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BOOSH - Just like that, it's World Cup downhill season again! We've had an off-season full of rider, team, and wheel size news, but all the gossip goes mute when the clock starts ticking in South Africa for the first World Cup DH of 2014 on April 10. Before the hammer drops, Vital MTB is proud to introduce Vital Power Rankings, a time travel machine that attempts to look into the future and predict how each upcoming race will pan out.

Vital's staff, with over 69-years of combined armchair World Cup racing, dissect the data and interpret off-the-record intel to create an extremely accurate (or at least debatable) pre-race results sheet - Vital Power Rankings. We feel confident in our predictions, and we're pretty sure you won't always agree. That's why we have a comment section.

Without further ado, pull from the wisdom of the first Vital Power Rankings for the 2014 Pietermaritzburg World Cup. We'll see you again on the other side, ready to say, "we told ya so." We're also ready to get stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey if we have to eat our words. - The Vital Power Rankings Team

1. Mick Hannah

Mick Hannah made World Champs at PMB his main goal in 2013, and he came up an agonizing few tenths of a second short of his dream. 'Sik Mik' has the speed, the experience, the physical condition, and more than ever, the motivation to take the win in South Africa. With his Rainbow Stripe Nemesis, Minnaar, just back from injury and possibly not firing on all cylinders, we don’t see who else can stop him. Well, except for maybe a random gazelle that could t-bone him mid-race run. It's been known to happen in Africa.

2. Sam Blenkinsop

Blenki’s 2013 was much better than his 2012, and all signs point to continued improvement for 2014. The gloveless Kiwi took 4th at World Champs on this very track last year, followed up with 4th in Hafjell, Norway last season. He's fresh off a victory at the Oceania Champs against a host of other World Cuppers. Unlike a lot of his competition at the first World Cup round of 2014, Sambo has been competing on (not just testing) his 27.5 DH bike since late 2013, so questions or concerns about his equipment will be non-existent. The bare-knuckled brawler has also become part of the Christchurch contingent (like Cam Cole and Justin Leov to name a few) with an emphasis on training and living for the race season. We wouldn't even "blenk" an eye if Sam won.

3. Loic Bruni

Loic Bruni is storming up the ranks ever since joining the Elite class one whole season ago! He’s a risky pick at number 3, but we’re betting on a huge year for the young Frenchie, and it starts in South Africa. There's no question about his speed with a 2nd in Leogang in 2013. With another off-season of physical conditioning under his belt, he's even better-equipped to lay down the power.

4. Greg Minnaar

The fact that Greg Minnaar is on this list at this point is testament to the man’s will to race. He’s barely back on the DH bike after six-months off and a knee surgery, but recent outings have shown him to be riding well already. While it seems like it would be impossible for him to have the kind of fitness required to challenge the field so soon, we know his cards are held close to his chest. PMB is HIS track and he's thinking about points and the entire season ahead. Despite the "burden" of the antiquated 26-inch wheel in PMB, we know Minnaar has the aim of a sniper, and he only aims for the top.

5. Gee Atherton

The Gee man has 27.5-inch wheels now, so he has to be Top 5, right? We see things for Gee going one of two ways. First, he could play it safe and smart. His main rivals for the overall title are battling injuries, so he could take steady run and a podium finish, thinking of the long season ahead. Or he is going balls-to-the-wall, out-riding and out-pedaling the entire field, while making us look like chumps for putting him in 5th place. We hope he picks the balls-to-the-wall approach. Gee's crash at the first BDS race was just a strategy to throw us off the scent of domination, but we're not thrown.

6. Aaron Gwin

At this time last year, most people still had Aaron as the dominant force of DH. Of course, pre-history has a way of not working out like we predict, and 2013 did not go to plan for the care-free Californian. Pietermartizburg is a long, fast track, just like he likes it, and he's won here before, but at World Champs last year the track put him and his medium-sized wheels (say what?) down. As a result, he missed the last two rounds of the 2013 World Cup. An unforeseen blessing for the most Gwinteresting man in MTB? Maybe. The limelight is off him, and after a seemingly quiet off-season, we have no doubt Gwintrepid has Rynopowered his way into pure race shape. Just "don’t call it a comeback" and pay closer attention to what he's riding this time.

7. Andrew Neethling

The smoothest South African operator has home field advantage, is aboard 27.5-inch wheels and is having fun on the bike, like in the good old NORBA days. Needles placed 7th at PMB in 2012 and won the African Championships just a few months ago, so he'll be looking to harness the energy of his recent success. If there were time bonuses for mid-race whips, Needles would be the winner, hands down.

8. Marcelo Gutierrez

Marcelo showed incredible improvement throughout 2013, climbing steadily up the Elite ladder to claim an overall World Cup Top 10. The Colombian will be more motivated than ever in 2014 after “loosing” his early season City Downhill World Cup battles with Filip Polc but winning the Pan American Championship. He did well in PMB in 2013, and there’s no reason to think he’ll have slowed down since. Plus his wheels are bigger - if it wasn't faster, these guys wouldn't be running them.

