Seven Weeks of Insanity - 2017 World Cup Downhill Mid-Season Report 6

When we have a three-week break between World Cup DH races, it's time to take a look back at the past so we can get stoked for the future. What a season 2017 has proven to be so far!

Seven Weeks of Insanity - 2017 World Cup Downhill Mid-Season Report

As the sun blazes sun overhead in the Portes du Soleil, summer is in full swing and the halfway mark of the 2017 competitive mountain bike season has just slid by. The past weekends of intense racing have sparked debates over wheel size, rider size and flat-out performance on all varieties of tracks. Millisecond win margins and flip-flopping podium attendees mean that we're glued to the rest of the 2017 World Cup DH season as we wait for Mont Sainte Anne, nearly a month away. Just like the coaches, team managers and riders who will take an assessment of how things have gone so far, we make this effort to recap the season and bench race on their behalf as we look back at the last four World Cups, two of which are still relatively fresh in our minds.

by Zach Faulkner

A place out of time, For William from a distance could still be a medieval settlement.

Fort William, Scotland, World Cup

Heading into the highlands of Scotland, everyone from riders to support staff were hoping for nice weather. It’s cliché to say, but after the washout of Lourdes, all parties were hoping for a slightly different kind of race. Though bad weather was knocking on the door all weekend, it only ever really appeared briefly during qualifying. But, that was enough to turn the new parts of the track into “unridable” sections of muck and dreadfully slow features. By race day though, the nearly cloudless skies and affable temperatures made for a fast and dry track. The woods and new section were still a bear to contend with, and it created a viral discussion about course design, management, and safety. There were many perspectives from both inside and outside the tape, with very little consensus being reached. The overall takeaway was that communication needs to be better, and riders’ concerns need to be given proper credence.

Kade Edwards boosting over the quagmire of a new section.

The scuttlebutt leading up the race and down the peat bog was that "this would be race race for the new 29ers" – and those who backed the big wheels weren’t wrong. The Top 3 in Elite Men were all new bikes of the big-wheeled variety. They weren’t surprise finishes though, as Greg Minnaar won for the 7th time at the historic venue - making it a Hat Trick as well, having won in 2016 and 2015. He became the first rider to also win a World Cup on all three wheel sizes; 26-, 27.5-, and 29-inch wheels. If anything, that just goes to show that talent and hard work only highlight great equipment, not the other way around.

Remi Thirion
Reece Wilson
George Brannigan
Luca Shaw

Notable Fort William Results for 29ers:

  • Jack Moir, 2nd on a 29er
  • Remi Thirion, 5th on a 29er
  • Reece Wilson, 11th on a 29er
  • George Brannigan, 15th on a 29er
  • Luca Shaw, 20th on a 29er
Thomas Estaque
Sam Hill
Lachlan Blaire
Jacob Dickson

Notable Men's Fort William Results:

  • Thomas Estaque, 16th
  • Sam Hill, 18th
  • Lachlan Blair, 21st
  • Jacob Dickson, 22nd

Emlie Siegenthaler sending it into 3rd!

The Elite Women’s race was looking like another event to be dominated by Rachel Atherton, as her pace was unrelenting and her form was as good as ever. Qualifying first by 13.3 seconds was staggering. An awkward crash in practice on Sunday, however, left her with a dislocated shoulder and rendering her unable to race. Her streak of wins paused in that moment and opened the door for a new face to stand atop the podium. The question was, who would that be?

Tahnee Seagrave was the favored rider to step up, but Tracey Hannah’s speed was looking vicious, Myriam Nicole was on big hoops and charging, and the absence of the reigning champ seemed to have lit a fire further afield as well. As the dust settled, history books had a new name to add to the list of winners, Tracey Hannah. The win a long time in the making, it was a hard-earned victory, and a big one, as the time margin was 10.245 seconds over Myriam in 2nd place (on a 29er, don’t forget).

Sandra Rubesam
Mariana Salazar

Myriam Nicole was the only woman on the wagon wheels, and it seemed to have worked!

Notable Women's Fort William Results:

  • Emily Stiegenthaler, 3rd
  • Mariana Salazar, 6th
  • Sandra Rubesam, 10th

Additionally, Megan James won her debut in the Junior Women’s category by 8.94 seconds in front of her home crowd. Tracey Moseley is her coach, and it’s great to see the future of the sport has such promise!  

