Who’s it gonna be this year? Can Gwin repeat? How about Danny Hart? And then there’s a fit and healthy Rachel Atherton in the mix as well as the return of Tracy Hannah. What a season it’s shaping up to be!
In the men, everyone’s wondering if Gwin can repeat the absolutely dominating season he threw down in 2011. I don’t think it’s a stretch to state that, barring an injury, he can and he will. He showed last year that his pre-season preparation was as meticulous as his assault on the circuit. Nothing in that formula has been changed. Which leaves it up to the competition to catch up.
And the competition is pretty fierce. So I don’t expect Gwin to be quite as dominating this season as he was last year. For one, the ‘young guns’ of Troy Brosnan, Danny Hart, Brook MacDonald, Sam Blenkinsop and company are coming on strong. For another, the ‘old guard’ of Gee Atherton, Greg Minnaar, and Sam Hill don’t exactly like getting their collective Asses handed to them as regularly as they did last season. You can bet every single contender—young gun and old guard—has stepped up off-season conditioning in an effort to close the gap that Gwin so easily exploited last season with his superior fitness; and that no effort has been spared to gain that mental edge, too.
Gwin should dominate, with a rotating cast of podium regulars evenly mixed between Hart, Hill, Minnaar, MacDonald, Gee-man, Bren-dawg, Brosnan, Needles, Steve Smith, and (once he’s healthy) Blenki. Cam Cole, Luke Strobel, Peaty, Leov, and a few others will likely step it up a bit, too. But Gwin looks to remain king.
| This is the place everyone wants to be during the World Cup season--popping bubbly atop the number 1. |
| But to get there in the men's field, it's going to be an uphill battle to beat this man. All eyes are on Gwin. Last season's domination can pretty much be translated into a bullseye on his back for this season. |
| Number 2 is not a number Greg Minnnaar wants to pin on his jersey. Gwin may have dominated 2011, but Minnaar is certainly not going to hand him any wins this season.|
| He may not be as fit now as he has been in the past. But on any given Sunday, Sam Hill is a threat. Never forget that. |
| Brook MacDonald got a taste of the podium at Fort William. And he liked it. A lot. The new bike seems to be treating him well, and he's well situated with a team structure he's comfortable wiht. Bulldog will be a consistent podium threat for the season. |
| Team Chain Reaction is fielding a solid team, with Lewis Buchanon, Matti Lehikoinen, Matt Simmonds, Joe Smith and Alex Bond on tap. Both Matti and Lew sustained fairly serious injuries last season but are reputed to be on track to start in South Africa. |
| They don't just hand out Red Bull helmets. Steve Smith will be a contender this season, mark my words. |
| 2011 was a rough year for Gee Atherton. Mechanicals were the monkey riding his back the season long. In particular. this blown tire at Mt St Anne dashed his chances to beat Minnaar as the 2011 runner up behind Gwin. A bitter pill for someone as driven as Gee-man. But a new ride on GT wipes the slate clean for 2012.|
| Brosnan beat Sam fair and square a number of times in the Aussie series this off season. I'm betting that with the distractions of fatherhood, that trend may continue into the World Cup season. |
| Always a sight to see on the track, Mick Hannah's been missing his "mojo" it seems, ever since that nasty training crash he had at Windham in 2010. For 2012, Mick breaks from his long time sponsor GT to move onto Hutchinson United, a move that will see him racing professionally on the World Cup circuit for the first time as a teammate with his sister, Tracy. Hopefully the move will help Mick to find his mojo again. |
| Danny Hart is looking to continue to make Andrew Neethling's ears bleed with his choice in pre-race music for 2012. Likely he will continue to tear the hell out of the World Cup circuit, too; he ended the last season in fourth overall as well as taking the title at World Champs in Champery in what many argue was just as impressive a run as Sam Hill's famous ride there in '07. |
| Losing Fabien Barel as a mentor on the track may set Damien Spagnolo back a step or two, but the established race structure of MS-Mondraker and familiarity with his bike should more than make up for that deficiency. His silver at Worlds will likely translate into continued podium appearances, even without Barel's guiding hand in training. |
| A couple of off-season injuries will likely see Blenki out of it for the overall, but as the season progresses, you'll definitely see him on the podium.|
| It wasn't until the last few weeks that everything finally came together for former Evil test pilot and all around bad ass Luke Strobel to get a new ride aboard the Phoenix DH rig from Pivot for 2012. This close to the start of the season, a new ride can be hard to adjust to, but Strobel seems confident heading into South Africa. "The angles are all there", claims Strobel, "and that's helped me get comfortable on the new bike in a very short amount of time." |
| He's always had the talent, but blowing out his knee in South Africa was definitely a blow to his confidence. Yet Brendan Fairclough dug deep and managed to deliver a smashing run at Champery that clearly showed his desire to rise above. An off-season move away from Monster Energy to Scott 11 sees Brendan finally taking a leadership position aboard a top level team. Can he deliver with that kind of pressure? |
| Cam Cole is still recovering from that nasty broken arm he received in training at Champery last season. He'll miss South Africa but should be able to return to the circuit in time for Val di Sole. Missing just one race, though, in as stacked a field as this year's promises to be, will likely have Cam out of contention for a top five show in 2012. |
Over on the ladies' side, things are a bit harder to call: with Tracy Moseley racing select events, she is leaving a gap for any of five fairly evenly matched riders to exploit: Sabrina Jonnier, Rachel Atherton, Florian Pugin, Emmeline Ragot, and Myriam Nicole—and I’m not forgetting Tracy Hannah; more on her below.
