The 2017 season has been one of turbulence on the race track. After five rounds of seven in this year’s Downhill World Cup series, there have been four different winners in both the men’s and women’s races, and considering the dominance of certain individuals in previous years, this feels like a totally new experience! World Cup riders are pushing the limits of what’s possible on race day and the level of talent is so high that the top step of the podium is open to anyone who’s willing to really push it – it gives us sweaty palms just thinking about it! So, just how have we got to this point in the season? Here’s a quick recap of the 2017 World Cup season so far.
Praying for victory in Lourdes
The first round of the World Cup series is always an interesting one, with racers, teams and fans all keen to see who’s put in the effort during the off season. Quite a few riders find it tough to gauge how fast they need to ride and when and where to push the limits.
Unfortunately, the changeable spring weather in the Pyrenees played a large part in how the weekend in Lourdes, France, unfolded. The track started out wet on the first day of practice but gradually dried out as the weekend progressed. Come race day it was in prime condition, but storms were on the horizon. And that’s not all – wheel size became one of the hot topics at Lourdes, with Santa Cruz releasing a 29er V10 that dominated qualifying.
Frenchman Alexandre Fayolle had only qualified in 52nd place, but he stormed into the lead halfway through the men’s race. Rider after rider failed to knock him from the hot seat, including some of the world’s best. And then the rain and wind came across the Pic du Jer mountain like a high-speed train. The conditions changed from normal to ice-rink slippery in a matter of minutes. Riders struggled to keep their bikes straight and on course in the rapidly deteriorating conditions, and although it provided an exceptionally impressive display of skills, the racing was effectively over. Fayolle made history by being the first Frenchman to win on French soil at a Downhill World Cup in the past 20 years.
In the women’s race it was business as usual. Rachel Atherton qualified second to Tahnée Seagrave but pulled through in the finals to continue her winning streak from 2015 and 2016. Tahnée ended up third, and Manon Carpenter rounded out the top five for the Brits.
In the junior men’s race, Canadian Finn Iles managed to take the win by a comfortable margin over Tahnée’s younger brother, Kaos Seagrave, who placed second.
With the next round, in Scotland, taking place a month after the season opener, the men’s field had time to take stock and regroup. After qualifying in Lourdes was won convincingly on a 29er DH bike and three out of the top six riders were on big-wheeled rigs, teams were scrabbling around to try and plug the gaps in their own DH bike ranges with 29ers in time for the trip to the Highlands. There was plenty of muttering about the weather too.
Fresh blood and old talent at Fort William
Fort William always provides some cracking racing – the tried-and-tested track is fast and long with its fair share of challenges. This year saw the introduction of a new wooded section that would become the talking point of a lot of riders’ social media channels after the race. Many bike brands had now caught up with the 29er craze – Mondraker, Intense, Bergamont, Trek, Pivot and Commencal to name but a few.
Little changed over the course of the weekend, with the track taking all the abuse riders could throw at it in its stride – bar one section… The aforementioned boggy, rooty wooded bit proved to be a bit of a lottery. Deep, wheel-swallowing holes formed and the slick mud covered hidden roots. The section’s difficulty reduced some riders to running with their bikes, while others opted to tripod their way down. Even the weekend’s winner, South African Greg Minnaar, looked like Bambi on ice as he rolled the dice through the woods.
After round one everything was to play for, and it was now Fayolle’s and Atherton’s championship to lose. During qualifying on Saturday it became clear that wheel size does matter, with three of the top five men’s qualifiers on big hoops. Fayolle qualified 34th on the Scottish track, 16 seconds off first place, which was taken by Greg Minnaar, beating teammate Loris Vergier by two seconds. Minnaar is also Vergier’s senior by 15 years and was the oldest competitor at Fort William – so he had plenty of years of experience to use to his advantage.
The women’s race was stacking up as predicted. Rachel Atherton put in an amazing run, smashing the competition by a huge 13 seconds. Australia’s Tracey Hannah qualified second, followed by France’s Myriam Nicole and Manon Carpenter. Switzerland’s Emilie Siegenthaler rounded out the top five.
When race day rolled in, the weather was looking to hold off for the finals without playing a role in the results – a welcome bit of news after Lourdes. During the morning practice session, news spread around the pits that Rachel Atherton had crashed in the tricky woods section, dislocating her shoulder, and that she might not be able to race. The rumours turned out to be true, and Rachel was whisked off to hospital. Her winning streak was over, but she remained unbeaten.
The men’s finals were thrilling, with what seemed like every successive rider bettering the previous time and taking over the hot seat. A mere 12 seconds separated the top 10, which, over a five-minute track, is tight racing. Australian Jack Moir, of Intense Factory Racing, took his first podium but was pipped to the post by Minnaar. America’s Aaron Gwin was on for a good time and quite possibly the win, but an off in the lower half of the track scuppered his chances and he finished third. Marcelo Gutiérrez Villegas from Colombia took fourth, while France’s Rémi Thirion placed fifth on a 29er.