Meg James had a huge fan base in attendance to witness her first win.

Junior Men is now more hotly contested than ever, and at The Fort there is always something wild brewing in the category. With the roster being UK-heavy, and the home-soil race providing extra motivation, the results were always going to be exciting. After Sylvain Cougoureux qualified in first, it looked like a new Jr. Men’s winner might be crowned on Sunday. That guess proved to be faulty, as Matt Walker tied off his second win in front of his family, friends, and girlfriend – a big day for him indeed!  

Matt Wallker moments before going green.
Big win in front of the home crowd for Matt Walker.

Notable Junior Men's Fort William Results:

  • Kade Edwards, 4th
  • Joe Breeden, 6th

Joe Breeden

Leogang has the best backdrop.

Leogang, Austria, World Cup

It was another exciting weekend of racing in Scotland, with plenty of drama, unanswered questions, and historic moments to satiate the appetites of all but the most die-hard keyboard warriors. With Leogang only 72 hours away, everyone packed up, topped off the fuel tank, and put the pedal down to make it to the Austrian Alps on time. I had the pleasure of taking the long way there, driving the length of the U.K., through the Channel Tunnel, and across two-thirds of Europe. Many languages were attempted at rest stops, questionable food was consumed, and too much data was used. Upon arrival in the Austrian Alps, we were greeted by hay fever, blue skies, and a track which caused a serious stream of unpleasantries from almost literally everyone who participated in track walk.

Aaron Gwin, King of Leogang.

From the “unridable” sections of Scotland, to the “where’d the rocks go” sections of Austria, the whinge machine was running at full capacity. Social media and online forums were rife with opinions, memes, jokes, and fiery commentary. Pretty standard for the digital age, but notable for the World Cup scene. It was interesting to listen to who was complaining and why – but it didn’t matter until wheels were on track. Once practice at Leogang got underway, a couple of things were clear:

  • The track was frighteningly fast.
  • The lack of rocks didn’t matter.
  • A little rain would actually be helpful.
  • Jumps need to be built safely and correctly with more care taken in assessing how fast the racers are going to attack the course and whether or not the track design needs some tweaks.
  • DH racing can still be fun, thrilling, and challenging without being outright dangerous.

As the track bedded in over the weekend, more and more riders were commenting on the blistering speed of the track. A few even going as far to say that they are just cruising because they know that the speed they are going to need during the race is not a pace they want to attempt each run. Aaron Gwin looked notably reserved and took a startling low number of runs all weekend which left a lot of people wondering what his strategy might be. The monster truck bikes (29ers) were getting on just fine despite the plethora of corners, and the “layman-wheeled" rigs were still going fast despite the long, fast motorway(s). Riding aside, it was beautiful from start to finish, and the stunning view off the track was a pleasant treat each day. As someone noted, despite the unending complaints about the track, the photos and level of riding being produced were some of the best in recent times. 

After qualifying, heading into finals, a few points of contention were apparent: wheel size was mattering a lot less; times were going to be insanely tight with about six seconds separating 10th through 40th position in Elite Men. The awful, old 27.5 standard reared its dated head once again with Aaron Gwin and Tracey Hannah going fastest in qualifying. Come finals, the bench racing banter was kicked into overdrive, only to be quelled by the last man and woman down the hill. 

Tahnee Seagrave smashed it in Leogang.

Tahnee Seagrave had found an extra .6 seconds on track over Tracey, adding herself to the list of World Cup winners and causing a huge celebration at the finish corral. It was a strong race for the win, and everyone (racers included) were excited to see yet another new winner in Elite Women. The Women’s podium at Leogang had 4 racers with wins to their names: Tahnee Seagrave, Tracey Hannah, Myriam Nicole, and Manon Carpenter. Emilie Siegenthaler is still fighting hard, with a 5th to back up her career-best 3rd the week before. 

Alia Marcellini

Notable Elite Women's Leogang Results:

  • Tahnee Seagrave with her first-ever victory
  • Alia Marcellini, 6th
  • Monika Hrastnik, 10th

Paula Zibasa making quite the entrance into the scene!

