RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
Cairns, Australia, Round 2/21-23 April
Words: John Parkin
After the slightly surreal combination of religion and retail that is Lourdes, the circus packed up and headed to the other side of the world, literally.
Cairns, on Australia’s Gold Coast, could also be described as a land of contradictions. Beautiful beaches pounded by an ocean filled with sharks and marine stingers, stunning tropical rivers the home of crocodiles and endless lush rainforest containing nine of the world’s ten most deadly snakes. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and yet as a newcomer it is easy to succumb to the creeping paranoia that everything is trying to kill you. Locals Mick and Tracey Hannah will happily restore your sense of wellbeing, having managed to survive living here most of their lives, along with the other 147,991 people who call Cairns home. One thing Cairns definitely does not lack is mountain bike history, being the site of the infamous 1996 World Championships battle between Shaun Palmer and Nico Vouilloz.
Following 2014’s near washout, it was safe to say the whole circuit was hoping for slightly less in the way of precipitation, and heading into the week, the weather forecast looked much more positive. A dry Cairns results in an incredibly fast track, a wet Cairns is almost unrideable; somehow both greasy in some spots and sticky in others.
Heading up the hill for course walk is a unique experience: no chairlifts and every shuttle driver has a different story to tell, making the sweaty drive squashed into the back of a Ute much more bearable. Reaching the top affords an incredible view of the ocean below, but not much of the actual track, as it disappears straight into the jungle. Thick foliage lines the course on both sides, leaving much of the media clueless as to where to operate. Not enjoying anywhere near the elevation loss of the majority of courses raced in the series, the Cairns track holds much in common with Pietermaritzburg (South Africa). High speeds and comparatively smooth surfacing make up for the all-out lack of height (and the couple of short climbs!) and the course definitely still poses a real challenge for the riders. Tight berms switchback their way down the hill right out of the gate, requiring real skill to keep concentration and thus speed high. A short straight leads into the most technical section of the course, the rock garden, which is tricky in the dry and absolutely lethal in the wet. Make it cleanly through the rocks and head into the spider-infested Alien Tree section, again relatively simple off camber in the dry, incredibly tricky in the wet. Hard on the pedals from here leads into the fastest part of the track, with some huge jumps and high-speed turns.
It turns out things were potentially too fast: three big crashes in quick succession in practice completely overwhelmed the emergency response capabilities of the on-site medical team, and it was at least three hours before they had managed to extract the riders. Not the response you would expect in a developed country like Australia and there were many angry team managers asking questions of the organisers. Broken bones galore for the riders that went down hard, overshooting the triple into the face of the next jump turned out to be the culprit. A swift tape change to tighten the corner leading into the section helped to bring speeds a little bit more into check.
A short climb and a long traverse feeds riders into the next proper DH section, the corkscrew bridge and a big gap, followed by the moto-esque whoops. Coming out of the whoops at warp speed is critical to carrying momentum into the next climb and traverse, before the track heads downhill again for the main bottom section. Steep in sections and littered with roots, the lower section is more of a traditional World Cup track, allowing riders to test the limits of their skills before spitting them out at the bottom of the hill, cruelly 250 metres short of the finish line. A long flat pedal is just about the least exciting way you can finish a DH race, but everyone has to ride the same track and it is interesting to see who can shine on such a brutally physical sprint.
A Practice Session
After the pile of juniors was finally removed from the triple, ‘A’ practice could start, and in true tropical style, so came the torrential rain. Riders successfully navigated the opening turns, but the rocks in the wet were a whole other challenge. Crash after crash after crash, the crowd there was almost baying for blood at one point. Podium newcomer from Lourdes, Amaury Pierron, was one of the most high-profile casualties, going down hard and breaking both wrists in the process. Fellow Frenchman Remi Thirion, who had been slightly off the pace at Round 1 due to a hand injury, was back almost at his best, placing third in timed training. Local favourites, the Hannah siblings were both looking fast, with Tracey going fastest in women’s and Mick looking relaxed and confident all week. All the usual suspects were looking on form, and with few riders completing full runs in timed training there weren’t many clues as to who was looking good for Sunday.
As per 2015, the weather and the resulting track conditions were a hot topic of conversation in the pits, and the showers on the morning of Qualifying, which then gave way to sun and a rapidly drying track, didn’t help to clear things up. Junior favourite Finn Iles crashed in the slippery rock garden on his run, spraining his wrist, and at the end of qualifying there were three Aussies in the top five gunning for a race win. Rachel Atherton laid down yet another dominating performance, finishing five seconds up on Manon Carpenter in second place, but Tracey Hannah was fastest to the first split before a small crash dropped her back to third. This was a confidence-boosting performance for Tracey, and everything was very much to play for in finals.
