Round one of the 2016 UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup took place in Lourdes, France, in front of an enormous crowd. Read the report from our yearbook, Hurly Burly 1.
IF YOU BELIEVE
Lourdes, France, UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Round 1/7-10 April 2016
Words: James McKnight
Photos: Sven Martin, Boris Beyer, Seb Schieck
It was September 2015 when a certain Loic Bruni came hurtling down an Andorran hillside to halt a long run of poor luck in almighty style, claiming his first major win and the accolade of all accolades, stamping his name firmly on the list of mountain biking’s World Champions.
No person – not even his closest competitor – would ever have doubted that Bruni wholly deserved that title; he had suffered almost unfathomable feats of misfortune and near-wins throughout 2015 and indeed prior to that season. But, having claimed the World Champ’s stripes at the final event of 2015, it was reasonable to assume he would come to the first race of 2016 in Lourdes, France, with refreshed optimism.
Midnight Mass followed by a pint of strong beer and a fag: There is no place like Lourdes. Its hotel beds are second only to Paris in terms of numbers, religious tourists travel from the world over for a splash of miracle water and a singsong with their pals in one of its many bars. The World Cup downhill race, in its second edition for 2016 and once again opening the series, brings stark contrast in many guises (for instance, healthy sporty people taking early nights while the religious punks are out for a night on the tiles).
On the edge of town sits the Pic du Jer, a rocky outcrop with a funicular railway for convenient access to one of the town’s sites of religious interest, and a bastard steep downhill track. Thanks to the national-level downhill races it’s hosted since 2013 and its own strong mountain biking community, an initial introduction to the course can blow eyes wide open: it plummets 500 metres over two kilometres, kicking off at 900 metres altitude with a greasy nightmare of polished rocks. Soon after the start straight the course free-falls into the famous ‘Wall’ – a 20-metre plunge off the side of the hill then flat out and rough as hell across the hillside in the mid-section before hitting several large jumps, finally dropping steeply into the riotous final reaches through the trees. With a reported 35,000 spectators over the course of the successful first event in 2015 and further hard work by the local club’s 150 volunteers during the winter, not to mention Bruni’s form, the stage was set for another monumental kick off to the 2016 season.
Coming into the opening event defending a World Cup title and having dominated the previous year’s race here, Aaron Gwin had a lot riding on his shoulders. The American had also changed team over the off-season, spending months of time and energy in preparing one of the sport’s biggest ever contracts with the title sponsor, YT Industries – a direct-sales company forging a new path into the limelight of downhill racing. This was a huge, potentially risky move for Gwin. Having ridden to international titles for the established and decorated Trek and Specialized setups, he now kicked the big team status quo, putting in serious graft to formulate a deal he deemed equal to his value. But the Californian kid rocked up at Lourdes with a characteristically relaxed grin and an entourage that included Martin Whiteley – his team manager from dominant days aboard a Trek.
The two main men, Gwin and Bruni, both walked into the event with confident strides that only win-assurance can bring. Of course it was never going to be a two-horse battle though: The likes of Josh Bryceland, Danny Hart, Remi Thirion, Stevie Smith, Gee Atherton, Troy Brosnan and Greg Minnaar looked confident and comfortable early in the week. In the women’s race, Rachel Atherton was at this point unbeaten since the opening round of the previous season on this very course (where Emmeline Ragot brought it home for France), but it would be interesting to see how Rachel and her team adapted to their new title sponsor’s bikes (Trek), going from custom-built machines built to their specifications (on their previous ride with GT), to an out-of-the-box production frame, albeit one of the most successful ever. Ragot quit racing after her horrendous crash in Mont Sainte Anne in 2015, and was this time in Lourdes only as support for the French team. Taking one of Atherton’s main rivals out of the equation and leaving the likes of Tahnée Seagrave, Manon Carpenter, Tracey Hannah, Emilie Siegenthaler, Morgane Charre and Myriam Nicole hot in Atherton’s pursuit. Unfortunately, Nicole suffered yet another devastating injury (she has had her fair share) in the lead-up to the race, so would sit out for Round 1. The Junior category saw Canadian Finn Iles step up from his role as course opener in 2015 into the limelight and high expectations on the race circuit, but his previous season at the races would only drive his competitors harder to prove themselves.