Junior Women saw a new battle develop between new-comer Paula Zibasa and Melanie Chappaz, as Paula ended up winning in her World Cup debut as a first-year Junior. It's wicked to see a close competition brewing here, as she won by a mere .995 seconds!  Meg James wasn't in attendance at this event, but nonetheless, the Junior Women ranks are growing in talent and getting more competitive with each round this year!

So close...Loris Vergier is on the cusp of a win.

The Elite Men’s race was being touted as a gamble - who was willing to put it all on the table and hope for the best? The track was really  rough and the speeds were really high, where riders were relying on instinct more than skill at times to hit sections at race pace. With several season-ending crashes already tallied up on the weekend, nerves were frayed in the pits and on the hill. Racing on track was being compared to a survival situation rather than a timed event. The racing in Finals was always going to be tight, but no one expected it to be as close as it was, with 9th through 57th separated by just 5 seconds. Aaron Gwin somehow found an additional 1.435 seconds on track, cementing himself as the King of Leogang with his 3rd win in a row at the venue. Loris Vergier was once again so close to his first win, and it won’t be long until he’s standing atop the podium, adding himself to the winner's list.

Bernard Kerr
Jacob Dickson
Jure Zabjek

Notable Elite Men's Leogang Results:

  • Bernard Kerr, 5th
  • Jure Zabjek, 12th
  • Jacob Dickson, 15th

Finn Iles charged hard all weekend to take the win.

Junior Men is now a fast-growing field of contenders, no longer just two or three racers up for the win. It's anyone's game each weekend. Finn Iles showed he's not going to be unseated so easily, putting 2.392 seconds into Matt Walker on the fastest track of the year so far. Kade Edwards stepped up to the podium in only his 3rd World Cup race, letting everyone know he's on the climb and hunting for a win already, not just easing into the top level of the sport.

Kade Edwards
Kaos Seagrave
Brage Vestavik

Noteable Junior Men's Leogang Results:

  • Kaos Seagrave, 4th 
  • Brage Vestavik, 7th 

The views from Les Gets aren't too shabby.

Crankworx Europe Events

It was the time of year where riders either stay in Europe or they take a break. Some stick around and use regional events like the iXS Cup at Schladming or Crankworx in France and Austria as a continuation of their training. If they go home, they take a well-earned mini-holiday from the crowds, timing systems, and the general stress of racing World Cups.

Myriam Nicole swinging off the back for the win in Les Gets, ditching the 29er and opting for the 27.5.

In between the World Cups, Crankworx threw in two stops. At the first one in Les Gets, France, Troy Brosnan and Myriam Nicole won, while the Innsbruck event saw Danny Hart and Tracey Hannah on the top steps. Everyone was interested to see who could carry their momentum to Vallnord, either in the form of race results or rest and relaxation as at home.  Finding that mid-season stride is crucial.

Troy Brosnan getting low and aggressive for the win.

The top of Vallnord in the morning.

Vallnord, Andorra, World Cup

Those of us still in Europe traveled west yet again for the 5th round of the World Cup. We meandered through Southern France, down the coast, and then turned north into the Pyrenees. Entering into La Massana, Andorra, is always an experience, as the mountains explode upward, once again asserting how small our place is in this world.

Waxing poetic aside, we arrived to sunshine, predictions for more sun, and a track which looked rough, still rough, and somehow rougher than last year’s dustbowl-turned-mud-slick-for-the-last-ten-riders. With four different winners of the year so far (including Les Gets) in Elites (and Junior Women in the WC), it was a total guess about who would be the fastest riders on the hill.

Tahnee Seagrave

As practice kicked off, a few things were clear: the track was running ridiculously fast; it was going to take a steely rider to win; 27.5s were back under most riders and the playing field was, once again, even with the usual suspects riding loose, wild, and atop bikes they were comfortable on. Interestingly, it rained most afternoons, but was clear during riding, so the track was always well-watered in the morning (making it a little greasy for Group B) and then unsettlingly fast for Group A.

Meg James, low-key cruising.

The results from the weekend were exciting, but not surprising. In Junior Women Meg James looked lightyears ahead of the competition. Her confidence on a bike and general speed had a lot of us trackside checking cameras for the color of the race plate after she flew past. She won by 15.974 seconds over Melanie Chappaz – who still retained the leader's jersey after a strong opening to the season. 

