Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Lourdes, France, is a little market town with a remarkably unremarkable past. The community exchanged hands through various battles over the centuries, but never found itself at the center of attention for much time. The only notable historical event was when Charlemagne was laying siege to the fortress atop the rocky outcropping which dominates the local landscape. It was occupied my Mirat, a local Muslim leader who wasn’t going to give into the invading forces. But one day, an ill omen was brought to him and after some inspiration, Mirat surrendered and converted to Catholicism, taking the name Lorus at his baptism – and that’s where the town’s name Lourdes comes from.
In 1858, Lourde’s modern-day popularity was guaranteed after a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous allegedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the Grotto of Massabielle. After 18 more of these occurrences, Lourdes quickly become a pilgrimage destination for the devout. The supposed healing qualities of the water from the grotto now attracts 5 million visitors annually, making Lourdes the second-largest tourist designation in France, behind Paris. And to think we all show up just for a little bike race with 245 competitors, and maybe that many support staff. Our annual pilgrimage to the opening round of the World Cup has now been a 3-year tradition, with two different Elite Men winners (Aaron Gwin and Alex Fayolle), two different Elite Women winners (Emmeline Ragot and Rachel Atherton), and a lot of men dressed as nuns.
Big Wheels Aren't Weather-Proof
Almost two weeks after the last man down the hill crossed the line, Lourdes is still the Big Buzz. The debate about how weather forecast regulations should be augmented rages on, and couch racers are furiously trying to pick apart Newton’s Laws and high-school-level physics to determine who really should have won; the most contentious point of contention being the size of the wheels riders were wielding. A “fair fight” wasn’t what the Elite Men were handed by Mother Nature, so the armchair debating and post-ride-parking-lot-banter about wheel dimensions and gyroscopic effects of egos will troop on until someone wins on wagon wheels.
At the end of the day though, as the saying goes though, “That’s racing...”, and it’s one of the charms of the sport. The wheel-size debate isn’t raging forth over on the XC course, so I find it curious as to why it is such a sore spot for the gravity-fed. A moment which went unnoticed (mainly due to the furious pace of social media) was the most infamous wet-weather racer weighing in with a simple observation regarding the heavy rain and thus unhappy riders who had to race in it:“Pussies”. Not constructive, but considering this racer is known for just two things, his unbridled riding and his brevity, it seems fitting. The adage of, “What could have been” for the Top Ten qualifiers will just have to wait until the next round, and until then, a new name has been etched into the annals of MTB DH history, Alexandre Fayolle. Fair play to the young Frenchman who put it all on the line in front of his home crowd – very reminiscent of Amaury Pierron who did the same in 2016, though with a slightly less notable 5th place finish. DH can be a cruel sport, with far too many outside factors often contributing to the end results, which can rob many of a good result, but push others to the top. It’s not luck, it’s not fate, it’s just racing. In the case of Lourdes, the outcome was unfortunate, as the conditions on track for Elite Men degraded to a point of the concern for riders’ safety. It’s been proven in the past that rain doesn’t always effect a race run (again Sam Hill, in general; Danny Hart in Champery winning his Rainbows), but after standing in the ran with all the other camera folk, I can attest to the nastiness of the weather…it would have been foolhardy to attempt to “Pull A Hill” at the opening race when very little was on the line, especially on a track which had a high percentage of rock sticking out of the ground. No wheel size, shock tune, or bar-mounted levers would have helped riders once the skies opened and pelted us with fat drops of rain. The shake up in the ranks is now in a state unseen in modern racing, and the rest of the year will prove to be a wild chase for the Men. It’s not ideal for many of the top Elite Men, but it will make for exciting racing no doubt.
Among the Women, Rachel Atherton continues to amaze the audience and confound commentators, winning yet another race, and continuing her undefeated streak. Her ability to continue getting faster and rising to the occasion when under pressure is a feat so rare, her record of consecutive wins can be held up in comparison with other sports entirely at this point. Some may find the Women’s race to be a bit, “Same old”, but those people don’t quite see the big picture. Rachel is senior to Tahnee and Manon by 8 and 6 years, 3 to Myriam, and 1 to Tracy (who didn’t race from ’08 to ’12). She’s had far more races to perfect her craft, and she’s only just reaching her peak, she’s not slowing down in the least. We’re witnessing the next-gen finding their footing while the top competitor gains stride in all-time form.