In the women’s race, the field was blown wide open. The win was up for grabs more so now than ever, so it was inevitable that the girls were going to up their games. Unfortunately, the woods section got the better of quite a few riders. Tahnée Seagrave looked to be on for the win until she took a tumble, but thankfully didn’t injure herself like Rachel did. Tracey Hannah posted the fastest time, followed by Myriam Nicole and Emilie Siegenthaler. Manon Carpenter rounded out the top five.
British junior Megan James, who’s under Tracy Moseley’s watchful eye. took her first World Cup win. The junior men’s race was once again fought out between British rider Matt Walker, who took the win, and Canadian Finn Iles – although Matt managed to put five seconds into Finn’s time.
Despite there being some complaints about the woods section, one thing Fort William wasn’t short of was atmosphere. The crowd make this event truly special, and the love and passion for the sport is perhaps clearer here than at any other venue. Come rain or shine, the British fans will be out in force, braving the midgies, to cheer on their favourite riders.
Superstitions and broken curses in Leogang
Leogang, Austria, has always provided some interesting talking points, mostly focused around the track being too easy and boring. This year was no different, with quite a few riders taking to social media to vocalise their displeasure – including Britain’s Phil Atwill, who rode the track on his hardtail to prove a point. But from a spectator’s perspective, the action was thrilling and fast-paced – something a slower and more technical track wouldn’t offer.
In past years, it had seemed that Aaron Gwin was cursed to fail in Leogang. He had a brake failure in 2012, blew a tyre off the rim in 2014 and suffered a snapped chain out of the start gate in 2015 – but still went on to win the event. So it seemed only fair that 2017’s Austrian round should be a success for Aaron. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for other riders. Danny Hart snapped his chain as he cranked off the start line, and Rémi Thirion crashed during qualifying on the final jump, rag-dolling across the line into 13th position. France’s Loïc Bruni also fell foul to the Austrian track, bruising his leg badly during training and having to pull out of the race, despite qualifying fourth.
In the women’s, now that Rachel was out with her injured shoulder, the title race was blown right open. Qualifying first, Tracey Hannah was looking to make it a double-weekender, edging Tahnée into second, followed by Manon Carpenter. The junior men’s race was also hotting up, with Finn Iles and Matt Walker qualifying second and first respectively.
In the finals, racing was super-tight, with only 8.7 seconds separating the top 20 men. Loris Vergier set the best time with an absolutely blistering run after his fifth-place qualifier. Troy Brosnan, of Australia, and Minnaar were unable to better the Frenchman’s time when they came across the line. With just Aaron Gwin at the top of the mountain, Loris looked on, hoping this could be his first senior World Cup win. As Gwin raced down the track his split times were up, then down on Loris’s run, as they flip-flopped between the lead. At the final split, through the finish, Gwin just pipped Loris to take his fourth Leogang win. Jack Moir, coming off the back of his success at Fort William, was charging hard but crashed out in the technical section, yet still managed to recover quickly enough to finish ninth!
The women’s race was Tracey Hannah’s to lose. Second-place qualifier Tahnée Seagrave had been knocking on the door of her first World Cup win for a long time, regularly qualifying first only to get knocked from the hot seat come the finals. Leogang was going to prove to be her day though. As the penultimate rider down the mountain, she beat Myriam Nicole’s time by a solid two seconds and went into the hot seat. As Tracey Hannah rode down she was unable to beat Tahnée’s time, sliding in just over half a second behind her and handing Tahnée her first senior World Cup win.
The junior race was won, this time, by Finn Iles, who managed to beat Matt Walker. In third, Kade Evans, a World Cup rookie, made his first podium appearance.
The moneymaker in Andorra
Hailed as one of the most technical, fun and steep tracks on the circuit, Andorra is a real balls-to-the-wall rollercoaster ride from the top of the mountain to the bottom. With rocks, roots, cambers and steep ruts, riders have to be on their A game to nail a winning time. Since Vallnord held its first World Cup in 2008 (when the Atherton family triple-headed the men’s DH, women’s DH and 4X races with wins across the board), the track has changed quite a lot, now descending a steeper, longer side of the mountain. After the previous round in Leogang, the riders couldn’t have been happier with how the course was looking. Quite a few riders who were quick to jump on the 29er bandwagon had reverted back to 650b wheels – of note, Danny Hart, George Brannigan and Brendan Fairclough all opted to go back to the smaller wheels for the steep and rough track.
Come qualifying day, two out of the top five riders were on the bigger wheels – Greg Minnaar and Loris Vergier, who placed second and third respectively. Troy Brosnan came down with a great run and took pole position, a place he’s been in many times before. Loïc Bruni, fresh back from his injury, rounded out the top five. Phil Atwill broke into the top 15 with a 14th-place qualifier, edging ever closer to the top 10. In the women’s qualis, Tracey Hannah pipped Myriam Nicole to the top spot, with Tahnée back down in fourth and Manon in fifth. Rachel Atherton was back, hoping to put a stop to the loss of ground since her shoulder injury. She qualified eighth. In the junior men’s qualis, Finn Iles beat Matt Walker to the win, who was closely followed by Kade Edwards.
On finals day, the atmosphere on the Andorran mountain hotted up and the racing was some of the tightest and most exciting we’ve seen for a long time. The men’s race was gripping, but the track got the better of some – Jack Moir, George Brannigan and France’s Amaury Pierron all crashed out.