Beatrice Migliorini
Melanie Chappaz

Finn Iles sending it onto the top step.

Junior Men was a wild affair as usual. A stacked field and a track which favored bold youthfulness meant it was anyone’s race. Experience and a dialed race-brain won the day though: Finn Iles absolutely smashed it, putting 4.973 seconds into the field, which was an eternity on the savage track.

Notable Andorra Junior Men's Results:

  • Kade Edwards 3rd
  • Nik Nestoroff 8th
Kade Edwards
Nik Nestoroff

Myriam Nicole on the charge.

Elite Women was shaping up to be a race for the ages. Confidence between the tape was radiating off all single-digit board holders, and the French women were riding with a renewed vigor which was impressive to witness. Rachel Atherton’s return was certainly felt and the pressure seemed to be amplified as no one knew where she was with her riding post-injury. Tracey Hannah and Tahnee Seagrave were understandably looking to repeat their wins, and some of the rowdier female riders were looking to capitalize on the pitch of the hill.  When it was all said and done, Myriam Nicole would prove victorious, much to the approval of the crowd, the locals, and pretty much everyone – she put on a show, going 2.997 seconds up on Tahneé in second place. Winning in front of the “home” crowd, across the street from the title sponsor's office, and on a big track is a serious trifecta. She raced on 27.5-inch wheels.

Vaea Verbeeck
Marine Cabirou
Eleneora Farina

Notable Elite Women's Andorra Results:

  • Marine Cabirou, 3rd
  • Eleonora Farina, 5th
  • Vaea Verbeeck, 10th

Troy Brosnan going green.

The end of the day at Vallnord got dark and cloudy very quickly. All eyes in attendance were nervously glancing up, hoping to not have a repeat late-day rain like in 2016. Thankfully, the weather didn’t play a role in the end, but a rapidly degrading track did. It was a checkers-or-wreckers day, with riders like Jack Moir and Connor Fearon hitting the deck in spectacular fashion. Danny Hart stopped everyone’s heart with one of the loosest runs ever, and then Loic Bruni went just .033 seconds slower with one of the most composed runs possible down the rugged track. In the end, Finals would very closely mimic the Qualifying results, with Troy Brosnan taking a well-deserved win, just .22 seconds over Greg Minnaar.

 

Benoit Coulanges

Alex Marin
Oliver Zwar
Phil Atwill

Notable Elite Men's Leogang Results:

  • Alex Marin, 8th
  • Phil Atwill, 9th
  • Benoit Coulanges, 13th
  • Baptiste Pierron, 16th
  • Shane Leslie, 32nd
  • Oliver Zwar, 48th
Baptiste Pierron
Shane Leslie

Lenzerheide is a stunning place.

Lenzerheide, Switzerland, World Cup

Packing up as quickly as possible, the circus turned on its heel and descended out of the Pyrnees of Andorra, down to sea level, and then back up into the Alps, this time to the literal and figurative breathtaking alpine valley of Lenzerheide, Switzerland. The altitude for non-athletes was a small adjustment, but the perennial favorite view made up for the shortness of breath. We were greeted by more sunshine, and it only left at night when the sun went down. We did experience some inclement weather, but that kept the track tacky and the dust at bay before race day.

Rougher than ever, the “bike park” moniker of the track no longer seemed applicable, though speeds were at an all-time high due to the firmer dirt and despite the lack of track maintenance (i.e. shrapnel rocks littering the track). Historically, this race produces some of the tightest racing all year, and 2017 was looking to keep that statistic alive and well.

Paula Zibasa smashing through the early morning light to take the win.

Shania Rawson
Melanie Chappaz

In Junior Women, Meg James was unable to contest her win from a week earlier after a season-ending crash on Saturday. With the race early in the day, the sun was creating a harsh contrast in light, making the open sections excessively bright and wooded portions of track notably dark. Focused and charging, we saw the second repeat winner of the year, Paula Zibasa of Latvia take the top step, just .388 seconds ahead of series leader Melanie Chappaz.  

Finn Iles looking ahead to '18.