Sabrina Jonnier has had a season to heal up from the broken tailbone that plagued her all last year. Her ability on a bike isn’t a question, but dialing in her new whip may have her off the back a bit for the early season, and she may be losing focus: she’s been in this game for a long time. Then there’s Rachel Atherton: a fit and healthy Rachel can really throw down on the pedally courses, and her handling skills are more than sufficient for her to beat out the competition on courses where her ability to hammer the pedals is not a factor. Florian Pugin can handle a bike exceptionally well, as can Pom-Pom, but neither of them are well known for being able to put power on the pedals. Ragot is both an exceptional bike handler and has the fitness to power the pedals a bit better than one might otherwise expect for someone of her stature—her podium last year on South Africa’s pedal fest DH track was not a fluke.
But there are two wild cards in the deck, too; one is a mature and focused Tracy Hannah making a return to the World Cup DH Circuit; early season races show she hasn’t lost a step with her time off. The other is Jill Kintner: her transition from 4X racer to DH racer is complete. Her handling skills are top notch as is her physical prowess. But for whatever reason, her ability to put it all together has had mixed results. But if she can find that missing mojo, a win is easily within her reach, as well as a strong overall placing on the season.
For 2012, look to see a healthy Rachel Atherton battling it out for the overall with a healthy Sabrina Jonnier—if Jonnier can regain her focus. Emmeline Ragot will be right in that mix, too. Forecasting a winner between those three will be hard to do until sometime after Fort William. Pom-Pom and Pugin will likely take a top step or two, as well, with Kintner and Hannah making regular podium appearances as well.
| Tracy Moseley's retirement from Elite DH racing leaves the door wide open for any one of a select few elite women to rise to the top. |
| The number two Florian Pugin wore at the end of the 2011 season was no fluke; until the bitter end, she was a threat to T-mo's overall win in 2011. |
| A fresh set of rainbow stripes and a new team are two reasons for Emmeline Ragot to be a contender in 2012. Moving to MS-Mondraker promises to see Ragot with a better level of support than she's enjoyed in the past two years of racing, and likely greater success. |
| Pom-Pom was a consistent threat all season long, finishing just off the podium here in La Bresse, but edging out the rest of the Elite women at Val Di Sole during the World Cup Finals. She'll build on that program for 2012, but it will be awfully difficult to better a healthy Rachel Atherton or a fit and motivated Sabrina Jonnier. |
| Healthy. This could be the return of Rachel Atherton to top form. The switch to GT may have her off pace for the first couple races, but I doubt it; she's had plenty of training time on the new sled. Remaining healthy will likely be her only concern. |
| Enduro racing for World Cup training? Sounds like Sabrina Jonnier has been putting in a proper trainining program for 2012. Rachel Atherton and Emmeline Ragot are going to have to go through her for an overall title for 2012. |
| It's been a long time since Tracy Hannah's pinned on a World Cup racing number (this was shot waaay back in 2007), but pre-season competition against some strong women has seen her coming out on top. Look for this dark horse contender to pull off some surprises this season.|
| Another dark horse threat for the podium this season for the women is Jill Kintner. With the support of a new sponsor, Norco, Jill may finally put it all together and take that next step to greatness. |
| The competition in the pits for the best cup of coffee won't be heating up until Val di Sole. My call is that the espresso pulled off of the new Specialized Factory Racing rig will take the win. But SRAM is rumored to be throwing down on a burr grinder and a new Italian machine. |