2014 winner here, Gee Atherton was looking to get his season properly underway after just missing out on a podium in Lourdes, and cleverly switched between flats (a winning choice in 2014) and his normal clips during practice to prepare for any eventuality. Unfortunately, he misjudged the conditions slightly in his quali run and didn’t push as hard as the drying conditions allowed, leading to 10th place. Another seasoned campaigner, Greg Minnaar was also looking for a good result after having failed to impress in France, but 37th was not what he was looking for; there would be work to do before finals. Local privateer racer Graeme Mudd slotted into 12th, just behind Gee, and raised a few eyebrows among the team managers assembled at the finish line. George Brannigan was another looking to avenge a disastrous start in Lourdes, failing to qualify at the first round is enough to cause confusion and reflection in even the most confident of riders. Happy to admit he had ‘never been so nervous at the top of a quali’, George pulled out a solid sixth place, putting him right back in the mix. Only a couple of places in front, Loic Bruni in fourth was carrying impressive speed all over the track and not going down last in finals definitely lifted a portion of the pressure he was due to feel. In front of Loic in third was Aaron Gwin, only fast enough for 15th at the first split showed that the winner of Round 1 was fully on-pace for the vast majority of the track. Second spot? A very happy Mick Hannah. Mick is always one to rise to a big occasion, never shy of publicly stating his goals in key races, and realistically trying to win a World Cup in your hometown is a chance very few riders ever even get. Taking the top spot was an absolutely flying Troy Brosnan. On the podium in Lourdes, and consistently there for the last few seasons, Troy was yet to repeat his 2014 Fort William win and would desperately have loved to do it on home soil in Australia.
A Broken Duck
Saturday dawned as a beautiful day, and all of the previous worries about the potential for biblical rain went out of the window. The weather was no longer going to play a part in the results, and everyone had a level playing field. First up the Juniors: With favourite Finn Iles not taking to the start due to his injured wrist, it was a perfect chance for two of his main rivals, Elliott Heap and Gaetan Vigé to capitalise. However, both completely failed to do so, finishing 9th and 10th respectively, in the process gifting a reduced points margin to Finn. The locals were happy to take over the show, and four of the top five were Australians, Remy Morton the fastest of them in second place. Winner for the day was young British rider Matt Walker, a first-year Junior racing only his second ever World Cup. He’d be one to watch for the rest of the season for sure.
Next down the track were the women, and Tracey Hannah was primed to do everything to try and take her home race win. Tracey had not won a World Cup since 2012 and knew it would take something special to break the dominance of Rachel Atherton. Known for her aggressive riding style, Hannah has a history of huge crashes in race runs, and all of her fans here were on tenterhooks watching the big screen as she left the gate. The crowd in Cairns is far from the biggest at a World Cup, but the group of diehard fans who made the trek up through the jungle went completely mad as Tracey came into view. Sketchy through the rocks, she managed to hold onto it and make it to the finish line with a time good enough to take the provisional lead. Just Manon and Rachel left at the top with the ability to dislodge Tracey. A ripple of excitement went through the crowd as Manon’s first split time came up on the finish gantry, 1.5 seconds back. Manon continued to lose time as she made her way down the run, an obvious sketchy moment on the live feed costing her. Only Rachel left in the start hut now, and a hush descended over those in the finish area watching the big screen.
Hard out of the gate, Rachel looks good through the rocks, but doesn’t seem any faster than Manon. The crowd waits with bated breath for the first split time to show: 5.5 seconds up. The mood in the finish area changes instantly; barring a huge problem, Rachel has this one in the bag. The time gap keeps growing as she goes through each split, even sitting down on the finish sprint isn’t enough to lose her any significant time and she crosses the line to take her second win of the season.
Keen to silence those who seek to take away from her success, Atherton stressed after the race that ‘winning is hard work, and just because you win all the time doesn’t mean it’s easy, it means you’re fucking good at hard work.’ Tracey was magnanimous in defeat, her run ‘as good as it could have been.’
