytical riding craft and you have the perfect storm. A maiden World Cup win in 2021 is within his grasp.
Relive the downhill finals – Lousã
4. Greg Minnaar isn't done yet
Greg Minnaar is not called GOAT (Greatest of all time) for no reason. The 38-year-old is at on top of his game if his performances this season are anything to go by. At round three in Lousã, Minnaar took a decisive victory to bring his total World Cup victories to a whopping 22, and narrowly missed out on another win in Portugal in round four after France's Loïc Bruni pipped him to the post.
Greg Minnaar's winning DH run – Lousã race 1
Years of training, experience and racecraft mean that there’s likely more wins and podiums to come for this South African rider in 2021. In over two decades of racing, Minnaar has amassed three World Champion titles and three World Cup overalls. What's not to say he'll add to these.
5. The women’s field is the most competitive ever
The elite women’s field is closer and more unpredictable than ever before. Gone are the days where a win in the women’s race was between one or two of the usual names with massive time gaps back to the placings below.
Marine Cabirou may have benefited in winning races in 2019 from Rachel Atherton, Tahnée Seagrave and Myriam Nicole missing parts of that season but in the races this year Cabirou had Nicole and Seagrave competing alongside her. With two wins from the four rounds of this year's World Cup and two seconds in the other two, Cabirou showed she's competitive in her own right.
Nina Hoffmann and Camille Balanche also turned up the heat on the established names with impressive victories. Hoffmann's bagged a World Cup win at round two in Maribor, while Balanche had the run of her life to master Leogang's technical and muddy mess at the World Champs. The racing from the women was fast, dramatic and all-in, and we can’t wait to see what 2021 brings.
Nina Hoffmann's winning run – Maribor Race 2
6. Valentina Höll gave us a glimpse of what impact she'll have in the seniors
The Austrian sensation was psyched to be racing seniors this season. Vali Höll's pace in junior racing often matched and at times was better than the elite ladies. On her first senior outing at the Worlds in Leogang that promise was laid bare for all to see as she smashed the seeding run there to record the fastest time and leave riders like Nicole, Hannah and Seagrave in her wake. It was only a seeding run but the context of that run was that World Finals were in danger of being called off at that stage, and seeding run results would have been taken as the final results.
A heavy crash in practice robbed of us of seeing Höll in the main Worlds race but even in the Leogang mud she would have been a big favourite. We all look forward to what she can do in a full season in 2021. For now watch her MTB Raw filmed in Austria below.
7. Autumn racing definitely gave the World Cup a different feel
Racing usually ends when the summer does but given the situation in 2020, the downhill entire season was crammed into the month of October which in Europe means Autumn. While the glorious golden autumnal colours made for some stunning visuals, riders encountered pretty much the full range of mountain weather during the Worlds and the World Cup – snow, sunshine, heavy rain, hail, dry loam and a whole lot of mud.
The Leogang Worlds were nearly cancelled due to snow coming down on finals day! It didn't snow but rain deluged the course. The full range of conditions on offer at Leogang, Maribor and Lousã arguably made this shortened season a brilliant test of the riders' skills and talents.
8. It's not just Höll that is impressing straight out of juniors
When coming from juniors to elite the step-up is never easy. You're unlikely to be immediately on pace with the seasoned riders of the scene. Frenchman Thibaut Daprela surprised everyone by consistently recording fast times on par with the top male riders in his first year at elites. Deprela placed in the top 10 at every World Cup race, with an impressive third place at round one in Maribor. Jamie Edmondson's performances at Lousã is also worth a notable mention. A fourth and 10th place were impressive results for the Brit in his first senior year.
9. Double rounds were a relative success
When the news was announced that the condensed 2020 World Cup season would involve only two venues, with two back-to-back rounds in Maribor and Lousã, the question on everyone's mind was ‘is this going to work?’. Racing involved a qualification race on Thursday, a final on Friday, another qualification race on Saturday and another final on Sunday. That's a lot of work for the riders with not much recovery in between.
Maribor DH recap
As it turned out double rounds actually worked well. The tracks were subtly altered between finals to keep things varied for riders but it was interesting to see how different the results could be on what was more or less the same track only two days later. Riders coped well with the punishing schedule for the most part. The question is, would the downhill athletes welcome double rounds in future World Cup's? The viewing public on Red Bull TV certainly would!
10. Brook Macdonald is made of some tough stuff
Everyone was happy to see Brook Macdonald return to racing in 2020 after an accident at the 2019 World Championships in Mont Sainte-Anne left him with a serious spinal injury. Over 2019 and 2020 he’s been charting the hard road to recovery, first with the good news that he would be able to walk again, then that he could ride a bike.
Being able to ride the toughest race courses in the world with the world's best riders is another level though, and while not quite up to his pre-injury best, he’s demonstrated that he can still race hard and his results were more than competitive. With another off-season to rest, recuperate and train, hopefully the Bulldog will be back to peak performance for 2021.
11. Hurry back the fans and crowds
As mentioned it's to the credit of the UCI and local organisers that we were able get the racing on in these exceptional times. The racing was spectacular in Maribor and Lousã, and at the Worlds in Leogang. But like most sports, downhill needs its fans. The vibrancy that a crowd brings to the World Cup is what makes the event special. And the athletes have said they've missed the energy a crowd gives them during racing both on and off the course.
While riders are in the zone when going down the hill they still want to perform and put on a show, why else does Kade Edwards whip on every jump he comes across. Let's hope the global health situation allows for World Cup events to continue as planned next season, and at some point, when safe, with crowds back to cheer the athletes on.