When sixth-place qualifier Danny Hart took to the track, our hearts were in our mouths. His riding is always spectacular. Taking inside lines and dodging ruts, he’s a thrill to watch. Obliterating the split times on the way down the mountain – at one point he was six seconds up – he finished with a lead of over five seconds. As Bruni, Vergier and Gwin came down and failed to beat his time, it was looking like Danny had the round wrapped up. But Minnaar was next up, with his usual smooth, calm and collected style. Building time in each section of track, he crossed the line with a two-second lead over Danny! Just one man left – Troy Brosnan, who rolled the dice and rode with spectacular conviction. Always within touch of Minnaar’s time, he finally crossed the line a mere 0.2 seconds faster than him. It was Troy’s second ever World Cup victory – the first being in 2014, in Fort William.
In the women’s race, it was Myriam Nicole’s turn to take a win, her first since 2011 in Val di Sole, Italy. Tahnée was bumped up from her fourth-place qualifier to take second and France’s Marine Cabirou made her first senior World Cup podium in third. In the junior men’s race, Finn Iles took a convincing win over Matt Walker, and Kade Edwards finished third again.
Andorra was the fourth round in the 2017 season and by this point four different people had won the men’s and women’s races, keeping the series title up for grabs. Minnaar leads the men’s race, while Tracey Hannah has the leader’s jersey for the women. In the junior races, there’s fierce competition between Matt Walker and Finn Iles for the win.
Lucking out in Lenzerheide
Lenzerheide’s top speed, balls to the wall track divides opinion – some love its high speed nature and others criticise if for not being technical enough. But, as soon as the riders took to the sun-parched earth it became clear that the high speeds and loose ground added layers of technicality to the simple-looking track. In previous years, the winning riders needed to put everything on the line to get within reach of the top step of the podium and this year wasn’t going to be an exception. The last two times the World Cup circus passed through the Swiss Alps, this track has been dominated by Rachel Atherton who won 2 of the 2 previous rounds. In the men’s race, Danny Hart and Greg Minnaar equally share the spoils of taking gold here.
In the qualifiers, Gwin placed first leading out Troy Brosnan by two seconds. Lenzerheide favourites, Minnaar and Hart were sitting in third and sixth respectively. The ladies race saw Rachel Atherton return to form, beating Myriam Nicole by eight hundredths of a second and Tracy Hannah qualified in third place. The UK’s Matt Walker didn’t start the Junior quali race after going down hard and suffering from a nasty concussion, but fellow Brit, Joe Breeden, managed to scoop second amongst a packed field.
With soaring temperatures and a crumbling track, most of the riders were praying that it was going to hold up for finals whilst the hot weather continued. Let’s not forget, though, that this is a mountain bike world cup race weekend and it wouldn’t be true to form if lady luck and mother nature didn’t have their way. On the night before finals, the skies opened. Storming through the night, the riders would woke to a different beast. The rain had done more than dampen down the dust, turning the track into a slippery slime fest. Luckily, the sun was back and conditions were changing and drying quickly.
In the men’s race it wasn’t until Brit, Laurie Greenland, hit the hill before a competitive time for the win was posted. Qualifying in 13th place, Laurie had put together an amazing run to finish in 4th place, just above fellow Brit, Phil Atwill who was in 5th – his best world cup result to date.
As the rest of the men came down, it took until 6th place qualifier, Danny Hart, Laurie’s team mate, to go faster than the fresh-faced Bristolian. Then, Minnaar came down. Going faster than Danny at each split, he seemed like a safe bet for the win. Sitting in the hot seat, with only Troy and Minnaar left it was hard to know who would clinch it. Troy Brosnan bettered Danny’s time by just over a second, landing him in 2nd place, removing Danny’s chances at a second win in Lenzerheide, but couldn’t beat Minnaar. Next up, Aaron Gwin who qualified first, hit the dusty track. Riding significantly quicker than everyone who came down before him, the crowd felt that he had the win. Unluckily for Aaron, disaster struck. Riding and pushing hard, he struck his back wheel on a rock causing it to flat within reach of the finish line. Lady luck clearly wasn’t on Aaron’s side, and Greg came out victorious.
In the ladies event, Rachel Atherton was unable to maintain her lead, giving victory away to Miriam Nicole who made it two wins in a row. The home rider, Emelie Siegenthaler stepped up her game to take third place. Hot on her heels was Tracy Hannah unable to better her qualifying position in fourth. Tahnee Seagrave rounded out the top five, losing valuable seconds when she washed out her front wheel, arguably losing vital seconds and places.
The juniors was dominated by Finn Iles, who, after qualifying third finished just ahead of Brit, Joe Breeden. French man, Sylvain Cougoureux rounded out the top three. In the junior women’s race, Megan James didn’t manage to continue her success, not finishing her qualifying run.
With only two rounds left, we can’t wait to find out who’s going to take the overall win. Greg Minnaar currently leads the men, but Troy Brosnan is close behind. In the ladies, Myriam Nicole is now leading but the overall title could be anyones’…
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