9. Matt Simmonds

Matt Simmonds has shown that he has the speed and the consistency to mix it up with the best. This year he joins that team with the hot chic name, Madison Saracen, where he will shred with the likes of Sam Dale, and that actual hot chic, Manon Carpenter. The quiet Brit should have no trouble finding extra motivation to dig deep on PMB’s infamous N1 section, knowing he was only 0.6-seconds away from a bronze medal at World Champs. He just had a strong 3rd place finish at the first BDS round, proving he's a solid contender for 2014.

10. Nick Beer

The guy with the coolest name in MTB placed 6th at PMB last year during World Champs, less than a second off of a bronze medal. That's freaking legit. The Devinci rider rode the "One Night Stand" bike last year, just like his team mate, Stevie Smith, proving a custom weapon for the pedally bits may be the ticket to success. Will he bust it out again or ride that other prototype he was seen on in New Zealand? Bike choice aside, Nick Beer will come out swinging harder than a hobo fighting for a 40oz.

11. Brook MacDonald, 12. Troy Brosnan

Brook has played his cards close to his chest since returning from his 2013 season-ending injury, so it’s hard to tell how close to race speed the Bulldog is. We’re betting on a healthy Brook not being too far off by now and his ill-prepared 4th place finish at a muddy Oceanias enlightens us to think he has the pace. Did we mention he's rolling on the deuce seven five, too?

Troy has had a great antipodean race season, and will come into PMB full of confidence and speed. The fast-spinning Australian has been putting some hurt down at his National rounds and definitely has all the skills to challenge the field. If he can keep the RPMs up in critical sections, he could easily out-pedal our prediction.

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13. Steve Peat, 14. Cam Cole, 15. Neko Mulally

The fact that Peaty is showing no signs of wanting to "back down" from racing World Cup DH is like winning to us already. The fan-favorite elder statesman of DH may struggle to keep up with the pedal powerhouses and the young bucks with those 26-inch relics, but he’ll use his uncanny speed-carrying skills to pull out a nice result. Sheffield Steel for life, regardless of result.

Cam was seriously injured last year, but seems to be healed up. Early pre-season results probably mean nothing, as Cam will have wanted to make sure he didn’t do something stupid before the Big League starts up again. Rolling on the Commencal squad with the likes of Remi Thirion now, the towering Kiwi will be anxious to start his 2014 on the right foot. He's a podium contender on any given day and his size is an asset at the momentum-craving PMB course. The question is, will his fitness and race day mental game be up to snuff yet?

The quiet Pennsylvanian prefers rougher tracks, but we predict a solid outing in SA for Neko Mulally nevertheless. Never afraid of pedaling punishment (especially with his new wheels) and well-settled on Trek World Racing, Neko's focus should be strong and his confidence level high as he finds his World Cup stride.

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Wildcards - Johannes Fischbach, Florent Payet

Give a Fisch a 4X bike and he'll dominate until he's bored. Give a Fisch a DH bike and he'll have all the experienced downhillers scratching their heads, asking, "where'd he come from?" Johannes Fischbach has successfully made the transition from 4X powerhouse to World Cup downhill contender. His 9th place finish in PMB at World Champs last year proves he has the fitness to handle the 4-minute abuse, and we already know he has the bike-handling skills for those 70-foot table tops.

Florent Payet is large human. We like the way he dwarfs a bike. He's also not scared of hucking his meat. Payet is an under-the-radar flier who has blipped onto our wildcard list for good reason.

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The Fine Print

Before your hate train begins, Steve Smith is reportedly not attending South Africa due to an ankle injury sustained while trying to massacre a jump in February. You can hate on us for not including Danny Hart or Sam Hill in the Top 15 if you dare, but race result history and injury status has influenced us and we stand by our call. We'll be more stoked than any of you if either exciting rider proves us wrong. Some of the Vital Power Rankings writers almost resigned because we didn't include Sam. Executive decisions had to be made.

Women's Top 3 Vital Power Rankings for Pietermaritzburg

1. Rachel Atherton, 2. Emmeline Ragot, 3. Tracey Hannah

The Elite Women's DH class may not be the biggest, but there is plenty of excitement to be had when assessing the fastest female mountain bikers. Our number 1 pick is a no-brainer. Really, how can you not pick Rachel Atherton for the win at PMB after her domination in 2013? Her fitness and skill are above reproach and her competitors know it. Additionally, her support system in the form of her brothers and team give her a leg up.

We're playing the experience card by going with Emmeline Ragot as our number 2 pick. She has top-of-the-box results and comes from the highly-strategic French cycling contingent, which we believe will give her a mental competitive edge in the early season. Throw in a little Blenkinsop and Bruni influence and she's a serious threat.

Tracey Hannah served up a DH victory in PMB in 2012 by 0.9-seconds over Manon Carpenter. Rachel wasn't present, but the rest of the World Cup women were. Tracey has had regional race success during the World Cup off-season and is primed for a solid result. If it's a Hannah double-win day, we wouldn't complain one bit.

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Who are your top PMB picks? Let us know in the comments.

Stayed tuned for Vital OTB, dropping next week.

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