Over to the Men and the first major surprise of the day. Brought back from retirement by Kona, Josh Button had been working in construction the week before the race, but somehow this didn’t seem to slow him down, knocking Remi Thirion off the hot seat with a blisteringly fast run. Josh has had some decent results in the past, but never a podium, and nobody really took him for a genuine contender at this point in the day. Loris Vergier came close, and Greg Williamson closer still, but still his time held up. Wild man George Brannigan was the next to take a decent crack at Button’s time, up at Split 2 but losing his advantage immediately at 3. The resurgent Stevie Smith was fresh from his impressive second place in France and looking to build on his solid start to the season. A front puncture in the rocks cruelly took away any chance for success, and Steve was forced to cruise down the rest of his run. A manual across the line seemed like such a normal Stevie thing to do, bitterly disappointed, but always keen to put on a show for his fans. Little did we know that this was to be the last time we would see him cross the line at a World Cup. (Rest in peace Steve, you are sorely missed.)
With Stevie’s puncture, Josh Button was guaranteed a place on the podium, an amazing turn of events considering his preparation for the race had been less than complete, to say the least. Literally working a full time job the week before the race and completing only three weeks of training, a four year spell away from the World Cup scene had somehow not slowed him down at all! In the gate sat Loic Bruni. A crash in finals in Lourdes had been more of the same for Loic, who had never won a World Cup and had crashed multiple times while on potentially winning runs. Telling the media that he didn’t feel Cairns was a track he could win on, Loic never seemed to be a clear favourite for the race, but he carried incredible exit speed through the rocks and was up by 4.3 seconds at the second intermediate time. Losing almost a second at Split 3, his margin was shrinking and it was unclear whether Button’s amazing bottom half was going to be insurmountable. 3.2 up at the final split, Loic was still in control, but he needed a solid final sprint to secure his place on the hot seat against the trio still at the top. Another half a second in the final 250 metres and Loic took the lead with only Gwin, Hannah and Brosnan to come. You would have to be mad to count Gwin out on pretty much any course, he simply doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses, but down by two seconds, things were not looking good. Casing the triple coming into the sprint didn’t help and Aaron crossed the line nearly three back.
Mick Hannah’s time to shine has come, and he manages to execute nearly perfectly, back on Loic’s time at the first few splits but with a considerably smaller margin than Gwin. The crowd in the rocks roar as he passes, willing him onwards. Pulling back time at every split from the second onwards, Mick is visibly fast on the final pedal, and crosses the line less than one second slower than Loic. Not the fairy-tale ending he dreamt about, but an incredible performance nonetheless, Mick is completely elated in the finish area. The final rider to take the start is on course, Troy Brosnan is the only one who can deprive Loic of his first ever World Cup win, and there is no doubting how much Troy wants this one. Up by a minuscule margin of 0.032 seconds at the first split, Bruni’s face twists into a grimace on the hot seat. Troy loses half a second at Split 2, but then pulls it back at Split 3 to another insanely tight margin – 0.020 seconds. Boosting high on the triple, Troy makes another small push ahead of Loic, 0.184 and all he needs is a powerful pedal to take the glory. Loic’s hands cover his face in the hot seat, he can barely watch the screen. The crowd’s cheers turn to groans as Troy loses half a second and crosses the line in second place, Loic’s face is one of disbelief as he jumps to his feet in jubilation. Immediately climbing the barriers to embrace his teammate and friend Loris Vergier and the rest of the Specialized Gravity crew. Troy is utterly professional in defeat, congratulating Loic and admitting that his run was good; that Loic was simply better on the day. Loic attributes his success to never giving up and fully committing on the final pedal section, alongside months of preparation in the off-season with his mechanic Jack Roure. Jack explains that the key was a light, fast rolling bike, one that was a handful in the tech but shone where it mattered most. Breaking his duck is clearly a huge relief for Loic, and somehow the feeling of relief is shared throughout the pits. Loic is an extremely popular rider, and almost everyone is ecstatic for him.
The grand total after the week in Australia comes to quite a few broken bones and assorted other injuries, but none can be credited to snakes or spiders. Looks like the locals were right after all – it’s not as dangerous as one might think deep in the Tropical North.
1: Matt Walker
2: Remy Morton
3: Harry Bush
Series Leader: Matt Walker
1: Rachel Atherton
2: Tracey Hannah
3: Manon Carpenter
4: Tahnée Seagrave
5: Morgane Charre
Series Leader: Rachel Atherton
1: Loic Bruni
2: Troy Brosnan
3: Mick Hannah
4: Aaron Gwin
5: Joshua Button
Series Leader: Aaron Gwin