Nik Nestoroff
Sylvain Cougoureux

Junior Men saw another top-notch performance from Finn Iles (the other repeat winner of the year before Paula). He had a rough weekend, but he showed serious grit and put 1.134 seconds into Joe Breeden who had his best World Cup finish in 2nd place. With his win, Finn wrapped up the series overall (Matt Walker ended his season in practice), as he is mathematically too far ahead to be caught with two remaining races. Finn has stated he’s now racing against times in Elite Men's as to better prepare for his transition to class next season.

Notable Junior Men's Lenzerheide Results:

  • Joe Breeden, 2nd
  • Silvain Cougoureux, 3rd
  • Nik Nestoroff 5th

Pat Butler dipping into his best results yet.

Rachel Atherton dropping into a big result.

Going from the longest track of the year to the shortest, it was going to be interesting to see what would happen in Elite Women. Eyes were once again on Rachel Atherton, many wondering if the slightly more straight-forward track and shorter run would allow her to push through the pain a little harder, or if there would be yet another new winner in the category. As the weekend progressed, fewer answers were found, especially as the track began to change after each run. It was a crazy-close race, with Myriam Nicole pulling back time in the last split, winning by .512 seconds over Rachel (who had gone green at the first three splits) and becoming the first Elite Women's repeat winner of 2017.

Vaea Verbeeck streaking into her best result in a couple of years!
Tahnee Seagrave, more focused than ever.

Myriam Nicole adding a second win to her season!

Notable Elite Women's Lenzerheide Results:

  • Emilie Siegenthaler, 3rd
  • Vaea Verbeek, 7th
  • Frida Helena Rønning, 14th

G.O.A.T.

Incognito shot of one of the least low-key riders around, Phil Atwill on one.
Rudy Cabirou blasting into a great result.

After baking in the sun all day like a Swiss chocolate on a car dashboard, we turned our attention to the big screen to watch Elite Men battle it out. After a weekend of intensely fast riding, you’d have been a fool to bet against Aaron Gwin. On a track that is so close in times, he was somehow managing to still look that much quicker than everyone else. He was the last man down the hill, qualifying first despite stitches in his knee the day before, and there was a tension in the air as he was on track. Going green at all the splits by huge margins, jaws were going slack and WTF’s were being uttered in awe of his raw pace. And then, it happened; a flat tire ended one of the fastest race runs in recent times. In Gwin’s misfortune, Greg Minnaar gained his 21st win of his career, 75th podium, and became the 4th repeat winner of ’17. The G.O.A.T. just keeps getting better, it’s humbling to witness.

 Notable Elite Men's Lenzerheide Results:

  • Phil Atwill, 5th
  • Rudy Cabirou, 8th
  • Jure Zabjek, 10th
  • Dakotah Norton, 29th
Dak Norton
Jure Zabjek

What would have been!

Elite Men's 2017 Top 5 World Cup Standings After Five Races

  1. Greg Minnaar, 902 pts
  2. Troy Brosnan, 742 pts
  3. Aaron Gwin, 649 pts
  4. Loris Vergier, 509 pts
  5. Jack Moir, 492 pts

Elite Women's 2017 Top 5 World Cup Standings After Five Races

  1. Myriam Nicole, 980 pts
  2. Tracey Hannah, 900 pts
  3. Tahnee Seagrave, 819 pts
  4. Manon Carpenter, 644 pts
  5. Rachel Atherton, 637 pts

Junior Men's 2017 Top 5 World Cup Standings After Five Races

  1. Finn Iles, 280 pts, Series Winner
  2. Matt Walker, 140 pts
  3. Sylvain Cougoureaux, 115 pts
  4. Joe Breeden, 114 pts
  5. Kade Edwards, 106 pts

Junior Women's 2017 Top 5 World Cup Standings After Five Races

  1. Melanie Chappaz, 220 pts
  2. Paula Zibasa, 120 pts
  3. Megan James, 120 pts
  4. Flora Lesoin, 70 pts
  5. Alessia Missiaggia, 55pts

With a three-week breather until the infamous Mont-Sainte-Anne event and just two rounds left (Val di Sole is the final race this season), 2017 is going to be a memorable year of racing no matter what happens. We’ve seen some of the greatest runs in recent times, new winners, and a battle of wheel sizes which has only raised more questions than provided answers. We here at Vital would like to thank you for your continued viewing and are looking forward to bringing you all the bangers from the front lines after a little well-earned R&R!  Get outside, share your adventures with us in our forum, and keep the stoke alive!

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