|The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man's determination.- Somebody wise.|
The mists hang in the trees of the early week... Everything lies still and damp. The deep, dark forests of Quebec currently harbor the world's best riders rushing about under the cover of the thick fog. The woods are innocent to the scenes of high speed depravity that will take place in these haunts before the week is out. What is to come is something very rarely seen: A rider going up against a clock set to fast-forward with the determination to almost stop time itself.
Weather would play a part in this race, from the predictably moist opening days of even, flat light, to the sun-mottled practice of race morning and all the on and off inbetween. Those soggy days of prelude may have been Minnaar's downfall for one. That complete lack of dry tire traction in the woods and in the open sections meant that when the rain came, Minnaar opted to run spikes. But the deluge that came down had no effect in the woods, and minimal effect in the open; those spike tires gave Minnaar anything but confidence on his descent.
Mont St Anne, in all it's 21 years of glory has never been for the faint-hearted. In times gone by it was not unheard of for girls racing to shed tears on crossing the line. The track varied, but remained characterized by the brutality of surface, length and speed. At world cup level a puncture isn't an accident, it's a rider error. That's not to say you don't need luck on your side to go the distance. Everybody makes mistakes and sure enough even the big names felt the hurt at some stage of the weekend. Chainguides took a hammering, rims became much more 3 dimensional than required and cassettes gobbled up the remains of stripped rims. No surprise to see wily locals out to capitalize on the demand for dangling courage.
Timing chips are clipped in place, and from the moment the riders clear the gate, seconds start ticking off, gears whir, 1s and 0s are crunched, and if you've kept focus, and had a dash of luck, you get a green board to display your efforts. Sam Dale gets mentally dialed in for his race. To some it may seem like a bit of mystical horse sh*t to previsualize the race run, but the fact is you can't overstate the importance of mindset in downhill racing. And times have never been so tight. Dale's admirable +6.5 would put him all the way back in 28th place.
Say what you will about the conditions, Atherton's run was crippling fast to the competition. He pumped out of the iconic, double-down start ramp and hit that first turn with a venom he was able to maintain flawlessly for every remaining inch of the track. This is undoubtedly the season of his career so far. It would take some kind of miracle to top a rain-free run of the caliber Gee produced, despite him feeling unhappy with it personally.
No doubt MacDonald bore the brunt of the worst weather on his run. When the rain came up top, panic ensued. Given Sam Hill's decidedly better chances at a top step finish, particularly in the wet, Matt Simmonds of CRC racing graciously "donated" his tear offs to Hill, who had none. Who knows if that 3.2 second difference between Simmonds taking fourteenth place and Hill taking third place could come down to the clearer vision the tear offs provided? Either way, Simmonds taking one for the team was a huge move.
Welcome back Aaron Gwin, the man who owned this track and so many others two years running. Yes it's a question, did he get slower or did the competition move up again? Whatever the case, after nearly getting the job done in the wet and now up to 6th in the standings, he seems ready to follow up inquiries.
Silent but deadly... Sam Hill slicing effortlessly through the roosty goodness of the first day of practice. Hill thrives on wet riding, or at least he's developed a reputation of reveling in it. Whatever the case, Sam is anchored back on the steps of the podium like a homeless highway protester.
As Smith set off you could see the potential for something special to unfold. But how special? He did look aggressive and immaculate through the turns, but frankly it was hard to imagine a man on a bicycle going any quicker than what had already been set down by Atherton.
A fraction back at split 1, a slither back at split 2... red numbers all the way to the line as the world waited. Junior team mate, Gianluca Vernassa, and the Devinci cross country girls struggle with the uncertainty of what was certainly history in the making.
Air Canada... Stevie Smith hitting warp and only a flash away from bringing it home for the people chanting his name.
A people sandwich Hugh Hefner could be jealous of. Smith slots between the greats just nice and looks right at home.
Experts may never be able to accurately measure exactly what level of stoke was reached by Smith from the win. Estimates place somewhere between Felix Baumgartner's successful fall to Earth and desert island rescue.
Atherton 847, Smith 727, Minnaar 535, Hill 509, Thirion 430... is the current lay of the land. Norway beckons, but is blocked from view by the Cape of Good Hope.
Smith's sampled top step champagne once before, but this time it was an altogether more momentous win with the most exciting and perfect final run in recent years. The mustache enters it's own hall of fame.
Pics: Colin Meagher, Paris Gore, Fraser Britton, Nathan Hughes
Words: Nathan Hughes & Colin Meagher