Things kicked off as they meant to go on: wet, cold and intimidating. Having rained, sleeted and snowed in the lead-up to practice, the course was looking at its greasy worst when the riding started. One thing’s for sure, and that is the determination and motivation of the Group B riders (including Steve Peat, Rachel Atherton and the entire Junior and female categories) who head up the hill for their practice sessions at 8am, clearing the worst of the course’s mud and debris and testing any new features before the big guns have even got out of bed (probably). On a dark, frosty day high above Lourdes, the first riders dropped in on a course slightly adapted and opened up for speed since the 2015 event, but equally as unforgiving. Crashes, slide-outs and scared riders could be seen even in the opening two straights; move down to the famous Wall and the carnage became very real.
With many big sponsor changes during winter, this was the first opportunity to see FMD Racing (Tahnée Seagrave and co) with Transition, Bruni and Loris Vergier on Specialized, Wyn Masters, Sam Dale and Brook MacDonald on GT, companies Cube and YT in their first DH World Cup outings and Commencal with a second major team in the shape of Lac Blanc/Commencal. Riders were up to speed from the get-go.
When the big guns rolled out on course, things had perhaps dried a fraction and lines had already opened up, but the track was no more forgiving than it ever has been. The Remi Thirion show was strong throughout practice, with creative line choice and bulletproof confidence putting him in places and at speeds rivalled by very few. While many struggled to come to terms with the nature of the course’s surface, those riding well were head and shoulders above the rest, visibly faster than even some of their close rivals. Smith, Bryceland and Brendan Fairclough were another three whose brave riding in these toughest of conditions was thrilling to watch. Troy Brosnan may have been feeling out of place in these conditions that were the polar-opposite to his training ground in the Australian sun, but he was flying, carrying confidence from his 2015 end-of-season form, and clearly disregarding a recently dislocated shoulder.
Showboating in practice is nothing if a rider can’t put down a good, complete run when the clock is running, and so it was that (sentence structure?) Saturday’s qualifying alluded to those with both speed and composure. French Junior Kevin Marry stormed a run, winning qualis while Finn Iles crashed out and was left only to contemplate his good split times. With the track at its unpredictable worst, even the best could be forgiven for slipping up though, and so the Elite results were reflected in the Juniors’ times: Vergier and Gwin went down hard and rolled into 9th and 10th respectively.
At the front of the pack Loic Bruni would kick things off with utmost style, smoking the field by a full six seconds, and in the women’s race Tahnée Seagrave would give Atherton her biggest scare in a long time by taking the qualifying win by 3 seconds after a reported crash on course.
God Save the Pope
With things literally hotting up for Sunday’s finals – the weather finally turning from Baltic to balmy – the crowds rolled into the venue in their tens of thousands, chainsaws roaring and fancy dress flapping. From the morning’s practice session it was clear things were drying quickly and the track was getting back to its best, although it could and would still send any unsuspecting rider into the bushes at the slightest drop in focus. Dirt’s Phil Atwill was upside down in the morning and Thirion was already nursing a sore hand that had forced him out of qualifying. But no one was relenting – especially not Loic Bruni, his adoring fans screaming every time the Frenchman danced down the track in his characteristic, deliberate, clean and flat-out-fast style. Gwin was typically calm and collected, quiet on the hill during practice and never giving much away.
As always, racing kicked off with the Junior category, and things were as wildly unpredictable as ever. Kevin Marry went down hard having laid down the fastest three split times, a crash that would unfortunately take the promising young Frenchman out of action until later in the season. Having suffered a broken femur in 2015, Commencal’s Gaetan Vigé came back strong to roll into fourth place and set himself up for a season of podiums. Intense’s American hopeful Nikolas Nestoroff rocketed into third place; over 3 seconds clear of Vigé. Nestoroff had laid down a superb time of 3:35.449, but that was once again bettered by the UK’s Matt Walker who took a chunk out of Nestoroff’s time. Finn Iles was lightning fast throughout the week but would need to control his enthusiasm to keep it upright. And that’s exactly what the Canadian did, smashing Walker’s time by a further one-and-a-half seconds. Three first-year Juniors on the podium, proving that there is very much a bright future for downhill’s strong nations.