The Heart Of The Race
Keeping all of that in mind, in the hubbub of weather, wheel, and rule book regulations being hotly debated, some very exciting and curious results might have been overlooked. For the sake of easy digestion, they’ve been put together in bullet points:
- Jacob Dickson: He didn’t qualify, but had Top Twenty splits for the first three splits, only slipping back to 23rd at the fourth split…and he had a flat at that point. The tire eventually gave out on him right at the bottom resulting in a crash. If the tire had stayed on, he’d have qualified. Keep an eye on the first-year Elite racer!
- Neko Mulally: After several seasons of setbacks from injury and lack-luster results, he moved onto a new team this season and it’s looking like a solid fit already. Qualifying in 16th straight up, and then finishing in 7th in the Finals, he’s off to a notable start this season.
- Rupert Chapman: He missed the podium by .001 in Finals. A bummer to be that close to the podium, but a fine entrance into 2017 on a new team and bike.
- Benoit Coulanges: A perpetual Top 30 racer, and a consistent Top 20 finisher, 9th in Finals saw a career-best for the quiet and relatively unknown Frenchman.
- Fraser McGlone: From Factory to Privateer, the young lad from Scotland showed everyone that pitting out of your van on your own terms can be quite effective. 18th in Finals, which would still have been a Top 30/35 time for the weather-haters.
- Charlie Hatton: Number plate hero, #128 finished 17th in Finals as a first-year Elite. Impressive.
- Jack Moir: It’s great to see the affable Aussie finding his rhythm early this year after a strong come-back ’16 season, finishing 14th in Finals.
- Josh Button: Speaking of Come Backs, 31st after a tumultuous 2016.
- Forrest Riesco: The quiet Canadian stealthily finished mid-pack all last year, and struggled a little towards the end of the season. An active off-season brought about a 35th this for the first race of the year, and it isn’t unreasonable to suggest him to be a Top 30 contender this year.
- Lachlan Blair: From course sweeper to course crusher, another Dude from Scotland bringing the heat. #123 qualifying in 34th and finishing 44th with an admitted less-than-stellar run. This young Hazard will be one to watch this season.
- Jordan Prochyra: #99, full privateer all the way from Australia (or rather a summer at The Mansion in Queenstown, NZ). 51st in Finals. The Privateer of the Year©, by Sven Martin will be hotly contested this year.
- Aaron Gwin: From first to beyond the worst…two-time winner to DSQ in Finals. Whoa.
- Tahnee Seagrave: No stranger to being the first-place qualifier, she has the speed. 1st in the 2nd and 4th splits in Finals, she finished in 3rd. The Elite Women’s title is going to be a fantastic battle.
- Emilie Siegenthaler: After 6+ months of knee rehab, 10th for the Swiss shredder is a great return to racing for a Top 5 racer after missing the last two races of ’16.
- Morgane Charre: A long off-season of healing from a bad arm injury in Andorra wasn’t ideal, but a hard-fought 8th in Finals shows a return to form and a fire to race hard.
- Kaos Seagrave: 2nd in qualifying and 2nd in Finals. Watch out.
- Kade Edwards: First-year Junior, 4th in qualies and 5th in Finals, the wildman from the UK is going to turn heads this season.
- Joe Breeden: 6th in Finals for the young Brit who found form late in the season last year. He’ll be one to watch for a podium result or two.
- Brage Vestavik: After a lack-luster ’16, a healthy off-season of training, the young Norwegian found 8th in Finals, more on point to his potential.
- Patrick Butler: First year Junior on the Bergamont team, traveling with his Dad for safe measure, the new Aussie on the scene finished in 9th in Finals, with some of the loosest riding all weekend.
Without any sense of hyperbole, this season is going to be madness. The Women’s field is getting closer and closer on times, the Junior Men’s field is deep with talent, and the Elite Men are all over the place in ranking now, with huge swaths of The Usual Suspects unprotected, and some fresh faces sitting at the top. It’s exciting on a whole, 2017 will be one to remember.
photos and story by Zach Faulkner