- Bike Checks
So, after much anticipation and amidst all the wheelsize hype, the biggest race day in mountain biking finally came around. In the contradictory way that typifies the World Champs, the build up to the event had been nothing but exciting, yet at the same time, it was hard to tell who had been playing their cards close to the chest. With the riders unwilling to tackle the pain of Pietermartizburg's pedaling section at 100% more than once, this really is the place where everything is laid out bare for just the one, single run. For all the hate this track suffers, you could argue it is the single most formidable test of the mind and the body. 4 minutes for glory - who would be left standing on the top of the podium when the dust settled?
At Worlds, the riders go in the reverse order of their current UCI ranking, rendering the "seeding runs" all but useless. (Not allowing the riders a full training run on the morning of the biggest race of the year is pretty useless too...the bottom of the track was closed to riders in this morning's practice session to allow the XCE race to take place - like, seriously UCI?). Jared Graves and Mitch Ropelato thus ended up taking their runs about 50 riders ahead of the current top ranked riders in DH, so we were certainly going to get an early indication of whether or not the Enduro bikes were indeed the ticket to this year's title.
The ladies were first up, and Tracey Hannah, coming off a string of injuries that seems like it's been going on forever, came down in 4:40 and set the early fast mark. That was still 5 seconds off Rachel Atherton's fastest qualifier though...but Tracey's time was starting to look remarkable when Myriam Nicole and Floriane Pugin came down way off pace, and only 4 riders remained up top. Could Hannah be on for an incredible podium finish? Reigning World Champion Morgane Charre came down 3.4 seconds off Hannah's pace, whilst Manon Carpenter took a crash in the top section and threw away her Worlds bid. So Hannah was guaranteed a medal, but who would win? Would it be Emmeline Ragot or Rachel Atherton, the only 2 girls left standing at the top? Ragot came down into first spot, only 1 second off Rachel's qualifying time. But Atherton was not to be denied her second World Championship title (following her win in 2008) - she threw down a stormer, knocking a further 7 seconds off her qualifier to smoke the field. What a fitting way to cap off what has been a brilliant and dominating season for her.
Over to the men then. So many potential story lines - which one would play out for us? Local pinner Potgeiter took the early lead with a solid looking 4:13. And before we knew it, Jared Graves was in the start hut. How would his Enduro bike choice play out? How much power was hiding in those monstrous calves? 4 minutes and 1 second later, we had part of the answer - Graves came down 2 seconds up on Stevie Smith's fastest time from timed training. How would it hold up?
We were denied the next big story line when Mitch Ropelato hung up in the first turn and took a big crash on his Enduro 29er. The Internet sighed of relief, as the threat of imminent worldwide forum meltdown was lifted. A succession of riders then failed to get anywhere near Graves, with Peaty coming down in second after his run, 5.8 seconds off Graves. Then came Nick Beer - only 0.7 seconds off Graves! We know Beer can pull a run out at any time, but did this mean the times were going to come down dramatically later on, or was this further proof that the Devinci team's decision to run a 27.5" special short travel Worlds edition bike was the right choice?
Matt Simmonds was the next rider to threaten Graves, coming down 0.6 seconds off first place, confirming his steady improvement over the last 2 seasons. We were well into the top 20 by now, and the big guns were all lined up at the top of the mountain to try to take down Graves. And as far as guns go, they don't come all that much bigger than Gwin. What would the American do? Was it to be his big redemption for a season that has not gone to plan so far? It was not to be, some kind of problem in the top section and Gwin coasted down. Brosnan and Pekoll came up short, but Blenkinsop got oh so close - 0.4 back, second place behind Graves. And so we had an Enduro bike and 27.5" wheels in places 1, 2, and 4...
Gutierrez and Thirion failed to take down the trailbike, and then all eyes were on Mick Hannah. Sick Mick likes it fast, and split 1 had him up on Graves by 5 seconds. He reached warpspeed through the motorway jumps, laid down Sick Mick power and destroyed the lower part of the course - into first by more than 3 seconds! What a run!!! 3:58.4 the new time to beat. Hill, Minnaar, Smith, Atherton...could anybody touch Mick?
Sam Hill was off pace, and then took a horrendous looking crash near the bottom. We were happy to see him walk away from it. And then Minnaar - slightly off the pace throughout the run, he pumped and pedaled every ounce of speed from the bottom part of the track, having managed his run to perfection - into first by 0.3 seconds. The local boy's dream was alive...and kicking, since Stevie Smith then proceeded to crash in the same turn as Ropelato, to end his run after 5 seconds.
What would Gee do? He's had that extra edge this year, but could he find it again? 1.5 off the pace after split one, surely it would be too much to ask for him to pull that back - ultimately it was, he came up short. Minnaar had done it! Defending his title from last year, at home - fairy tale ending! What a race! And the saving grace of the internet, a DH bike won DH Worlds.