With the likes of Tracey Hannah and 2015 Junior World Champion Marine Cabirou starting slightly down the order after problematic qualifiers, women’s racing was fast and furious from the outset. Hannah came flying into the finish arena, sending the tricky final drop (that had seen many crashes in practice due to its soft landing) and taking the reigns at the start of this epic season. Fifth-place qualifier Morgane Charre fell victim to the Wall, spinning out at the foot of its rocky, slippery face and rescuing sixth place at close of play, one place in front of Cabirou. Swiss Champion Emilie Siegenthaler couldn’t better Hannah’s time and the Aussie sat in the hotseat until the British invasion took over. First Manon Carpenter put together a solid ride to pip Tracey by three seconds, then Atherton… Trek must have been pretty happy with their new signing when Rachel kicked things off with a 10-second lead. Atherton demolished the field, but she wasn’t celebrating just yet. Sat atop the hill, Tahnée Seagrave would now drop in with the confidence of having beaten Atherton fair and square in qualification. Just a clean run and she could potentially set Atherton’s winning streak on an entirely different curve. Seagrave rode an amazing finals that put her nearly six seconds ahead of Carpenter, a feat that in any other world would be unfathomable. But Atherton, nearly five seconds ahead of her nearest rival wrapped up the first race of the season exactly as she meant to go on. The three leading Brits’ speed was clear, unquestionable and unbeatable at this point. The other girls would have a lot of work to do to get within sight.
As the day moved on, the crowds filtered down the mountain and into the lower woods and finish area, thousands upon thousands rammed into every available space, clinging to trees and scrabbling through the forest desperate to glimpse every corner of action. Roaring for their heroes, the noise from this crowd was akin to Fort William’s devoted annual pilgrims. Loud to the point of ear-piercing, excited to the brink of insanity, by the time the top boys were piling down the mountain the mob was close to furious in their support.
The times were crashing down as racing hit its climax: Bruni’s qualifier bettered by 20 finalists. The likes of Minnaar, Vergier, Mike Jones and Marcelo Gutierrez couldn’t find the balance to hit the top 10; Gee Atherton and Bryceland were just outside the top five podium positions. Young Frenchman Amaury Pierron absolutely smashed it, following a strong 2015 with his first ever Elite podium, and deserved it was. Troy Brosnan and Danny Hart showed their form and drive, both itching to reach higher and back up previous glory with further wins. They would finish fourth and third respectively.
That leaves two podium places, then. Stevie Smith showed a return to form following a spate of injuries since his 2013 World Cup title. His heroic, confident riding was a show of brilliance all week and wholly expected to land him on the podium, settling in second at the end of the day. Who would take the win, Gwin or Bruni? The former would rise above his qualification woes and laid down a storming run, putting two-and-a-half seconds into Smith’s time. Massive, but bettered at every split by the flying Frenchman, Loic Bruni. The crowd was not only on the edge of their seats at this point, but they’d jumped up, thrown the seats in the air and then smashed them over their heads. They were close to furious explosion when suddenly the air fell silent; Bruni ditched it in the same corner his teammate Iles had crashed in qualis. All eyes stared up the hillside and the atmosphere was flattened. Bruni crossed the line arm in the air and smiling – he knew he had it, but in his own admission had ‘crashed in his head’ before even going down. The work was all done and he’d let it slip at the final, most simple hurdle.
Racing is racing, and although Gwin credibly admitted Bruni ‘definitely had [him] beat’, YT Industries celebrated direct sales sticking one to the big S. But while things kicked off, Bruni left the arena with the wry smile of someone who knew what was coming next.
1: Finn Iles 3:32.269
2: Matt Walker +1.559
3: Nikolas Nestoroff +3.180
Series Leader: Finn Iles
1: Rachel Atherton 3:50.383
2: Tahnée Seagrave +4.472
3: Manon Carpenter +10.258
4: Tracey Hannah +13.591
5: Emilie Siegenthaler +21.808
Series Leader: Rachel Atherton
1: Aaron Gwin 3:09.131
2: Stevie Smith +2.471
3: Danny Hart +2.686
4: Troy Brosnan +4.150
5: Amaury Pierron +4.309
Series Leader: Aaron Gwin