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photo by @maddogboris

WE ARE BACK! After what seemed like the longest off-season ever (it always does), we're in Lourdes this week for the start of the 2016 World Cup racing season. Lourdes was a brand new venue for the World Cup last year, but it turned into an instant classic with an awesome track that produced great racing. So good in fact, that it was awarded "Best event of the Year" by the UCI, and it's fair to say that we were not alone in agreeing with that call. We're stoked to return in 2016 and to help get you in the mood for racing, here are 13 things you should know before it all kicks off:

1. The French Love Their Racing

Lourdes pulled 35,000 spectators last time around, and they were LOUD.

Needles took a walk of glory down the track after writing off his rear tire in his race run. photo Johan Hjord

2. The Track Takes No Prisoners

The track in Lourdes is no joke, with high speeds and plenty of rough bits to catch you out in a split second. Check out these hair-raising hucks and calamitous crashes for proof:

​​​3. The Track is Glorious

As much as this track can punish you, it can also reward you. A mix of tech, speed, and air means there's something here for everybody. The riders put on quite the whip-off on the first of the two road gaps last year. Will we get a repeat? As of practice on Thursday, we're there!

photos by Johan Hjord

4. It Could Rain and Then This Happens

Three years ago, Lourdes hosted a French Cup DH event. A monsoon showed up and the least you can say is that this track gets a bit scary in the wet. Note that there has been a lot of work done to the track since then, some sections might hold up better, but some might be even scarier...

​5. Gwin Likes It Here

After crashing in qualifying, Aaron Gwin stomped an epic run and took the first of his four wins for the season on the way to a third overall World Cup Champion title. He came out of the gate on his A-game, but with a new bike and team, what will the story be for 2016?

​6. It's Only the Season Opener, but...

Greg Minnaar gave up 141 points to Gwin in Lourdes, due to a hand injury sustained in Rotorua. By the 5th round, Gwin was only ahead of Minnaar in the overall by 70 points, and although Gwin went on to win the last two rounds, you can never tell what might have been with more pressure from Greg. Remi Thirion qualified 2nd, proving that he has the pace to contend, but a flat tire torpedoed his efforts in the finals. Gee Atherton also rode with a hand that he broke in practice (what is it with hands? Seriously?) and managed to secure enough points to hold onto his spot in the A-group for the following race in Fort William. And of course, how could we not mention Sam Hill? His crash a couple of weeks before the season opener left him unable to race in Lourdes in 2015, on a track that arguably suits him to perfection. We'll certainly be looking forward to seeing what he can do here this week! In the women's class, Tracey Hannah fired a serious warning shot when she qualified 1st by 6 seconds, but a crash in finals would rob her of what seemed like certain victory. Whether or not that messed with her head for the rest of the season is anybody's guess, but it's a fair bet that she'll be looking for revenge in 2016.

Minnaar strapped his hands to his bars to be able to race. 11th was quite the achievement, but still, what could have been... photo Duncan Philpott

7. Out with the Old, In with the New

We had a dramatic off-season full of team and equipment changes, and if history teaches us anything, it's that it usually takes a while for everybody to settle in and get up to speed again. Here are the most notable movers and shakers of 2016 - how will they fare in the first race of the season?

  • Aaron Gwin and the YT Mob. A brand new team managed by Martin Whiteley, featuring last year's overall World Cup Champ and young gun newcomer, Angel Suarez, riding for YT. Gwin seems to like his new bike a lot, but come finals, only the clock matters.
  • Loic Bruni and Loris Vergier to Specialized. While the team structure is the same, the steed is new, and Loic has the rainbow stripes of a World Champion to lift him up like a unicorn or weigh him down with pressure.
  • Athertons on Trek. Trek enters the World Cup with a full factory team, and they snagged Atherton Racing to chase the rainbow for them in 2016. With possibly the most pro set up of them all, you can be sure everybody will be putting in max effort for Rachel to defend her World Cup/World Champs double, and for Gee to get back to his very best after a somewhat-muted 2015.
  • GT. Losing the Athertons sent GT shopping, and they came back with quite the trolley; Brook MacDonald and Wyn Masters with the antipodean antics balanced out by Sam Dale and his legendary British reserve (no not really we just enjoyed writing that). The big question is not how much fun will be had but how will they all get along on their new bikes?
  • Will stability foster better results? Here are some of the top contenders who remain on their old teams for 2016: Remi Thirion on Commencal, Connor Fearon on Kona, Danny Hart on Mondraker, The Hannahs on Polygon UR, The Syndicate on Santa Cruz, Troy Brosnan on Specialized Factory, Sam Hill and Mike Jones on Team CRC/Nukeproof, Stevie Smith on Devinci, Marcelo Gutierrez on Giant, Brendog on Scott, and Sam Blenkinsop on Norco.

New rig, same program. Winning.

8. Lourdes is a Holy Place and Has Many Hotels

Lourdes is a holy place for those of Catholic confession, as it is said an apparition identifying herself as The Immaculate Conception was sighted here by peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, later declared a saint by the Pope. As a result, this sleepy town of 15,000 nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees receives over 6 million visitors per year, making Lourdes the second-most visited city in France after Paris. 270 hotels make sure they all have somewhere to sleep.

Three not-so-wise men. photo by@maddogboris

9. Did We Mention It's Rough Out Here?

​10. It's Steeper Than It Looks

It's ALWAYS steeper than it looks. About 30-40 seconds into the track, this section is called "The Wall" and there is absolutely nothing pretentious about that name at all. If anything, it sells this gross piece of real estate short. Standing at the top and looking down, the very last thing on our mind when we first saw it was riding a bike down it.

​11. Did We Mention it's Rough Here, Part 2?

photos by Johan Hjord

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Photos by Fraser Britton

​12. There is No Better MTB Competition than World Cup Downhill Racing

photo by Sven Martin

Do or die. The clock doesn't lie. Millions of dollars of investment on the line. Careers are made and crushed. Only one man and one woman win. Should we go on?

13. We Won't Do a 13 Because It's Unlucky

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